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Top 10 Sources of Protein Intake for Hepatitis C

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Find out why most people with Hepatitis C need to eat plenty of protein, and which protein sources are the best.
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Chronic Hepatitis C, a tenacious and menacing viral infection, directly affects the liver. The liver helps to convert everything we eat into energy and nutrients while also removing toxins and harmful substances from the bloodstream. Having chronic Hepatitis C presents some unique challenges that make conscious eating a priority. In addition to consuming whole grains, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – while minimizing saturated fat, processed foods, chemicals and sugar – most people with Hepatitis C must eat plenty of protein.

Why Protein Is Needed

Protein is composed of amino acids – the major building blocks the body uses to make many substances and tissues including muscles, skin, blood, antibodies, hormones and liver cells. Because chronic Hepatitis C launches a continual attack on liver cells, additional protein is essential to help the body repair and replace damaged liver cells.

When Hepatitis C infection progresses to advanced liver disease, cirrhosis may emerge. Described as the permanent hardening and shrinking of the liver, most experts believe that cirrhosis is irreversible. Cirrhotic liver tissue is non-functioning and diminishes the liver’s ability to function optimally. The fibrous tissue caused by cirrhosis prevents the liver from metabolizing and storing nutrients – including protein. Thus, cirrhosis leads to the rapid breakdown of protein, which depletes the body’s storage and increases the need for more protein.

In addition, there are two more reasons someone with cirrhosis would have a heightened protein requirement:

  • Ascites – A common complication of cirrhosis, ascites is an uncomfortable condition where fluid accumulates in the abdomen. It is usually caused by elevated pressure in the veins running through the liver and a decrease in liver function caused by liver scarring. Exclusively synthesized by liver cells, serum albumin levels fall with ascites. Because protein helps maintain albumin serum levels, increased protein intake is necessary.
  • Muscle Wasting – Malnutrition that leads to a decrease in muscle mass is a common problem for people with cirrhosis. Since protein breakdown is elevated and protein synthesis is decreased with cirrhosis, those affected frequently suffer from muscle wasting. Put simply, protein helps repair muscle mass.

According to Christie Hust, RD, an assistant professor of nutrition and diet at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock,  “It was once thought that people with liver disease should limit proteins, but research no longer supports this.” When you have Hepatitis C, Hust says, “You need proteins to keep fluid in your blood vessels and lower your risk of fluid retention.”

Most experts believe that protein intake be adjusted in accordance with a person’s body weight and liver disease severity. In general, most nutritionists advise between 0.8 and 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight depending on liver function. For a 150-pound adult, daily protein requirements range between 55 to 68 grams of protein with chronic Hepatitis C that is not severe. However, a 150-pound adult with Hepatitis C that has led to low protein stores and a decrease in muscle mass would require 82 to 102 grams of protein daily.

The 10 Best Protein Sources

Proteins are made up of a collection of 20 amino acids; 8 of which are considered to be essential and need to be obtained from food. Consequently, the remaining 12 amino acids are considered non-essential and can be produced by the body. The following foods are considered to be among the best for obtaining those 8 essential amino acids:

  1. Lean Beef – What many people think of when a protein-rich meal is imagined, lean beef has plenty of protein. Just a 3-ounce slice contains 31 grams of protein – about half of the daily requirement for a 150-lb person with Hepatitis C that is not complicated by cirrhosis.
  2. Pork – Despite not being kosher, pork is another rich source of protein. Processed pork is not advised for anyone with Hepatitis C, as the chemicals and sodium used can both harm the liver. A 5-ounce portion of pork loin contains 41 grams of protein.
  3. Eggs – A great source of protein, one medium egg has around 6 grams of protein and contains all 20 amino acids in a highly digestible form. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to eggs.
  4. Fish – Aside from the other health attributes of fish (mainly its omega-3 fatty acid content), many types of fish are high in protein. A 3-ounce fillet of salmon, halibut or snapper contains 22 grams of protein, while a 3-ounce fillet of flounder or sole contains 21 grams of protein. However, concerns about responsibly harvested fish and possible heavy metal contamination may reduce fish’s popularity.
  5. Beans – A great vegetarian source of protein, beans are frequently overlooked. One cup of cooked soybeans contains 29 grams of protein, one cup of cooked kidney beans contains 17 grams of protein and one cup of cooked black beans contains 15 grams of protein. Although soybeans are a rich, vegetarian source of amino acids, most soybeans are genetically modified.
  6. Dairy – Despite many people having dairy allergies or intolerances, dairy remains a good source of protein. Just one cup of skim milk or soymilk contains 8 grams of protein while one slice of cheese ranges from 6 to 9 grams of protein.
  7. Lean Poultry – Both great sources of lean animal protein, a 3-ounce portion of chicken breast contains 16 grams of protein while a 3-ounce portion of turkey breast contains 26 grams of protein. Due to the use of antibiotics, chemical processing, unsanitary conditions and other environmental concerns, organic sources of poultry are a much better choice for those with liver disease.
  8. Nuts and Seeds – Great for a tasty snack that also boosts protein levels, nuts and seeds are ideal for in-between meals. A 1-ounce serving of pumpkin seeds contains 9 grams of protein, a 1-ounce serving of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, and 1 ounce of flaxseeds contains 5 grams of protein.
  9. Protein Shakes – All protein shakes are not created equally. Some shakes (like UltraNourish) are geared towards liver health and do not contain added sugar while others contain ingredients that may aggravate inflammation in the liver. In addition, shakes get their protein from a variety of different sources. Some are derived from dairy (whey, casein), some from egg protein and some from pea protein (UltraNourish). For comparison’s sake, one scoop of UltraNourish provides 16 grams of protein. While all may be great options to get enough protein, pea protein is considered to be the best because this vegetarian source is rarely associated with allergies, contains a substantial amount of protein and is easily absorbed. It’s available in unflavored and chocolate. Chocolate UltraNourish is simple, healthy and delicious!
  10. Protein Bars – Like protein shakes, protein bars are also not all created equally. Fortunately, some bars contain valuable ingredients to aid in liver health, including chicory root, green tea, spirulina, nuts and more.

Animal vs. Plant Protein

For vegetarians with chronic Hepatitis C, there are fewer choices for getting enough protein in their diet. However, this isn’t the only reason to steer towards plant protein. Those with more advanced stages of liver disease are encouraged to only consume vegetable sources of protein due to ammonia content.

Although animal sources have the highest protein levels, a diet high in animal protein typically contains a lot of ammonia. Excessive ammonia in the bloodstream may precipitate an episode of encephalopathy – abnormal brain function that can be caused by blood toxicity in those with low liver function. Vegetarian sources of protein have low ammonia content and are less likely to induce encephalopathy. Some popular weight-loss diets specify the consumption of lots of animal protein. People with cirrhosis are encouraged to avoid diets that emphasize lots of animal protein.

In addition, some sources indicate that vegetable and dairy proteins are preferable to those with sensitive digestive tracts. This is because of their makeup; vegetable and dairy proteins have a lower content of Aromatic Amino Acids (Methionine and Glutamine) and higher content of Branched-Chain Amino Acids (Valine, Leucine and Isoleucine). A growing collection of research on branched-chain amino acids indicate that these protein building blocks are better tolerated and are beneficial to those with chronic liver disease.

Considerations for Protein Consumption

When it comes to the ideal protein consumption plan for those with chronic Hepatitis C, one size does not fit all. There are many considerations including body weight, severity of liver disease, food preferences, sensitivities and allergies. Nonetheless, most people with Hepatitis C are encouraged to be aware of their protein consumption because, more than likely, their liver could benefit from greater amino acid quantities.

Editor’s Note: Always consult with a physician or nutritionist for dietary requirements specific to your health condition. This is important because some individuals with encephalopathy may be advised to strictly limit their protein intake.

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