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Fuel Your Strength 397 - What is High- Quality Protein?

What is High-Quality Protein?

In the next installment in our series on protein, we’re covering protein quality.

When looking at protein from a purely nutritional standpoint, what makes something high-quality protein? And what’s the difference between plant-based and animal-based protein when it comes to your daily energy intake?

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If You Are Concerned About Eating High-Quality Protein:

  1. Remember the two key components of high-quality protein
  2. Don’t forget about the digestibility aspect of protein consumption
  3. Assess and apply this information as you can, given your accessibility

What is High-Quality Protein?

If you want to maximize muscle tissue and get the most out of your training, you need to get the best quality proteins while also prioritizing how those proteins are built and the digestibility of them. But what does eating high-quality protein really mean? 

Protein quality is more than just what it says on the label.

High-quality protein is a complex topic, especially when it comes to the world of plant-based and animal-based proteins.

However, if you can find the sweet spot of your energy balance consumption, optimizing your protein intake is possible.

Plant Protein Versus Animal Protein

For the most part, plant-based proteins are going to rank lower on their protein quality scale than animal-based proteins in terms of complete amino acid profiles and digestibility. While this doesn’t mean you can’t consume and enjoy the benefits of plant-based protein, you need to be creative about how you increase the amount of protein you are getting from plant-based servings. My goal is to provide you with scientific facts based on a purely nutritional standpoint so that you can understand what you are consuming and how it is impacting your body.

What do you consider high-quality protein? How does the plant-based versus animal-based nutritional aspect play into your decision-making? Share your thoughts with me in the comments below.

In This Episode

  • Recapping what we have discussed during this protein intake series (3:21)
  • Defining protein quality from a nutritional point of view (5:36)
  • Understanding the difference between plant-based and animal-based protein sources (10:24)
  • Tips for achieving your optimal energy balance throughout the day (17:55)
  • What you need to know when buying plant-based protein powder (22:35)


“I am not going to be making moral, ethical, or sustainable arguments for one versus the other. I am simply trying to present you with the nutritional information that you need to be able to assess and then integrate into your own practice.” (4:58)

“We know as we are going through our 30s, we are starting to lose, year on year, a decade on decade, we are losing muscle mass, unless we do something to offset that. And those things to offset that are mechanical tension through resistance training and eating enough protein.” (13:25)

“Energy balance is, of course, one of the most important things we need to consider in terms of our fueling, getting enough energy to meet our needs, in terms of our activity and total energy expenditure.” (18:14)

“You may have to be a little bit clever about how you are going to introduce enough of those in our diet so that we don’t tip too far over our energy balance.” (21:44)

“We are really looking at what protein quality means, and trying to get within our power and our availability and our accessibility and our purchasing power, the best quality proteins that we can.” (27:04)

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Related Episodes

FYS 395: How to Calculate Your Daily Protein Needs

FYS 396: Should Protein Be Spread Throughout the Day?

What is High-Quality Protein? Transcript

If you’re an athletic, active woman who’s trying to lift weights to build muscle and recover better from your training, chances are you’ve heard the recommendation that you need to eat more high-quality protein. But what does that really mean? Today on this podcast, which is the next installment in our series on protein, we’re going to be answering exactly that question.

If you’re an athletic 40, something woman who loves lifting weights, challenging yourself, and doing hard shit, the Fuel Your Strength podcast is for you. You’ll learn how to eat, train and recover smarter. So you build strength and muscle, have more energy, and perform better in and out of the gym. I’m strength nutrition strategist and weightlifting coach, Steph Gaudreau. The fuel your strength podcast dives into evidence-based strategies for nutrition training and recovery. And why once you’re approaching your 40s and beyond, you need to do things a little differently than you did in your 20s. We’re here to challenge the limiting industry narratives about what women can and should do in training and beyond. If that sounds good, hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And let’s go.

Welcome back to the podcast. I’m so glad that you’re here with me today. All right, we’re going to be jumping into the third in a four-part series all about protein intake, and especially with the context of an athletic, active woman who is trying to train hard to get a lot out of her workouts, you’re trying to build muscle, increase your strength, and all of that good stuff, what do you need to know. And so we’ve covered in the previous two episodes, some really important information. And I’m going to recap that here in a second.

But if you haven’t yet gone to listen to the two previous episodes in this series, definitely do that, because it’s going to give you a little bit of background and help you understand how we ended up here on this topic talking about protein quality. And is this the most important thing that we’re going to worry about right off the bat? So definitely go back and fill yourself in with those other episodes. First, of course, hit the subscribe button on your favorite podcast app. And if you’re watching me here on YouTube, hello, and make sure you hit subscribe and also ring the bell for more notifications.

Now, before we dive into the meat, no pun intended of this episode, if you’re really looking for a system and support accountability and community around putting these principles into practice, you’ve been trying to do it on your own and really just need some help, then strike nutrition unlocked is here for you, we’re going to help you improve your strength, build muscle, have more energy and perform better both in and out of the gym with a cohesive system where everything works together, make it make sense, we’re doing that for you in this program. We’d love to chat with you about this. So head over to StephGaudreau.com/apply, and submit an application we’re gonna get on the phone, we’re going to chat with you take you through our strength blueprint, and see if you’re a great fit for what we do. I would love to see you inside the program and go ahead and apply at StephGaudreau.com/apply.

Alright, so let’s go ahead and just like do a little rewind, insert rewind noise here about what we’ve talked about so far in this protein series. So far, we’ve talked about in episode one, really looking at total daily protein intake and why active athletic women, especially even as we’re getting into our 40s and beyond need more protein than the average bear. Okay, let’s just say that much. Then in episode two, we talked about the spread or the protein distribution across your day. And does that really matter? TLDR? Yes, but we need to definitely make sure we’re getting enough daily protein as a top priority. So we’re kind of moving steadily down the priority list here or up the priority pyramid toward the topic for today.

The topic du jour is whether you are eating high-quality protein, that’s the third consideration. So of all the sections in or all the podcasts in this series, like of all the sections of the things that I’ve talked about, this is the one I’m most hesitant to tackle. And you know, we have to look at this from a nutritional standpoint, looking at the role of foods like animal-based versus plant-based proteins. In this episode, I am coming from a purely nutritional very neutral standpoint. Okay, so in this episode, I’m not going to be making moral, ethical, or sustainability arguments for one versus the other simply trying to present you with the nutritional sort of nutritional information that you need to be able to assess and then integrate into your own practice.

It’s up to you to figure that out based on things like your personal values, what you think is important, like I said, morals, ethics, sustainability, accessibility, and so on and so forth. So I’m really looking here at physiology performance and nutrition. And that’s how I would ask you to also look at this, that’s the lens through which we are coming at this, okay, so once you have that information, you’re free to integrate it with any system you have for eating, it’s just really up to you to make that decision. So how do we define protein quality, quite oftentimes, in the world, you’re going to hear, hey, we want to eat high-quality proteins, or we need to think about protein quality and getting the best protein quality as we can? And again, we’re not talking here about the difference between pastured and organic, or what they say on the label grass-fed versus grain-fed, what we’re really looking at here are two ways that we define a protein quality, and nutrition science, the protein quality is defined as the ability of a dietary protein to meet the needs of regular metabolism, and maintenance or growth of body tissues.

Okay, so the human body, hopefully, let’s take it back to basic biology right? Here, the human body requires a regular supply of all nine of the essential amino acids. Those amino acids come to us generally in the form of proteins, which we then digest and break down into those component amino acids, our body can also make different amino acids. But there are nine that we cannot make, we have got to eat them. And those are the essential amino acids. Now we talked a little bit in the last episode, and we will talk about it again, hear about the essential amino acid, the branched-chain amino acid called leucine. So remember, within the nine essential amino acids, there are three called the branched-chain amino acids, of which Leucine is one of those three, we talked about, yes, we need leucine as the trigger to get muscle protein synthesis going, and we have a threshold value for that. But we need all nine essential amino acids for muscle protein synthesis and other functions right to be able to make other substances in our body.

So I’m trying to break it down to you in the simplest way couldn’t possibly understand some of those body proteins that we need to synthesize our muscle protein, right? So the way we look at protein quality really comes down to two things. How complete? How complete is the essential amino acid profile? Does that particular protein have all nine even essential amino acids? That’s one. And number two is what is the digestibility of that protein? How what’s our ability to digest and assimilate those proteins and therefore capture their constituent amino acids, including those essential amino acids? So that’s really what we’re looking at here. Now, there have been a couple of different more sort of recent ways in which to define things like protein digestibility, let’s kind of go into that for a second here.

So protein digestibility used to be measured, or predominantly measured, based on the score called the PDCAAS, you know, scientists and their acronyms right, protein digestibility, corrected amino acid score. More recently, it’s been proposed that that system be replaced by a slightly different system called the Dyess or digestible indispensable amino acid score. And for the sake of simplicity, assume that indispensable amino acids mean essential amino acids, so they’re roughly interchangeable. There’s, you know when we look at what is the improvement of one of these over the other, what’s the improvement of the diet over the other system is that it takes into account the digestibility of specific foods sources of amino acids themselves. So just, you know, to put a little bookmark here and just kind of go off on a slight side tangent.

I have a feeling we’re going to see in future years as nutrition science continues to evolve. And the concern about making sure we are getting quality and quantity of the right quality and quantities of these, especially essential amino acids, continues to be on people’s minds, and we’re probably going to see different types of scales or scoring systems come into being. I know that Don layman is involved in a project right now to look for alternative ways to actually sort of look at things like amino acids and their quality and how do we make this really easy for consumers? For you out in the world, maybe that means Sunday, there’s going to be an app where you can look at certain foods and kind of determine what the best way is to fulfill the needs of like not just getting all nine of those essential amino acids but in the right quantity.

And again, that example of Leucine, like we need enough leucine per meal to actually hit the leucine trigger. We talked about that in the last episode. So I think we’re gonna continue to see these scoring systems evolve, especially as the conversation about plant-based proteins versus animal-based proteins continues in the athletic population and beyond. So a deep dive into the diets versus the PDCAAS, say that five times fast is beyond the scope of this episode. But what we can say broadly here is that animal-sourced foods will invariably rank higher or highly, in terms of the scoring.

And with a couple of notable exceptions, plant-based protein foods rank, lower to moderate. Okay, so what this means is that animal protein foods tend to have a higher protein quality score than most plant-based proteins, or plant-based protein-containing foods. Okay, so let’s just kind of like, do just like recap where we’ve been here, because, again, we’re not talking about from a moral, ethical, sustainable standpoint, what we’re really looking at here is, do these proteins have a complete set of essential amino acids, of course, we can combine foods, especially plant foods to get a complete set of essential amino acids. But also, we’re looking at digestibility.

When we eat plant-based food, for example, that contains a relatively higher percentage of protein, How available are those amino acids to our bodies, they plant foods almost across the board are going to rank lower. And there are only two sources of meaningful plant-based protein that are natively on their own without combining them with other sources considered to be complete because they have all nine essential amino acids. And those are soy and quinoa. Okay, so those are two to keep in mind. And then also, when we’re going to talk about plant-based protein isolettes here in a minute, and sort of like protein powders, what do we need to keep in mind?

So if you’ve made the decision to use more plant-based proteins, as your predominant or your only protein source, we have to think about how we potentially overcome this limitation with digestibility. And that would really be making sure that we increase the total amount of these foods that we’re eating, and ensure a good distribution across the day, as we talked about in the last episode distribution is important. So we also need to think about as people who are interested in muscle protein synthesis, right, we’re trading hard in the gym or lifting the freakin weights, we want to see muscle growth, and we know as we’re going through our 30s are starting to lose year on year decade on decade, we are losing muscle mass unless we do something to offset that.

And those things that offset our mechanical tension through resistance training, and eating enough protein right eating an adequate protein to get muscle protein synthesis triggered so that we have more of a positive muscle protein balance than we do a negative muscle protein balance. Again, go see the first episode in this series, if you need a refresher on those topics. So let’s kind of hone in on leucine. Again, this is a really an I will link the study that this came from in both the show notes and also the description box learning to get my terminology correct versus YouTube versus other social media again, but we’ll link the study up in the notes so that you can take a look at it there. There is a chart I’m going to be referring to here. And it’s really looking at, for example, the amount of Leucine in specific foods, plant foods versus animal foods.

Alright, so for example, corn, right in order to get enough leucine, so about three grams of Leucine, you have to eat about 264 grams of corn in one meal. Okay. Here’s another example Xinhua In order to get enough quinoa, right, that’s to get about three grams of Leucine per meal. We’re looking at about 300 grams of quinoa. If we’re looking at let’s say fish here, cod, about 211 grams of carbs, so even amongst animal foods, the quantity can, of course, vary but what this shows is, you know what the takeaway here for you is something very important, which gets missed over quite a bit when we’re talking about protein quality.

So, in order to get that, let’s go back to the example of corn or maize, depending on where you live in the world, it could be called maize from that table, in order to hit that three grams of Leucine in one meal, you’re going to need about 25 grams of total Corn Protein, right? Remember that these proteins are going to be blends of different amino acids. So in order to get the three grams of leucine to trigger muscle protein synthesis, we need about 25 grams of corn protein. And that doesn’t sound like a lot until you see that that would actually be 264 grams of corn on your plate, right? So we have to understand that just when we see the number, the amount of protein listed, it doesn’t actually correlate to food weight on the plate. So in order to and to put it into perspective, to get that much leucine, that means you will also be getting along with the protein about 165 grams of carbohydrate, just in that one helping alone. So yes, there are some really great sources of plant-based protein that are a little bit more readily available in terms of foods out in the world.

Yes, when we look at things like the complete amino acid profile, yes, we’ve got those, we’ve got soy, and quinoa as the complete sources of those nine essential amino acids. We can also combine plant foods to get a complete array. But we also have to consider the digestibility just because that 264-gram serving of corn on the plate might get us to the leucine threshold doesn’t actually mean digestibility-wise, that it’s available to our body because plant proteins are almost always going to be lower than animal proteins in terms of that digestibility. Right. So you have to keep that in mind. And then the last layer to keep in mind is that yes, you can theoretically make this work, especially if you’re trying to meet those protein targets. But you will either have to increase your carbohydrate intake, your fat intake, or both, in order to make the protein quantities happen. Now again, there are a couple of exceptions to this, soy is going to be a little bit lower in both carbohydrate and fat, right compared to other plant-based proteins. So you could include that, but also keep in mind the digestibility piece of some of this stuff this can make achieving your energy balance across the day a little bit trickier.

Now, energy balance is of course, one of the most important things that we need to consider in terms of our fueling, are we getting enough energy to meet our needs, in terms of our activity, and our total daily energy expenditure, you can go back and listen to a podcast, we did all about that. But we also don’t want to chronically consume or overconsume too much energy. Now there are definitely going to be individual variances. Some people can tolerate a higher energy intake than others, without it leading to of course, stored energy in the body, which will result in a gain in skill weight, right? So there are just a lot of layers to consider here. Another example I see sometimes people will think Oh, peanut butter is a great source of protein.

Right peanuts and legumes are, of course going to be a little bit higher in protein, than some other types of plant foods. And they can, of course, be a part of it like a very delicious, very well-rounded diet full of variety. And I’m not putting any of these foods on a bad pedestal, please don’t misunderstand, because I’ve worked really hard not only in my personal life but in my business. Take foods off of the bad pedestal right? You know, we shouldn’t ever eat that. That’s bad for us. But we just need to be kind of honest, when we look at something like peanut butter, which is fucking delicious, by the way, and just so yummy. And I know some people don’t like peanut butter. I think it’s one of the tastiest foods on the planet.

When we think about does it have a lot of protein? Well, it does have a higher quantity of protein compared to some other plant foods. However, again, we need to keep that digestibility and absorption in mind, how much can we actually capture? There’s that and then we also have to think about what else that serving of protein comes with. And in the case of peanut butter, a lot of what that’s coming with is going to be fat, twice as much fat as it is compared to the protein quantity. So where we might be getting, say five grams of protein, we’re getting 10 grams of fat that goes along with that protein.

Now again, can that absolutely be part of, you know, your plan in terms of energy balance, making sure you know, you’re getting enough energy, that you have a variety that you’re eating the foods that you find delicious? Yes, absolutely. Though, we just need to be mindful of that. Sometimes it’s easy to weigh overshoot on, for example, fat intake, compared to what you need, because it’s tipped your energy balance over because those fat foods are really going to pack an energy punch, right? That is nine calories per gram compared to four calories per gram of either carbohydrate or protein itself. So again, I think that there’s going to be a challenge there. If you are someone who’s really interested and you’re building muscle, you’re lifting weights, you want to see that improvement.

Of course, we want plants to be part of our diet. Yes, please. Fiber, micro nutrition, deliciousness, all of that sort of thing we do, we want plenty of plants, okay. But from a protein quality standpoint, we’re just going to look at based on the essential amino acids and total availability of those essential amino acids, and also the digestibility, that plant foods are going to tend to score lower, we may have to be a little bit clever with how we’re going to introduce enough of those in our diet so that we don’t tip too far over our energy balance. So the question that comes up often is, what about plant-based protein powders, I need to do a whole episode on protein powder. Because on our weekly Strength Nutrition Unlocked coaching call, which by the way, I run those calls. So if you’re like I just want to get on and pick Steph’s brain and be able to be in community and get coaching. That’s the best way to do it. Like, join us. And, you know, on those calls, we go into so many amazing questions.

But I basically gave this a basically a masterclass in protein powder on that call. And I think I need to do a podcast episode a little bit trimmed down from there. But this can be a place where a lot of people turn to plant-based protein powder to help them close that protein gap without exceeding their daily energy needs, right? And I think it can be a great strategy. But it’s really important for you to think about when you’re looking for a plant-based protein powder, that it contains a complete set of essential amino acids. And knowing what we know about digestibility. And therefore availability, we may need a higher dose of that plant-based protein powder to get the same amount of sort of like requisite amino acids, especially leucine, right, that we talked about.

So if you are going to look for a plant-based protein powder, of course, quality is extremely important. You really want to look for a brand that uses transparency and labeling. And you want to avoid things that have a proprietary blend because you just don’t know what’s in it, other than seeing the actual ingredients, you’re not, it’s not disclosed, what the quantity of those ingredients would be. And some protein powders do have other things added to them. So it’s not just straight-up protein, it’s gonna have some other additives. So I would stay away from things like proprietary blending for that reason, and look for transparency and labeling.

That’s incredibly important. And when it comes to the combination, you need to have a protein powder, if it’s plant-based that has all nine essential amino acids, which is why you’ll commonly see things like pea, blended with rice, or quinoa blended with pea or something like that so that you get a complete set of those essential amino acids, you also have to be a little bit switched on because when you look at the amount of protein in a scoop, oftentimes it per serving, they’re gonna say a scoop is serving, right, the amount of protein listed might be quite small because you are going to have to actually double the scoop. Right, so maybe it says one scoop equals 12 grams of protein, you’re gonna have to double that in order to even get in the neighborhood of 2025 grams of protein there. And again, knowing that even if it’s a complete amino acid setup, if it’s a complete set of amino acids in that protein powder, like soy, for example. Again, the availability of those is going to be lower. So you may actually in practice, need a bigger scoop. Right. So that’s just something to keep in mind.

It’s up to you, right but you just need to know how to go about selecting a plant-based protein powder that’s going to kind of tick those box says I really love Legion I’ve been partnering with them for, I want to say well over a year at this point, and their protein powders, they have a way, which is my favorite. But I know not everybody can do way. So if you can’t do whey protein, they have a plant plus protein that does contain a combination of pee and rice, there’s transparency on the labeling, and all of their stuff is transparently labeled the texture because I have used it, I tested it. I’m not personally a plant-based protein person. But I tested it because I wanted to see how, how does it taste, and what is the texture, and for me, it passed the test on both taste and texture. And I am a very picky person in terms of those things. Like if the texture is all wrong, I don’t know, I just can’t do it.

So a lot of plant-based proteins will be very gritty. And this one was pretty smooth, the taste is very good. And if you’re looking for transparency and labeling, they definitely cover that. And I’m just going to toss that in here. If you’re looking for ordering, you can check out my code, which is Steph, Ste pH will get you 20% off your first order. And if you reorder with the code, it’ll give you like double points. So go check it out if you’re in the market, and that’s useful for you. Cool, thanks for supporting the show through that discount code. Alright, so yes, based protein powder can be a really great way to help close the gap if you are eating more along the lines of plant-based or you just can’t tolerate any kind of animal-based protein powder. Alright, so we’ve been to some places in this episode, let’s kind of summarize what we talked about. Right? So we talked about here that for our purposes, on this episode, we’re really looking at what protein quality means, and trying to get within our power and our availability and our accessibility and our purchasing power, the best quality proteins that we can.

But knowing that there are some other things we want to think about in terms of priority, really, if we’re looking at maximizing building muscle tissue, and getting the most out of our training. So we talked about that’s our main focus of this episode. What do we mean by protein quality from a nutrition standpoint, not an ethical, moral, or sustainability standpoint? And we really define that as two things. Number one, what is the completeness of that protein in relation to its essential amino acid content? And then secondarily, what is the digestibility of that, the conclusion there is that for the most part, plant-based proteins are going to rank lower than animal-based proteins in terms of complete amino acid profiles from the essential amino acid standpoint, as well as a higher digestibility animal-based proteins are definitely going to top out there as well.

So if you want the most bang for your buck, we’re going to look at animal-based proteins for those two reasons. However, we can probably get around some of those things. If we increase the amount of protein from plant-based sources that we’re getting by increasing our servings, that does come with the challenge of making sure that we’re not overconsuming in terms of energy or we’re really striking a good energy balance. I think for you, you know, TLDR, what is your user takeaway there, it’s got as much variety as you possibly can. And really strive to optimize or get as much of a quality plant-based protein as you possibly can. If you’re going to use a plant-based protein powder, look for one that ticks all the boxes we talked about in this episode.

And of course, we want to think about some of the other things we talked about making sure we’re hitting an adequate daily value of protein and we’re spreading it across the day as much as we can. Alright, that does it for this episode on the third installment in our protein series. This one is all about protein quality. Thanks so much for being here with me. Definitely, definitely get in touch. Let me know what you thought about this episode. Was it helpful? Send me a direct message on Instagram or pop a comment below here on YouTube, while I just tongue-tied today for some reason.

But I’m super glad you’re here, hit the subscribe button on your favorite podcast app here on YouTube and ring the bell for notifications. And of course, if you’re ready to just put this all together in a system that is easy to implement, we’re going to take you step-by-step and help you focus while also giving you coaching support, and community. And those things are frankly priceless in this process. Then definitely check out Strength Nutrition Unlocked. You can submit an application and have a conversation with us to see if you’re a great fit for what we do over at StephGaudreau.com/apply and all the links to my resources are below here in the description box on YouTube. Alright, stay tuned for the next episode. This one’s going to be all about protein intake around our workouts, what’s the deal there? And for a summary of this entire series on protein, until next time, stay strong.


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Steph Gaudreau

Hi, I'm Steph Gaudreau (CISSN, NASM-CPT)!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.


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