Picking Healthy Proteins

marinating meat for grilling

The American Heart Association recommends choosing healthy sources of proteins, mostly from plant sources; regularly eating fish and seafood; substituting nonfat and low-fat dairy products in place of full-fat versions; and for people who eat meat or poultry, choosing those that are lean and unprocessed.

Are fish, nuts and beans good sources of protein?

Fish and shellfish are good sources of protein. The omega-3 fatty acids in certain fish actually have health benefits. Examples of those fish include anchovies, herring, mackerel, black cod, salmon, sardines, bluefin tuna, whitefish, striped bass and cobia . As part of a heart-healthy diet, omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk of heart failure, coronary heart disease, cardiac arrest and the most common type of stroke (ischemic).

Plant foods that contain plenty of protein include beans, peas, lentils and nuts. There are many types of beans – pinto, kidney, garbanzo, soybeans, and more – and they’re all good for you. Put lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas on the list, too! Plant sources of protein do not contain saturated fats and provide dietary fiber and other nutrients. Nuts, peanuts, and soybeans also contain healthy unsaturated fats. 

Tips for People Who Like Meat

In general, red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish and plant proteins. Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol and  increase your risk of heart disease. If you eat poultry, pork, beef or other meats, choose lean meat, skinless poultry, and unprocessed forms. Also choose healthy portions.

One portion of cooked meat is three ounces. To help you judge sizes, a 3-ounce portion is:

  • a  piece of meat about the size of a deck of cards
  • a small chicken drumstick or thigh
  • 3/4 cup of flaked fish
  • 2 thin slices of lean roast beef (each slice 3" x 3" x 1/4")

Note: Eating a lot of meat is not a healthy way to lose weight, especially if you have or are at risk for heart disease.

How to Eat Healthier Proteins

  • Breakfast
    • Add beans to breakfast tacos, scrambled eggs or a vegetable omelet.
    • Replace bacon and sausage with low-sodium, nitrate-free turkey or veggie bacon.
    • Stir  nuts or yogurt into cooked cereal.
    • Enjoy nonfat or low-fat milk or yogurt.
  • Lunch
    • Slice up leftover chicken or turkey for sandwiches.
    • Have a bowl of bean or lentil soup with added veggies.
    • Eat a tuna sandwich on whole grain bread (swap out some of the mayo with ripe avocado).
    • Make a chicken salad with leftover baked or roasted chicken.
  • Dinner
    • Grill, bake or microwave chicken breasts. Remove skin before cooking.
    • Sprinkle fish fillets with lemon and salt-free seasonings and bake them.
    • Wrap a whole fish in foil with lemon and onion slices; then bake or grill.
    • Top your salad with beans, nuts, fish or skinless chicken.
    • Add beans to a soup or casserole.
    • Make black bean burgers or garbanzo bean burgers from scratch.

Many people choose to not eat meat for various reasons, including health. You can get all the nutrients your body needs without eating meat. A one-cup serving of cooked beans, peas, lentils or tofu can replace a 2-ounce serving of meat, poultry or fish. Two ounces of peanut butter counts as 1 ounce of meat.

Shopping Tips

  • Dried beans, peas and lentils are very inexpensive. Dried lentils cook quickly, while dried beans and peas require more preparation time. Look for no-added-salt or low-sodium canned varieties, or rinse beans before cooking or eating to remove excess sodium.

  • Choose fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Low-sodium canned fish are also a healthy choice.

  • Tofu is found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.

  • In the dairy section, look for unsweetened nonfat (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt or cheese, or unsweetened fortified soy beverage.

  • Choose cuts of meat that have the least amount of visible fat. Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef rather than "prime." Lean cuts of meat contain the words “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package.

  • Choose lean or extra-lean ground meat (no more than 15% fat).

  • Choose poultry that has not been injected with fats or broths.

  • Minimize processed meats such as deli slices, bacon, ham, salami, sausages, hot dogs and jerky.

  • Look for the Heart-Check mark on food labels to find products that align with the American Heart Association’s recommendations for an overall healthy eating pattern.

Preparation Tips

  • Feature  vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils and fruits, with smaller portions of fish, low-fat or nonfat dairy, or lean unprocessed meats if desired.

  • Flavor any type of protein well with salt-free spices and herbs, garlic, and onion.

  • When preparing meat, trim off visible fat or poultry skin before cooking and pour off the melted fat after cooking.

  • If roasting a whole chicken or turkey, remove the skin before carving and serving the meat. Use healthier cooking methods: bake, broil, stew and roast.

  • Chill meat juices after cooking so you can easily skim off the hardened fat. Then you can add the juices to stews, soups and gravy.

*Some types of fish contain high levels of mercury or other environmental contaminants. Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or nursing, as well as young children, should check this U.S. Food and Drug Administration website  for the latest advisories to avoid eating contaminated fish.

No Nonsense Nutrition: Protein Mistakes We All Make.
Mallory Brown, a registered dietitian at the American Heart Association, sets the record straight on protein.


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