We are—rightly or wrongly—obsessed with protein; but there are different things to consider when choosing what kind of protein to consume. For instance, how much cholesterol goes along with the protein, and is it inflammatory to the body? How many pathogens or antibiotics might be lurking within the tissue? What kind of damage did the making of that protein do to our land or water; does it add to climate change? Just because a food is chock full of protein doesn’t mean it’s “clean” – either for the body or for our planet.
Consider, also, that your choice shouldn’t just be about protein grams but also how many grams of fiber are in the protein. Fiber acts like a scrub brush; it pushes the gunk and toxicity out of your body. It keeps your weight down, your belly feeling full, and your blood sugar steady and healthful. So if your protein is devoid of fiber, it’s not clean. And as nature would have it, proteins that are devoid of fiber are also usually loaded with fat and cholesterol.
Here (and in our new book, Clean Protein: The Revolution that Will Reshape Your body, Boost Your Energy—and Save Our Planet), we’ve researched and assembled all of these factors to determine which kinds of proteins are cleanest, and why:
1. Beans have been staples around the world for most of human history, not only because they’re cheap, versatile, and delicious, but also because they’re high in protein, fiber, iron, and antioxidants. Not that the folks in ancient cultures thought much about it, but beans happen to be low on the glycemic index, are gluten-free, and have been associated with lower cholesterol, balanced blood sugar, and digestive regularity. Beans are packed with protein, but they don’t have all the saturated fat, cholesterol, toxins, and other harmful ingredients in animal products that can piggyback on some proteins. If you want to maximize your protein intake, you can soak or sprout the beans, thereby breaking down the fibrous walls. Soaking whole peas for six hours increases protein availability by 8 percent. If you soak them for 18 hours and then put them through a pressure cooker, the protein will be 33% more bioavailable. But if you’re like us, sprouting is just way too much trouble. You still get all the protein you need from good old canned beans!
2. Nuts are a bit of a miracle food. They are very high in protein. However, unlike animal-based protein sources, nuts are also packed with complex carbohydrates and fiber. If your goal is to maintain a healthy weight with plenty of energy while decreasing your likelihood of contracting heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, you want to be eating plenty of complex carbohydrates and plenty of fiber. They’re rich in healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Nonsaturated fats are critical for a functioning metabolism, help supply energy, help us absorb critical vitamins and minerals, and are critical components of our cell membranes.
3. Meat Alternatives are a whole lot cleaner than the animal versions of burgers and sausage and the like. Yes, they may be a bit processed in much the same way that bread or pasta is processed from grains, but plant-based meats usually have as much or more protein than the animal meats, while at the same time having zero cholesterol and very little saturated fat. And they have lots of fiber to push through your system, thus keeping it cleaner.
4. Quinoa is excellent as a base for mixed bowls, sprinkled into salads, used as a bed for vegetables, or to enjoy as a breakfast dish with nuts and dates (or whatever your fancy) stirred into it. Along with eight grams of complete protein per cup, it’s packed with other essential nutrients including fiber, manganese, phosphorous, folate, potassium, and iron. Better yet, it cooks in 20 minutes. Fun fact: quinoa is actually a seed, even though it looks and tastes like a grain.
5. Tofu and tempeh are the tried-and-trues that have been on the market for ages, and we recommend keeping this traditional fare in your kitchen. Soy-based tofu will take on the flavor of whatever you spice it up with, while tempeh has a wonderful fermented taste. One cup of boiled soybeans has around 29 grams of protein, tons of fiber, and very little fat. With all the concerns about soy, you might want to consider that people across Asia have been eating soy for thousands of years, while having far lower rates of cancer and heart disease. That said, you certainly don’t need soy, so if you prefer to stay away from it, you’ll get plenty of protein elsewhere.
6. Whole Grains are sometimes referred to as “the seeds of civilization,” and for good reason. They’ve been the foundational food of humans since the earliest of times because they’re full of protein, energy-giving (good, complex) carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins (especially b vitamins). They complement beans and legumes with their amino acids, and if in their natural unrefined state, they’re low on the glycemic index. Steel cut oats and wheat are highest in protein, but barley, corn, rice, millet, teff, and others are all valuable in your pantry. When combined with beans or legumes over the course of the day (meaning you don’t have to eat them together at one sitting), grains provide a complete source of protein, with all the necessary amino acids covered.
7. Protein powders are the perfect quick nutritional fix to have in smoothies, mixed into cashew or soy based yogurt, or stirred into a pudding for a snack. Look for a base of pea, hemp, rice, or soy and one sweetened with stevia if you want to keep it low on the glycemic index. They usually come in at somewhere between 13 and 30 grams of protein per serving, and if you add in nut butter, it’s even higher. We love them because of the convenience; you get nearly everything you need with one blend, so if you’re traveling or super-busy, this is a great fix.
8. Seeds have more protein and more minerals than nuts, along with less saturated fat. They’re also high in most amino acids and some are excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids. Try sunflower, hemp, pumpkin, flax, and chia.
9. High-protein pastas are a godsend for people who want a giant bowl of noodles but don’t want all the empty carbs. Look for ones made of black beans, lentils, or tofu, and you’ll get up to 25 grams of clean protein.
10. Clean Meat is meat from animals that is grown directly from cells. It isn’t on shelves yet and likely won’t be for a few years. Clean meat is for the diehard meat eater who isn’t about to give up meat from animals. This meat will not require animal slaughter; instead it will be produced in, essentially, a meat brewery. Clean meat requires a fraction of the resources that growing animals on farms does; thus it’s lighter on the environment. It is also literally cleaner; with no industrial farm or slaughterhouse, there is no bacteria, nor are there drug residues, since there are no farm animals and thus no drugs.
With these clean proteins, you’ll have done a very good thing for yourself and planet Earth!