A discussion on the highest quality proteins used to be limited to chicken and fish, since beef was given the boot due to its reputation for contributing to heart disease. Recent research and trendy diets like the Paleo diet have brought red meat, including beef, back into favor. So the debate is now, beef vs. chicken vs. fish...which protein is best for a healthy diet? Let’s find out!
The Importance of Protein
Protein provides structure to our tissues, muscles, and bones. Protein supports immune system function, acts as antibodies, and generates antioxidants, hormones, and enzymes. Protein builds and repairs organs, tissues, and muscles. And protein carries out nearly all of the body’s chemical reactions.
Protein is made up of 20 different amino acids strung together in various combinations that determine the protein’s function. There are 11 nonessential amino acids that the body can manufacture on its own. But there are 9 essential amino acids that your body cannot make and can only get from your diet.
Beef, chicken, and fish are all complete proteins, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids in the appropriate proportions to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and keep plasma levels of amino acids balanced.
Beef’s Nutritional Profile
Take a look at the nutritional profile of 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of grass-fed strip steak.
- Calories: 117
- Carbohydrate: 0 grams
Total Fat: 2.7 grams
- Saturated fat: 1 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 1 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 0.1 grams
- Trans fatty acids: 0.1 grams
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 21 milligrams
- Omega-6 fatty acids: 80 milligrams
- Protein: 23.1 grams
With 23.1 grams of protein, a 3.5-ounce grass-fed strip steak meets 46% of your daily protein intake minimums.
How does beef do in terms of essential amino acid composition? Let’s take a look at a 100-gram steak.
|Histidine||936 mg||134% RDI|
|Isoleucine||1335 mg||95% RDI|
|Leucine||2333 mg||85% RDI|
|Lysine||2479 mg||118% RDI|
|Methionine||764 mg||105% RDI|
|Phenylalanine||985 mg||113% RDI|
|Threonine||1159 mg||132% RDI|
|Tryptophan||193 mg||69% RDI|
|Valine||1455 mg||80% RDI|
Looking at the table above, beef goes above and beyond in the RDI for histidine, lysine, methionine, threonine, and phenylalanine, and puts you super close to your daily recommended intake of the other four essential amino acids. Five stars for beef protein!
Now let’s examine the fat content of beef, which is what beef is often called out for. The American Heart Association, for instance, recommends chicken and fish as heart-healthy substitutes for red meat like beef due to high concentrations of saturated fats and cholesterol.
Most of the fat in beef is saturated fat or monounsaturated fat. When eaten to excess saturated fat can cause cholesterol levels to increase, which can, in turn, cause plaque to form on your arteries.
Nutrition experts recommend keeping your saturated fat intake to 10% of your calories each day. So, if you are on a 2000-calorie-a-day diet, then no more than 200 of your calories should be from saturated fat. This 3.5-ounce strip steak is certainly not putting you in danger of heart disease unless you dramatically raise your overall meat consumption or eat other foods rich in saturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats are the heart-healthy fats found not only in beef, but also in avocados and olive oil, and are a welcome addition to any diet.
Beef is also a good source of essential omega-3 fatty acids that help protect against inflammation and boost cognitive function, with a 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
And don’t be alarmed by the presence of trans fats. Trans fats found naturally in beef don’t carry the health-compromising effects of trans fats produced synthetically, such as those found in hydrogenated vegetable oils. Beef is rich in the trans fat conjugated linoleic acid that has a wide variety of health benefits, including weight loss.
As for carbs, well there are none to speak of, making beef a great source of protein for low-carb diets like the keto diet.
An analysis of vitamins and minerals shows that beef is high in the B vitamins, iron, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium along with other micronutrients. And beef stands out for its notable allowance of creatine that helps to boost muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance.
But not all beef measures up. Grass-fed beef is significantly lower in fat and higher in nutrients, including omega-3s and iron, than grain-fed beef. If you’re looking for high-quality protein, you’ll do well to choose from the following lean cuts of beef:
- Sirloin tip side steak
- Top sirloin steak
- Eye of round roast and steak
- Top round roast and steak
- Bottom round roast and steak
Chicken’s Nutritional Profile
Here’s a snapshot of the nutritional profile of a 3.5-ounce serving (100 grams) of chicken breast.
- Calories: 165
- Carbohydrate: 0 grams
Total Fat: 3.6 grams
- Saturated fat: 1.0 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 1.2 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 0.8 grams
- Trans fatty acids: ~ grams
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 70 milligrams
- Omega-6 fatty acids: 590 milligrams
- Protein: 31 grams
That’s 31 grams of protein that accounts for 62% of your recommended daily value. Here’s the essential amino acid content of a 3.5-ounce skinless chicken breast:
|Histidine||1195 mg||171% RDI|
|Isoleucine||1573 mg||112% RDI|
|Leucine||2652 mg||97% RDI|
|Lysine||3083 mg||147% RDI|
|Methionine||834 mg||115% RDI|
|Phenylalanine||1294 mg||148% RDI|
|Threonine||1438 mg||137% RDI|
|Tryptophan||404 mg||144% RDI|
|Valine||1660 mg||91% RDI|
Like beef, 100 grams of chicken exceeds your recommended daily intake for most of the essential amino acids, making it a top source of high-quality lean protein. It’s fat profile, as long as you’re consuming white meat with the skin off, is more desirable than that of beef due to less saturated fat and more monounsaturated fat and omega-3s.
Higher in protein than beef, white chicken meat is a great protein source for bulking up or slimming down and is considered a heart-healthy food.
Even so, how it is raised is a key factor. Commercially grown chicken are given antibiotics and hormones and kept in overcrowded conditions that subjects them to disease and compromises the nutritional value of the meat. Pastured poultry and lean cuts of meat are always your best option.
Fish’s Nutritional Profile
Two servings a week of fish (approximately 8 ounces) tends to be the sweet spot for fish consumption. Here’s the nutritional breakdown of 3.5 ounces of wild-caught Atlantic salmon.
- Calories: 182
- Carbohydrate: 0 grams
Total Fat: 8.1 grams
- Saturated fat: 1.3 grams
- Monounsaturated fat: 2.7 grams
- Polyunsaturated fat: 3.3 grams
- Trans fatty acids: ~ grams
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 2586 milligrams
- Omega-6 fatty acids: 220 milligrams
- Protein: 25.4 grams
And here’s the essential amino acid profile:
|Histidine||749 mg||107% RDI|
|Isoleucine||1172 mg||84% RDI|
|Leucine||2067 mg||76% RDI|
|Lysine||2336 mg||111% RDI|
|Methionine||753 mg||103% RDI|
|Phenylalanine||993 mg||113% RDI|
|Threonine||1115 mg||106% RDI|
|Tryptophan||285 mg||102% RDI|
|Valine||1310 mg||72% RDI|
Meeting 51% of the daily value, fish may not have as much protein as chicken, but what it loses in protein it makes up for in omega-3 fatty acids, which most people do not get enough of.
Omega-3 helps subdue chronic inflammation, improve cognitive function, and prevent heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Looking at the nutrition facts above you can see that fish is higher in fat, but it’s the healthy fats that help balance out the body’s energy needs. Studies show it is also more filling than chicken or beef, so can support your weight-loss efforts. And if you want more iron, then opt for oysters, clams, sardines, and mussels.
There is one caveat with fish, though: mercury.
Mercury is a heavy metal contaminant that’s found in soil, air, and water, but when we consume too much it accumulates in the body, causing mercury poisoning. This life-threatening illness can lead to brain damage, organ failure, and chronic pain in the joints.
Certain types of fish contain more mercury than others, particularly the larger catches like king mackerel, shark, tilefish, and swordfish.
There’s often debate about which is healthier, farm-raised fish or wild-caught fish. Most experts agree wild-caught fish is the healthiest catch, as farm-raised fish are harvested in overcrowded conditions, prone to diseases, and treated with antibiotics and pesticides.
The Case for Supplementation
These three lean meats can’t be beat for high-quality animal protein, but even with their widespread availability, one-third of adults over the age of 50 are not meeting the recommended daily allowance for protein.
That’s where supplementation with essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, comes in handy. Unlike meal replacement powders or whey protein powders, an essential amino acid supplement is your best source of fast-acting protein. It's also low-calorie and won’t affect your appetite, so you can keep enjoying your favorite high-protein foods, including beef, chicken, and fish, while exceeding protein requirements. This type of healthy eating plan helps you more easily build and maintain muscle mass, increase mental and physical function, improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart health, and liver health, and support your fitness and health goals.
In addition to hearty helpings of beef, chicken, and fish, select your favorite flavors and amino acid profiles from Amino Co’s patented, premium product line.