How Optimising ‘Protein Density’ Can Help You Maintain Muscle and Stay Full When Dieting

Dieting for fat loss is simple, but not easy.

The Maths Bit

Let’s use an example of a 180cm tall, 30-year-old guy with a sedentary job weighing in at 100kg, and wanting to drop down to 85kg for a show.

According to the Harris-Benedict equation, his TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) would be 2971 calories. This means that, in order to lose 15kg in 6 months, he needs a daily calorie deficit of 642 calories per day. This means a daily calorie intake of 2329 calories.

Protein recommendations for maintaining and building muscle sit at around 1.8g per Kg of bodyweight. This means a protein intake of 180g, or 720 calories of protein, which makes up 31% of overall calories. Say we’re halfway through the diet having lost 7kg. This means a bodyweight of 93 and a TDEE of 2839, at a new deficit of 599, this is daily calorie target of 2240 with a protein requirement of 167g or 668 calories from protein, making up 30% of overall calories.

So, we can see that after the 7kg loss, the calorie target has dropped by 4%, but the % of protein required in the diet has only dropped by 3%.

This means that we need to try to carry on getting the same amount of protein in the diet percentage-wise, but from lower calorie sources, or increase the protein density of the choices we’re making.

Protein Density Examples

  • It ensures that we’ll get enough protein, for as few calories as possible, this means that we have more calories left for carbohydrates (which will help to fuel training sessions as calories come down) and also more calories for ‘hyper-palatable’ foods e.g. cake/doughnuts/biscuits which will help with dietary adherence.
  • It also ensures that we’re promoting satiety (the feeling of fullness) for as few calories as possible, which becomes more and more crucial throughout a diet as calories come down.

So, let’s take a look at the ‘protein density’ of a few of the most popular protein sources;

Source Chicken Breast

Protein per 100g 3

Calories per 100g165

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.18


Source Egg

Protein per 100g 13

Calories per 100g155

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.08


Source Ribeye Steak

Protein per 100g 24

Calories per 100g 291

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.08


Source Whey Protein Concentrate

Protein per 100g 82

Calories per 100g 412

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.19

Chicken is generally considered to be the ‘go-to’ protein sources for most people looking to build muscle, and we can see that, compared to eggs and Ribeye Steak, this choice is justifiable; the protein density is almost double that of both the eggs and the steak. This is because there’s more protein overall (per 100g) but also more protein for the total amount of calories, due to the fact that chicken breast contains a lot less fat than either Ribeye Steak or Eggs. This makes it a much better choice when on a calorie-restricted diet.

Unsurprisingly, the My Protein Impact Whey comes out on top overall, but only just beats the Chicken Breast – the percentage of protein is much higher (82% vs 31% for the Chicken Breast), but the calories per 100g are also much higher, which explains why the protein density is only just better. So, while whey is often touted as ‘the best’ protein source for people looking to build or maintain muscle, from a protein-per-calorie point of view, that’s only just true. Chicken Breast is actually much more cost-effective (around £5 per Kg vs Whey at around £17 per Kg) of we look at protein density.

Of course, Whey still wins-out when it comes to convenience! So how do other so-called ‘muscle-building’ foods stack up against Whey and Chicken?

Source Peanut Butter

Protein per 100g 25

Calories per 100g 588

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.04


Source Whole Milk

Protein per 100g 3

Calories per 100g 42

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.07


Source Quinoa

Protein per 100g 4

Calories per 100g 120

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.03


Source Kidney Beans

Protein per 100g 24

Calories per 100g 333

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.07

So, what can we learn from this? A few different things;

  • Whole Milk is a surprisingly good protein source, almost as good in fact as eggs and steak.
  • Quinoa is a grain that’s often touted as being ‘high in protein’, but from both a protein percentage and protein density point of view, it’s actually pretty poor when you compare it Kidney Beans.
  • Kidney Beans are also a surprise, having almost the same protein density as eggs and steak – but don’t get carried away, Kidney Beans aren’t a ‘complete’ protein source, which means they don’t have all the amino acids required to initiate muscle protein synthesis (the conversion of dietary protein into new muscle – the same goes for Quinoa).
  • Peanut butter is a pretty poor source of protein, despite all the ‘hype’ it gets in the fitness world. It has half the protein density of eggs and steak purely because of the high-calorie content. It certainly shouldn’t be a staple in the diet of anyone looking to lose fat.

Further Optimising Protein Density

So, we’ve learned what protein density is, why it’s important and looked a few ‘typical’ muscle-building foods from a protein density point of view. Chicken and Whey lead the way in protein density, closely followed by eggs, steak and whole milk.

If these foods are staples in your diet, you can rest assured that you’re doing something right, and for anyone on a diet with a reasonable calorie allowance, these foods will be more than sufficient to provide ample protein without eating into your calorie allowance too much. Of course, as we go deeper into a diet, it pays to optimise protein density as much as possible and attempt to get more protein for fewer calories (or at least the same amount of protein for fewer calories).

So, let’s look at ‘upgrading’ the five best sources we’ve seen so far – with a few easy swaps we can get a bit more bang for our buck in terms of protein density, here’s how;

  • We’re going to swap out the Chicken breast for Turkey breast – Turkey has a very similar taste and texture to chicken and can be used as a direct substitute; it will work just as well in all your recipes (stir fry, curry etc)
  • We’ll swap the My Protein Impact Whey for Whey Isolate – this has a slightly higher protein content with fewer carbs and fat (but is a bit more expensive)
  • Let’s remove the yolks from our eggs and just have the egg whites instead, which are pretty much all protein (the yolk is mostly fat)
  • Ribeye Steak can be subbed for Rump steak – a leaner cut with less fat
  • Similarly, Whole Milk can be swapped for skimmed – slightly more protein and less fat

Let’s see what they all look like protein-Density wise

Source Turkey Breast

Protein per 100g 34

Calories per 100g 155

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.21


Source Whey Protein Isolate

Protein per 100g 90

Calories per 100g 373

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.24


Source Egg Whites

Protein per 100g 11

Calories per 100g 52

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.21


Source Rump Steak

Protein per 100g 22

Calories per 100g 125

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.17


Source Skimmed Milk

Protein per 100g 4

Calories per 100g 37

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.10

Already we can see we’ve made some significant upgrades, with all these swaps coming in at a much higher protein density than their original counterparts, let’s put them side by side so we can just how much of an impact;

Original Protein Source Chicken Breast 0.18

New Protein Sources Turkey Breast 0.21

Protein Density Uplift +17%


Original Protein Source Whey Protein Concentrate 0.19

New Protein Sources Whey Protein Isolate 0.24

Protein Density Uplift +26%


Original Protein Source Eggs 0.08

New Protein Sources Egg Whites 0.21

Protein Density Uplift +163%


Original Protein Source Ribeye Steak 0.08

New Protein Sources Rump Steak 0.17

Protein Density Uplift +113%


Original Protein Source Whole Milk 0.07

New Protein Sources Skimmed Milk 0.10

Protein Density Uplift +43%

Some amazing increases there!

What have we learned?

  • Choosing a leaner cut of steak (e.g. Rump over Ribeye) can drastically improve the protein density, mainly because the fat has been reduced. Rump steak is almost as good as chicken breast in terms of protein density!
  • Whey Protein was previously the best source for protein density and still is but we can improve it by picking (albeit more expensive) Whey Isolate instead of Whey Concentrate
  • We can yield a huge increase (163%) in protein density; again, this mainly due to almost all the fat being removed from the equation.
  • Don’t dismiss milk! The Skimmed variety is cheap and has a better protein density than Whole Eggs and Ribeye Steak

Increasing Variety Further…

Of course, we don’t want to rely solely on the traditional, bland muscle-building foods, and the good news is, you don’t need to!

I have a few other go-to foods that are great for protein density; they are;

  • 0% Greek Yogurt – This is hugely versatile and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (or all three!). It goes great with some berries and honey at breakfast, in your chicken wrap at lunch, or as a substitute for soured cream with your Mexican
  • Prawns – These are really underrated in terms of protein content, and a lot of supermarkets sell snack-sized contains with tasty garnishes like garlic and chilli
  • Beef Jerky – One of my favourite on-the-go snacks, this is generally made from really lean cuts of beef so has a great protein density score
  • Low Fat Cheeses – My go-to is BabyBel Light, each one of these little cheese discs has 5g of protein for only 43 calories
  • Chicken Sausages – Sausages have a bad rep and are usually associated with Pork, but the chicken versions are much lower in fat and can be just as tasty, so long as you don’t overcook them!
  • White Fish – I’m not a huge fan of white fish, purely because it’s so bland on its own, but there’s no arguing with its protein density?

So where do these stack up against the rest of our favourite protein-dense food?

Source Whey Protein Isolate

Protein per 100g 90

Calories per 100g 373

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.24


Source Prawns

Protein per 100g 24

Calories per 100g 99

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.24


Source Cod

Protein per 100g 19

Calories per 100g 85

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.22


Source Egg Whites

Protein per 100g 11

Calories per 100g 52

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.21


Source Turkey Breast

Protein per 100g 34

Calories per 100g 155

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.21


Source Total Greek 0%

Protein per 100g 10

Calories per 100g 54

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.18


Source Rump Steak

Protein per 100g 22

Calories per 100g 125

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.17


Source Beef Jerky

Protein per 100g 36

Calories per 100g 291

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.12


Source BabyBel Light

Protein per 100g 25

Calories per 100g 208

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.12


Source Chicken Sausages

Protein per 100g 15

Calories per 100g 148

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.10


Source Skimmed Milk

Protein per 100g 4

Calories per 100g 37

Protein Density Score (g Protein per calorie) 0.10

So, there you have it – my 11 favourite protein sources ranked on protein density. A shock entry right at the top for prawns (or Shrimps for our North American friends!) which are on a par with Whey Isolate for protein density.

If you have any other suggestions let me know!

Author

Joe Johnson

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