Lifestyle

The Very Best High-Protein Foods [Bioavailability & Price Comparison]

Alright guys, let’s talk protein. 

Specifically, let’s talk about the following protein factors:

1. When you’re getting your protein

2. Cost per serving

3. Calorie and macro breakdown

4. Bioavailability of protein

5. High protein food sources compared

Protein is so important for helping you recover from workouts, growing lean muscle, and building a strong healthy body.

On the road to reaching your fitness goals, there’s no substitution for good nutrition. And you don’t want to sell yourself short and compromise your nutrition with lower quality protein!

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t protein just protein? Basically no, it isn’t!

There are actually a whole bunch of different protein sources out there, and not all of them are high quality.

You need to know what bioavailability is and why it’s important, what the best dollar value is, which protein sources to prioritize, AND the best time to use each of them.

I’m here to show you how. Consider me your protein guide!

Protein

Protein is made up of a whole bunch of tiny parts called amino acids.

There are 20 different amino acids, and each molecule of protein is constructed from a combination of some or all of them.

These amino acids play a super important role in the body. They are the building blocks of muscle, bone, and other tissue.

They assist in the recovery process after a workout, support healthy skin and nails, and so much more!  

That’s why it’s vital that you get enough protein every day. But like I said, not all protein is created equal.

Some sources are better than others, and different situations call for different protein options.

Factors to Consider

Before we get into critiquing different protein options, let’s talk about factors you should consider.

When you’re selecting the right protein source, take a minute to think about the following.

The When

Woman grasping a bar, preparing for a power clean

 

The first determining factor when you’re choosing the right protein is whether you’ve just finished your workout or not.

Right after your workout, you need a protein that can get to your muscles fast and that has minimal prep time.

This makes powders the perfect option for a post-workout protein source.

Not only are protein powders easy to prepare (you just shake them up!), but generally they’re broken down by your body more quickly than solid foods.

This allows the protein to be absorbed fast and shuttled to your muscles where it can get to work on your recovery.

On the other hand, when selecting a protein source for a meal, speed of digestion is a lower priority factor.

During breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the best protein sources are whole foods as opposed to powders since they’re generally more satisfying

Cost per Serving

Another factor to consider when selecting a good protein source is the price.

While you don’t want to break the bank, you also shouldn’t compromise good nutrition to save a couple bucks.

In general, you get what you pay for. It’s definitely not bad to be frugal, but really-what’s more important than your health?

Some protein sources are super cheap but not high quality. Others are higher quality, but quite pricey.

The good news is I’m going to show you the most cost-effective protein sources, so you can get the most bang for your buck!

Calorie and Macro Breakdown

high protein food breakfast

If you’re counting macros, you don’t want to go over your daily limit for fat or carbs while trying to reach your protein goal.

That’s why you need to consider what else you’re getting with the protein.

Some protein sources might pack a load of carbs, like rice, or a ton of extra fat, like beef.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re trying to effectively track macros, you have to be aware of everything.

If your situation calls for it, try to choose foods that provide carbs or fat as well as protein.

Or if you already have your carbs and fat mapped out, select low-calorie protein sources that are low in both carbs and fat

Bioavailability of Protein

Bioavailability is basically a scoring system for the usability of the protein in the foods you eat. The more quickly and easily your protein source is broken down and absorbed, the higher the bioavailability score will be.

That might be oversimplifying it a bit, but that’s the main gist of it.

And this is really where differences in quality are seen. Basically what It comes down to what goes on at the molecular level.

Different proteins have different amino acid makeups. They’re also different sizes and even different shapes.

Because of this variation, proteins from some sources are broken down and digested more quickly and easily than others.

Your body can use a higher percentage of the protein you consume if it comes from sources that are easy to break down.

Alternately, if a protein is difficult to break down, your body won’t be able to use as much of it.

The bioavailability of different protein sources is measured and then given a score between 0-159.

The science behind measuring it is a little bit complex, but basically, the higher the score the easier it is to break down the protein, and the more of it will actually make it into your body.

Bioavailability of protein is always a factor, but it’s especially important right after your training session. A post-workout protein source needs to be something that’s broken down and absorbed quickly.

I suggest targeting a bioavailability score of 100 or greater in your post-workout protein source, and the higher the score the better.

Bioavailability is less of a factor at mealtime, but it’s still important. The closer you can get to 100 the better, although nothing below 70-75 should be considered a great protein source

High Protein Food Sources Compared

Now that we have basic criteria set for selecting the right protein sources we’re ready to do a little analyzing.

Some protein sources are good for post-workout but not great for a meal, while others are great for a meal but not so much as a post-workout. A few are not really good anytime and should be used only sparingly.

We don’t have time here to go over every single high protein food, but the following are some of the most common.

(The pricing information is based on averages, and for most of these foods the data came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website)

Tofu

A bowl of delicious looking tofu

Protein Bioavailability: 64

Serving Size: 4 oz

Cost per serving: ~$0.50

Protein per Serving: 9g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.06

Basically: Tofu is a go-to protein source for a lot of people that don’t eat animal products for health or other reasons. At a bioavailability score of 64, tofu is too low to make a really good post-workout protein, so it’s better suited for mealtime.

But unless you enjoy the taste or choose not to eat meat, I don’t suggest tofu as your primary source of protein even in a meal.

Low-fat animal protein sources, like chicken, fish, or eggs (which I’ll highlight in just a minute) provide more protein per serving with a higher bioavailability score than tofu.

These are also more cost-effective when you look at price per gram of protein.

Another hangup you run into with tofu is that it’s very bland tasting. Improving the flavor is a pretty quick fix, but the preparation methods people use to spice it up can include frying with unhealthy oil or using high sugar dressings or sauces, each of which are best to avoid.

Rice

A bowl of delicious looking rice

Protein Bioavailability: 74

Serving Size: 2 oz

Calories per serving: 224 cals

Cost per serving: ~$0.09

Protein per Serving: 5g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.02

Basically: Rice is another popular mealtime source of protein for vegans and vegetarians, or for those who are trying to eat less meat and dairy. It’s very inexpensive and pretty quick to prepare.

However, even though it beats out tofu, the bioavailability score still isn’t the greatest. Plus, due to a high amount of carbs, it packs a lot of calories relative to the protein content.

With a 10:1 carbs to protein ratio, you’re almost certain to go over your daily carb limit if you try to make rice a primary protein source. Because of this, I don’t suggest trying to get a significant amount of your daily protein from rice.

That’s not to say that you should take it off the menu necessarily.

Just consider it a source of carbs rather than a protein source, and treat it as such.

Soy Protein

A spoonful of soy protein

Protein Bioavailability: 74

Serving Size: 24g

Calories per serving: 100 cals

Cost per serving: ~$1.00

Protein per Serving: ~20g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.05

Basically: As a powder, soy protein figures to be a post-workout protein option. And when looking at cost per gram, soy seems to be a reasonable protein source.

But at around 74, the bioavailability score makes it less than optimal. You want a highly digestible protein source right after you work out.

Also, a number of questions have been raised over the years regarding the potential for unwanted health-effects accompanying soy protein use.

Based on research, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate cause for alarm if you use or have used soy protein, but even the potential for such is enough to scare away some people.  

All things considered, soy isn’t bad. But protein shakes don’t make suitable meals for most people, and as a post-workout protein source, there are much better options.

Chicken Breast (boneless)

A piece of grilled chicken breast on

Protein Bioavailability: 79

Serving Size: 4 oz

Cost per serving: ~$0.81

Calories per serving: 187 cals

Protein per Serving: 35 g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.02

Basically: Chicken is a great meat source that’s versatile to cook with and pretty tasty. It’s low-fat and low-carb so you can use it to hit your protein goals without worrying too much about your other macros.

It’s also one of the less expensive meat sources of protein out there!

While the bioavailability score is a little lower than other sources, this can really be overlooked since it packs so much protein per serving. It is a bit low to make it a good post-workout source, however.

Where you run into trouble with chicken is when it’s breaded, fried, or doused in sauce. These preparation methods add a ton of sugar, fat, or both, and can turn a great protein source into junk food.

If you stick to a healthy cooking method, like baking or grilling, and you opt for low-calorie sauces and seasonings, chicken is a very good mealtime protein choice!

(Need a super easy chicken recipe? Check this out!)

Beef

A nice piece of uncooked steak

Protein Bioavailability: 80

Serving Size: 4 oz

Calories per serving: 284 cals

Cost per serving: ~$1.93

Protein per Serving: 27g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.07

Basically: Beef is pretty tasty and, like chicken, it’s quite versatile to cook with. Beef also scores pretty close to chicken on the bioavailability scale, making it a suitable meal time protein.

However, compared to the amount of protein per serving, it packs a lot of fat and is relatively high in calories.

On average beef contains a 1:1 fat to protein ratio, and while fat isn’t bad, you definitely want to get the majority of your fat from plant sources.

Fat from plants tends to be heart healthy and provides additional vitamins and minerals. Fat from meat and dairy is usually saturated and has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease  

Beef is also fairly expensive, especially for the lean cuts which are higher in protein and lower in fat.

For these reasons, it’s best to remove beef from your regular rotation and eat it only sparingly.

Tuna

A nice looking piece of tuna

Protein Bioavailability: 83

Serving Size: 2 oz

Calories per serving: 105 cals

Cost per serving: $~0.53

Protein per Serving: 10g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.05

Basically: One of the best things about tuna is that virtually all the calories come from protein. This makes it useful when you’re looking to add protein to your diet but don’t want any extra fat or carbs.

It also scores just ahead of both chicken and beef in bioavailability, although at 83 it’s still a little low to be considered a good post-workout option, so save it for your meals.

Tuna does have a couple of downsides though. For starters, it’s somewhat bland on its own, and not highly palatable. Most people aren’t able to eat tuna without other ingredients, which usually add extra calories.

It can also leave your breath smelling like fish for the rest of the afternoon.

These aren’t huge deals though. If you can get past the taste and smell, tuna is a good mealtime protein option

Eggs

A griddle filled with fried eggs

Protein Bioavailability: 100

Serving Size: 1 egg

Calories per serving: 78 cals

Cost per serving: ~$0.17

Protein per Serving: 7g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.02

Basically: Eggs have been somewhat controversial over the years due to the cholesterol content. But recent research suggests that dietary cholesterol may not actually have much of an impact on your health (in otherwise healthy people). If you’re worried about it though, you can remove the yolk.

Since the yolk is where the fat and cholesterol come from, you can stick with just the whites. You will miss out on a bit of protein, but you’ll eliminate any health concerns you might have with the cholesterol.

Aside from this, eggs are a pretty great food to help you meet your protein needs. The protein in eggs is very bioavailable and is digested relatively quickly.

Eggs are also inexpensive and are relatively easy to prepare! They pair well with veggies, meat, and cheese, and you can boil them to pack as a snack.

This is why eggs are one of the top options out there when you’re looking for a mealtime protein source. They actually aren’t a bad choice for a post-workout protein either!

Whey Isolate

A scoop of whey isolate

Protein Bioavailability: 104-159

Serving Size: 1 scoop, about 27g

Calories per serving: 80 cals

Cost per serving: ~$1.00

Protein per Serving: 20g

Cost per gram of protein: ~$0.05

Basically: Being a powder, whey isolate is not on many people’s mealtime lists. But as a post-workout option, whey is a total rock star!

The cost per gram of protein is right in the middle of the pack, but when you consider the high bioavailability and just how fast it can be prepared, it’s not hard to see what a great value it really is.

Whey isolate is also naturally low-carb and low-fat, so it won’t inflate your other macro numbers.

But what’s with the wide bioavailability range? Well, many whey isolate products are actually blends and include other protein sources like whey concentrate. This may make the product a bit cheaper, but it drives down the bioavailability.

The more whey isolate present in your protein powder, the higher the bioavailability score will be because the majority of fats and carbs have been removed.  

A protein powder composed primarily of whey isolate will be much closer to 159 than a blend. At this rate, basically, every bit of protein you consume is used by your body.

And since it’s broken down super quickly, it gets to your muscles faster and can help kickstart a smooth and effective recovery from exercise right away.

For these reasons, whey isolate really is the perfect post-workout protein source!

An infographic showing protien sources

Wrapping it up

Each of these foods can definitely be used to reach your daily protein needs.

However, keep in mind that some sources are better than others, and a lot depends on timing (relative to your workout) in regards to which source you’ll want to select.

For a mealtime protein source, eggs, chicken, and tuna are great choices.

When it comes to post-workout protein, whey isolate wins in a landslide.

For starters, it’s extremely quick to prepare. All you need is a shaker bottle and your choice of liquid.

Whey isolate is also very bioavailable, so your body uses most of what you ingest.

Plus, it the most quickly digested protein source, making it perfect for fulfilling your immediate post workout needs.

You can definitely use other protein sources if you have to, they just aren’t as effective as 100% whey isolate.

The Best Whey Isolate

Woman holding a tub of IdealLean Protein

When you’re searching for a good whey protein powder, you’ll definitely have a lot of options to choose from.

I suggest IdealLean Protein. It’s 100% whey isolate, which is among the highest quality protein sources out there!

There’s no whey concentrate or blends, so you can be sure that your muscles will get the protein they need as quickly as possible.

IdealLean is low carb, low fat, and only has 90-100 calories per serving. It’s also packed with 20g high-quality protein.

But maybe the best thing about IdealLean Protein is that it tastes amazing!

If you’re in the market for a high-quality post-workout protein source, I definitely suggest taking a look at IdealLean!

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Lindsey Mathews

Lindsey Mathews

Head Trainer & Nutritionist

Lindsey Mathews is the Head Trainer and Nutritionist at IdealFit. She is a NSCA-CSCS certified personal trainer, C-ISSN certified sports nutritionist, Pn. 1 certified nutrition coach, and a nationally qualified NPC bikini competitor. Before joining IdealFit, she ran the largest boot camp program in Utah County.


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