This Popular Protein-Rich Food Is Actually Derailing Your Health Goals, According to Registered Dietitians

There’s no question that getting enough protein is important. Not getting enough can lead to fatigue, make you more likely to get sick and can even affect your mood. However, it’s just as true that not all protein sources are created equal. Where you get the nutrient from matters—and there’s one protein source that’s especially popular that registered dietitians wish people would actually eat less of.

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The One Protein Source Registered Dietitians Want People To Eat Less Of

While protein itself is a hugely important nutrient, registered dietitian and creator of Once Upon a Pumpkin Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, says that some food sources that contain the nutrient have ingredients that can negatively impact health, negating the benefits of the protein. The biggest culprit? Processed meats. “Many processed meats such as bacon, sausages, deli meats and hot dogs are often high in protein but also high in sodium, saturated fat and preservatives,” she says.

Registered dietitian and Street Smart Nutrition founder Cara Harbstreet, RDN, agrees. “Most Americans are eating more sodium than they should, which can increase their risk of cardiovascular disease or make it harder to manage blood pressure,” she says. Besides often being high in sodium, Michalczyk says that processed meats are lower in other nutrients than protein sources such as fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, tofu, lentils and beans. ”Eating too much of these [processed meat] products can potentially hinder someone's ability to meet their health goals,” she says. “For example, if someone is trying to lose weight or build muscle mass, consuming excessive amounts of processed meats may lead to overconsumption of calories, sodium and saturated fat.”

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Both dietitians say that it’s fine to enjoy processed meats every now and then, but they shouldn’t be relied on as a main form of protein. “While it's okay to enjoy these foods from time to time, it is better to consume them in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet. Choosing less processed lean protein sources such as chicken breast, ground turkey, fish and tofu would be a better option to consume on a day-to-day basis,” Michalczyk says.

Other Protein Sources To Avoid Eating Too Much Of

Processed meat isn’t the only protein source that Harbstreet says some people are too reliant on. She says that protein bars and powders are also not as nutrient-rich as many other whole food protein sources. She says that, often, protein bars and powders contain sugar or artificial sweeteners—neither of which is beneficial for health. Harbstreet adds that protein supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and so consumers can’t know for sure if they are truly safe, unless it has a third-party certification.

Again, just like with processed foods, this doesn’t mean you have to cut ties with protein bars or powders forever. It just means that it’s best to consume them in moderation and not rely on them as your primary source of protein.

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In general, Harbstreet says it’s best to eat a wide range of nutrient-rich foods instead of focusing solely on one food source in particular—even if it’s a healthy food. “In reality, nearly all foods—with a few exceptions—contain some amount of protein or amino acids,” she says. “If you’re eating a variety of foods in adequate amounts for your body’s individual needs, you’re likely eating ‘enough.’” Michalczyk echoes this, saying, “Overall, getting adequate nutrients is important for optimal health. While no foods need to be excluded from the diet completely, it's all about making smarter choices on a daily basis.”

Harbstreet says that it’s also important to keep in mind that your protein goals may change over time. “Your protein needs can vary depending on your age, gender, activity levels, fitness goals and other factors,” she explains. “While the simplified equations used to calculate protein needs can be a helpful starting point, they may only be adequate versus optimal. This isn’t to say that eating more protein is always better, so just remember if you have questions about what’s right for you and your body, it’s best to consult with a registered dietitian or other qualified healthcare professional who can work with you on an individualized plan.”

The good news is that whatever your individual health goals are, there is no shortage of nutrient-rich foods that can help you meet your protein needs. Prioritize minimally processed, whole food sources and save ultra-processed meats, protein bars and protein powders for when you’re in a pinch—or just have a craving. With these guidelines in place, you’ll be meeting your protein needs in the healthiest way possible. 

Next up, check out these 10 foods that have more protein than an egg.