Eat quality protein, get lean?

January 28th, 2012  |  Published in Stumpblog, What to eat  |  18 Comments

Readers of Fuck Calories will know that I am not partial to the “calories in, calories out” model of fat loss and lean body mass gain.

There are many reasons for that, one of which is the fact that the quality of your energy intake matters. 1000 calories of Twinkies is not 1000 calories of steak, no matter what idiotic single-food-focused diet you may choose to consume (see: Twinkie diet, cabbage soup, grapefruit, lemon-cayenne-maple syrup, et al).

I hope to help folks understand eventually that energy in vs energy out is not the only thing that determines body composition — your body’s response to a given food also makes a huge difference. (I’ll be harping on this a lot in future, so consider this a warning shot across the bow.)

An interesting, albeit small, recent study correlates protein quality to waist size. What is interesting here is that the researchers stipulate “quality protein”. What the heck does that mean?

Let me explain the concept of essential amino acids (EAAs).

Essential amino acids and protein quality

If there’s one thing Nature does real good, it’s make proteins. (Actually, Nature does lots of things real good.) Oh how organic systems love their proteins. You’re a big pile of protein, from your hair to your toenails.

The building blocks for proteins are amino acids. There are lots of amino acids out there. Sure, we love ‘em all, but there are some that we really need — these are known as essential amino acids. There are also amino acids that are conditionally essential, which means that sometimes we need them more than others. Frinstance, glutamine is a conditionally EAA — we need more of it during times of physical stress, which is why it’s often included in post-surgical nutrition.

Now, what you’re looking for in your diet is a good assortment of these EAAs, and generally (unless you have some kind of intolerance or genetic inability to metabolize certain AAs) getting some of the conditional AAs doesn’t hurt either. Bone broths, for instance, are rich in glycine. (And they taste great! So win-win.)

Some proteins are more equal essential than others

Problem is that not all protein sources are created equal.

Just because something “contains protein” does not mean that the protein source is optimal. Sure, we’re scavengers so we will grab ‘n’ go whatever we can get our greasy little protease enzymes on — we can extract protein from darn near anything edible.

But that protein may not be our best choice. Frinstance, vegetarians often opt for beans/legumes, grains, and nuts as protein sources. (And others of you like to delude yourself that peanut butter is a “good protein source”. Hey man, I get it. Nothing beats scooping out that buttery goodness and feeling morally righteous and nutritionally justified as the silky, sexy, salty, peanutty velvet melts into your soft palate. Unnnngghhh.)

Now, these protein sources aren’t “bad” or “wrong”. They’re just not optimal. Let’s compare.

Here’s a sample of protein ranking according to the PDCAAs score. (Don’t worry about the acronym. Just get the idea.) The PDCAA scores proteins on two things: our amino acid requirements, and how well we can digest these particular proteins.

The higher the number, the better-quality (for us) the protein in terms of giving us the amino acids that we need.

1 casein (milk protein)
1 egg white
1 soy protein
1 whey (milk protein)
0.92 beef
0.91 soybeans
0.78 chickpeas
0.76 fruits
0.73 vegetables
0.7 Other legumes
0.59 cereals and derivatives
0.42 whole wheat

Lab vs real world

I should point out that theoretical digestibility doesn’t always correlate to real-life digestibility.

Although, for instance, whey and casein are highly ranked, many folks actually can’t digest dairy well, and in fact consuming casein/whey is a source of other health problems. Same deal with soy — if you rely on soy as your major protein source you are in for some serious issues. And of course, if you’ve read Fuck Calories, you’ll know how I feel about wheat.

Indeed, some researchers have pointed out that the PCDAAs may over-value certain foods if it looks only at amino acid availability, noting that the PCDAAs ignores the real-world protein quality of the “protein sources which may contain naturally occurring growth-depressing factors or antinutritional factors”.

What this means is that we have to look at the big picture: How does a given food actually behave in a real human body?

Also note that not all of these are whole foods. Casein, whey, and soy protein powders are industrially processed foods that require an elaborate production chain. You know my thoughts on industrially processed foods, which is that in general we should avoid most of them. And unless we’re hardcore bodybuilders, we don’t just eat “casein”, we usually eat something like “cottage cheese”, which contains both whey and casein.

But anyway, just get the general picture here. Some foods are higher in essential amino acids than others. This is what the researchers mean by “quality protein”. More EAAs per gram of food, better protein quality.

Better protein quality means a leaner body?

The Coles Notes version here is that a higher intake of quality proteins is correlated with a smaller waist size, and by inference a leaner body.

Now, you could say the sample is too small to be of use, and that this effect is simply correlation not causation, and you would be correct on both counts from a methodological standpoint. But this general trend  (abundant protein = you get lean & strong) has been confirmed across a zillion other studies.

So again, let’s talk lab vs. real world. I can tell you from my observation of hundreds of clients (yes, real people in the real world, just like you) that it’s very, very hard to get lean and strong, to stay robustly healthy, and to perform well athletically on a low-quality, low protein diet. Period. There are always a few rare outliers who claim to kick ass while living on twigs and sprouts, and more power to ‘em. Likely, those folks are not you.

Conversely, for most folks it’s a lot easier to feel energetic, full, and psychologically satisfied — and get lean — on a diet that includes lots of high-quality protein. Mo’ protein, no problems.

If you don’t incorporate high-quality protein sources into your diet (and let’s be honest, I mean eating something that is an animal or was made by an animal), you’ll likely find it more challenging to get and stay as lean, healthy, and strong as you would like, and you’ll have to rely more on heavily processed foods such as protein powders to bring your intake up to snuff.

Feeling all a-Twitter about this post? Why not chat about it on my Facebook page?


  1. Diane says:

    January 28th, 2012at 8:51 am(#)

    Thank you so much for this reference (and for explaining). I’m in the middle of struggling to get off of wheat and any actual information helps. As does the notion that I won’t just be doing the same thing over and over. Now I know what positive thing I can do instead of just taking something away.

    Off to eat a burger for breakfast.

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    January 28th, 2012at 9:40 am(#)

    @Diane: Now THAT is a Mistress-approved breakfast! :)

  3. Elizabeth says:

    January 28th, 2012at 5:06 pm(#)

    Is there some sort of way of comparing animal based protein sources? In the list you posted eggs and beef are pretty high up the list, but what about chicken and fish?

  4. Mistress Krista says:

    January 30th, 2012at 7:54 am(#)

    @Elizabeth: Good question; I looked for some PCDAA tables that included other meat proteins but couldn’t find any. If anyone out there has a more complete PCDAA table, please share. I would guess that all animal protein sources are more or less comparable; would only differ in terms of the relative amounts of water and fat (e.g. shrimp vs. beef brisket), which would affect the AA per gram of weight calculation.

  5. Robin Frost says:

    January 31st, 2012at 5:34 pm(#)

    Hi Krista, I enjoy your site and appreciate all you bring to the table (no pun intended) regarding women’s health and nutrition. I don’t understand these types of posts though that seem to completely disregard prominent scientific findings, such as those of The China Study, that show that it is impossible to be protein deficient if you get sufficient calories. I don’t know what “better quality protein” means here? Is that a euphemism for “better than plant protein”? There are many world-renowned athletes that perform very well on low fat plant-based diets (notice I did not say vegan) such as Carl Lewis, Dave Scott, Scott Jurek, Mac Danzig, Ruth Heidrich, etc. Moreover, they aren’t getting a load of saturated fat every time they eat their protein. Just curious.

  6. Mistress Krista says:

    February 1st, 2012at 7:32 am(#)

    @Robin: The China Study has been widely debunked in the peer-reviewed clinical literature for its poor use of epidemiological methods and inaccurate conclusions. Additionally, the notion that saturated fat is de facto “bad” has also been widely disproved by clinical studies that examine the biochemical basis of fat’s role in the body. It is important to understand the distinction between epidemiological studies (which provide a theoretical statistical analysis of population-based trends, often based on relatively inaccurate surveys, such as recollected food diaries) and actually identifying the molecular mechanisms by which something works (which examines the actual biochemistry of actual food in an actual human body to show — rather than suggest — the process by which a given substance physically and chemically interacts with our physiology).

    I recommend that athletes get a wide variety of protein sources from a diverse diet; however, the evidence is fairly clear that most athletes, especially endurance athletes, do not perform optimally on a low-fat plant-based diet — at least not long term. People do often feel better when they incorporate more plant foods into their diets, but this is because they’re adding plant foods, not removing animal foods.

    I’m not going to get into the debate because it’s been beaten to death elsewhere; I will only state my recommendations that are based on a review of the available clinical studies, understanding of the mechanisms by which this is so (e.g. synthesis of steroid hormones from cholesterol), and real-world experience with hundreds of clients. I see the blood tests/hormone panels of low-fat plant-based eaters. I have yet to see one that reflected optimal physical function. There are always genetic outliers, and yes it’s great to eat our fruits and veggies, but in general a low-fat plant-based diet is NOT optimal for most people, especially endurance athletes. Period.

    “Better quality protein” is clearly defined as the ratio of essential amino acids to the quantity of food. Plants may add protein (and again, I recommend a varied diet to reflect our evolutionary heritage as scavengers) but by this standard they are not better quality than animal-based protein.

    It is also important not to fall prey to “nutrientism”, which is the obsessive focus on a single nutrient as THE explanatory factor. People don’t eat “nutrients”; they eat FOOD in a physical, social, and environmental context. Plant-based proteins aren’t just “protein”; they are individual types of FOOD that have particular interactions in the body, are consumed in particular contexts, by bodies and people that have particular needs and modes of operation.

  7. kt says:

    February 1st, 2012at 9:56 am(#)

    Check out the Jan 4 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association article on low-protein, normal-protein, and high-protein overfeeding. Low protein overeating -> fat gain but lean body mass loss; high protein overeating -> fat gain and lean body mass gain. Interesting.

  8. Matevž says:

    February 3rd, 2012at 7:03 pm(#)

    @Elizabeth I have a bit different list with comparison between animal protein. These are biological values (by Kofrany) and also reflect essential aminoacids content:
    Lactoalbumine: 104
    Egg: 100
    Beef: 92
    Tuna: 92
    (I guess chicken got probably 92 too and for sure it is great source of lean protein)
    Cow Milk: 88
    2 types of cheeses: 83 and 85
    Caseine 72

  9. Matevž says:

    February 3rd, 2012at 7:14 pm(#)

    Sorry for double post, but i wanted to ask … What did you mean with this:
    “consuming whey is a source of other health problems”

    Did you mean whey in powder as you are some sort of allergic to all those bloody powders. Or did you simply mean dairy products?
    However … Which health problems did you have in mind in any case?


    (p.s.: This is actually the first time I am converting my “scientific” thoughts which are in Slovenian language to English, so i hope it is understandable)

  10. Mistress Krista says:

    February 4th, 2012at 6:42 am(#)

    @Matevž: Good question: Actually both of those things would be true. So let’s distinguish between “whey”, which is the liquid that separates from casein during dairy processing, and “whey protein powder”, which would of course be the powder that results when the liquid whey is processed and dried.

    The biggest health problem is an intolerance to the compounds in the dairy itself. Typically this presents as inflammation such as skin problems (eczema-type rashes or acne), or irritation of the nasal/respiratory passages. So you’re itchy, pimply, and sniffly, or have recurring problems with allergies and sinusitis, scratchy throat, etc. This is especially true if you don’t have a healthy gut with lots of good bacteria and healthy epithelium (intestinal lining), and/or if you’re dealing with other underlying inflammatory-type diseases, such as allergies/asthma, etc.

    There is some evidence that cow’s milk in particular is particularly problematic for humans compared to other dairying animals (which is a little weird, considering our co-evolution with cows, but some have argued that modern breeds, like novel varieties of modern wheat, may be partly to blame). Along with the whey itself there are also many other proteins in milk, so we may in fact also react to things like immunoglobulins, which are other types of proteins that our immune system may recognize as enemy invaders.

    Depending on the dairy type we might also see some effects on blood sugar and insulin (here’s a post from Mark Sisson that has some interesting references to pursue). When used in infant formulas, whey can be a serious problem for immature gastrointestinal systems.

    Then we might see problems with the protein powders as well. This may be related to the dairy or it may be a reaction to other ingredients in the protein powder.

    We may also see problems when folks are consuming a lot of whey as a major protein source — whey tends to be quite insulinogenic relative to other dairy products. It digests much more quickly than casein or something like chicken. This is why whey protein powders are typically recommended for post-workout nutrition, when elevated insulin is not as much of a problem, because insulin does its job best after strenuous activity.

    So, in a young, highly active, muscular person with no digestive issues, whey protein might not be that big a deal; their bodies might tolerate both the insulin variations and the dairy proteins well. In other folks, such as less active people, people with dairy intolerances, people with an underlying tendency to insulin resistance, etc., whey could be more of a problem, again especially if they’re chugging a lot of protein shakes because it’s “healthy” and a quick substitute for “real food” meals.

    This is one reason I prefer folks to stick with “real food” where possible — it’s easier to know what is in the food, and our bodies are more likely to be able to recognize and handle the food appropriately. However, of course, whey protein powders (and other protein powders) provide one option for convenient, portable, non-perishable protein.

    Some folks find that they react to whey but not casein, or the other way round. In my own experience, I could “tolerate” whey digestively, sort of, but would get a lot of skin and respiratory issues from it. But I could not digestively tolerate casein.

    There is also some evidence that in folks who tolerate whey protein well, there are many beneficial effects. Paradoxically, for instance, some research has found immune-boosting effects from whey — meaning that in some folks, whey = bad immune response while in other folks whey = good immune response.

    To sum up, if we’re talking health problems we’re most often seeing:

    * inflammatory reactions (e.g. skin, respiratory, etc.)
    * digestive problems (e.g. gas, bloating, diarrhea)
    * some reaction to the other ingredients in the whey protein powder itself (e.g. sweeteners)
    * fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels (again not a problem if these aren’t chronic and are timed properly)
    * some issues with the sheer quantity and frequency of whey consumption — a little may be OK, a lot maybe not

    I like to use careful observation and outcome-based decision making. If folks consuming a given food/diet feel great, achieve their goals easily, perform optimally, recover well, and have good-looking physiological indicators (such as blood work), then keep on keepin’ on. If not, then we have to look for clues about what to change. In my experience, dairy is a common intolerance, so it’s an easy one to experiment with.

    I hope that helps answer your question!

  11. Matevž says:

    February 4th, 2012at 10:20 am(#)

    @ Mistress Krista: I am really satisfied with your long reply! I am not far ahead of my teenage years but i still got a bit of pimples and i think their time to kindly perish should already come! Actually I already (about a year ago) cut off all dairy products for a month because i was blaming them for some extra gas and pimples. But I unconsciously brought all that milk back to my diet, so i forgot if there was any good outcomes.

    I used to consume whey protein powder mixed with milk after workout and this always brought me some gas (I dont remember what happened if i mixed it with water though). But i never tried casein itself and actually i do not intend to because i can get all sorts of other quality proteins.

    The only (and i really think this is the only!) good characteristic of milk and dairy products is non-negligible quantity of vitamin A, vitamin B12 and of course calcium. The latter makes mentioned food irreplaceable if we don`t want to eat sesame or calcium supplements instead of it … Whilst lack of vitamin A and B12 can easily be compensated with more meat, fish and liver.

    It might be the need of calcium that made me automatically start eating dairy products again. I am a supporter of “listen to your body” thing but in this milky case my body is a schizophrenic …

  12. Mistress Krista says:

    February 4th, 2012at 10:40 am(#)

    Matevž: If calcium is a concern, bump up your intake of dark green vegetables such as kale. For B12, other animal products will do you just fine, and for vitamin A, get a good combo of orange fruits and veggies along with the occasional chicken liver. The vitamin A is added to dairy anyway, at this point, unless you can get your hands on pastured dairy (rather than dairy from grain-fed cows).

  13. serena says:

    February 9th, 2012at 10:09 am(#)

    Would it be worth limiting meat intake if you can’t afford grass fed or organic meats? I would eat more dairy but I have acne so I’m trying to avoid it.
    I have high cholesterol and my doctor recommends that I eat limit my meat consumption and try to eat grass fed meat if I can. When I subbed legumes/beans for meat in the past I felt lethargic and lost strength but I’m concerned about the potential negative health effects of regular meat.

  14. Mistress Krista says:

    February 10th, 2012at 6:30 am(#)

    @Serena: Don’t forget there are other options, such as fish/shellfish. Depending where you live, there may be a farmer’s market at which you can get things like pastured eggs.

    You can buy cheaper cuts, too — this is where a crock pot comes in handy. For example:

  15. Pastured beef tongue or heart are dirt cheap, pardon the pun. Yes, they both sound gross, but trust me: prepare them properly, put them in the crock pot with a savoury sauce, and they shine.
  16. You can buy a whole roasting chicken for the same price as a package of skinless chicken breasts. Older chickens or roosters (aka capons) are cheaper and a little tougher than chickens bred for tender breasts, but they rock in a stew pot.
  17. Chicken livers are a super source of vitamin A (the form of the vitamin A molecule in meat is better absorbed and used than plant-based sources), and they make a kickass pâté. I can buy a pound of chicken livers for $2. Sometimes, my farmer will even throw them in for free.
  18. Ground pastured beef can be added to chili, made into burgers, etc. You can also buy some cheap cuts, throw them into the food processor with seasonings & fresh herbs, and make some mind-blowing burgers, meatloaf, or meatballs. Sneak a bit of chicken liver into a Bolognese sauce to add a beautiful earthy note.
  19. Nobody wants these “off-cuts”, because nobody knows how to cook them and everyone’s afraid of fat, so these meats are incredibly cheap and butchers are happy to get rid of them. Sniff around to see what’s cheap, and learn how to prepare it properly, and you can eat like a pastured-meat queen for the same price, or even less.

    Our ancestors had 1001 ways to cook cheap meat. Southern BBQ was invented by African Americans who were trying to make cheap cuts (including — eww — raccoon) palatable. Cheap cut of meat + “low ‘n’ slow” cooking method = tasty.

    If you become a smart shopper and clever cook, you can eat very well for a reasonable cost.

  20. Serena says:

    February 11th, 2012at 12:39 pm(#)

    Thanks for the advice. Now I seriously have to learn how to cook things other than omelets lol

    Your website has been tremendously helpful and inspirational. There’s so much bad advice out there in terms of how women should train/eat. Coming from a family of diabetics the advice here is helping me avoid that road and your fitness advice helped me get into sports that I never would have even tried. I’m so glad I found this site, thanks so much for spreading such valuable information.

  21. Kendra says:

    August 4th, 2012at 11:34 am(#)

    Krista, thank you so much for your fantastic website. I initially came here to learn about working out. Since then I have been reading the site nonstop over the last few days and learned so much!

    I hope someone can give me some advice.

    I understand what you say about animals as optimal sources of protein. I do think it’s natural for humans to eat meat. However, I am a vegan right now for ethical reasons, and there is no way I want to include mass-produced animal foods in my diet ever again – I just can’t do it. It doesn’t sit right with me morally. I know, I am a sissy. ;) But it’s just not good for my soul.

    On top of this, I am hoping to try for a baby in the next year or two. So honestly, I’m worried. I want to give my baby the healthiest start I can, while avoiding anything cruel to animals. A bit of a conundrum, I guess.

    I know I can’t “have my cake and eat it”, but I would really appreciate some general advice on what my best options are here. I have done a lot of reading on vegan websites, but of course they are inevitably biased, and I worry that they are glossing over things I really need to know about. I have a feeling I will get much better answers here from you and your readers. I am doing my own research as best I can but I could use a hand.

    I am pretty good at avoiding sugar (in all its forms), fast food, processed junk etc, and I don’t eat much soya anymore. I am trying to cut down on grains gradually and replace them with things like potatoes, squash etc. I love vegetables and fruit and legumes and eat them as much as I possibly can; they always make me feel good. I’m working out, learning to cook, and so on. I’m planning to breastfeed as I’m guessing that’s better than making my baby chug down a load of soy formula.

    I guess I’d like an honest opinion of what the risks are. I know B12 deficiency is one potential problem. From the looks of this article, I’m assuming it’s possible to get the right protein from plant sources, but just way more difficult?

    One thing I have thought about is possibly finding a local source of eggs from well-looked-after hens. That I can accept, but do you think it would be enough? I’d consider some form of ethically produced dairy too, but I have a hard time digesting dairy and that seems to run in my family, so I’m guessing it’s likely to be the same for my baby.

    Much love and thank you for the abundance of information here. This truly is a great site. :)

  22. Mistress Krista says:

    August 6th, 2012at 8:41 am(#)

    @Kendra: These are bigger questions than I can answer here. I can definitely see you are experiencing some conflicting priorities.

    I agree that a great option would be looking for local eggs from organic farmers with pastured chickens. Egg yolks in particular contain crucial nutrients for developing brains. The other advantage is that you might be able to get a good variety — goose, duck, quail and guinea hen along with the regular chicken eggs. Pastured chickens that are allowed to forage outside (so they eat bugs, snails, even occasionally small animals like mice and frogs) will have some good omega-3s in their yolks. If you can score some duck eggs, that’s excellent, as duck eggs are high in omega-3 from the birds’ marine diet.

    Your other issue will be getting the right fatty acids. Vegan diets are often either too low in fat in general, and/or too high in the wrong types of fat — namely omega-6 from grains, nuts, and seeds. So bring coconut and avocado into your life. Also start supplementing with a high-quality algae oil for the EPA/DHA, which are critical for developing brains as well. Consume more than the recommended dosage on the label — I recommend about 2 grams.

  23. Kendra says:

    August 8th, 2012at 5:11 am(#)

    Thank you so much for your advice, Krista! :)

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