Meat, Poultry, and Fish: Picking Healthy Proteins

marinating meat for grilling

Saturated and trans fats can raise your blood cholesterol and make heart disease worse. Chicken and fish have less saturated fat than most red meat.

Why are chicken, fish and beans better to eat than red meat?

In general, red meats (beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated (bad) fat than chicken, fish and vegetable proteins such as beans. Saturated and trans fats can raise your blood cholesterol and make heart disease worse. The unsaturated fats in fish, such as salmon, actually have health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and some plant sources, as part of a heart-healthy diet, can help reduce the risk of heart failure, coronary heart disease, cardiac arrest and the most common type of stroke (ischemic). There are many types of beans – pinto, kidney, garbanzo, soybeans, etc. – and they’re all good for you. Put lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas on the list, too! You can prepare them without saturated and trans fats for a healthy meal.

Tips for People Who Like Meat

It’s OK to eat red meat as long as you limit the amount. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit lean meat, skinless chicken and nonfried fish to 5 ½ ounces per day, total. Eat 8 ounces of non-fried fish (particularly fatty fish) each week, which may be divided over two 3.5- to 4-ounce servings. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Use the tips below to lower the amount of saturated fat and trans fat you get when you eat meat.

  • One portion of meat is about the size of a deck of cards or three ounces.
  • Choose lean cuts of meat. Lean cuts usually contain the words “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package.
  • Trim off as much fat as you can before cooking and pour off the melted fat after cooking.
  • Use healthier cooking methods: bake, broil, stew and grill.

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

How to Use More Chicken, Fish and Beans

  • Breakfast
    • Sprinkle a small amount of chopped, unsalted almonds, peanuts or walnuts on your oatmeal or cereal.
    • Make scrambled eggs or a vegetable omelet.
    • Prepare soy-protein meat substitutes (low-sodium) for bacon and sausage.
  • Lunch
    • Slice up leftover chicken for sandwiches.
    • Have a bowl of low sodium bean or lentil soup.
    • Eat a tuna sandwich on whole grain bread (skip the mayo and mix tuna with a ripe avocado).
    • Make a chef’s salad with leftover chicken, low-fat, low-sodium cheese and hard-boiled eggs.
    • Have a seafood salad.
  • Dinner
    • Grill, bake or microwave chicken breasts. Remove skin before cooking.
    • Sprinkle fish fillets with low-fat Italian dressing and bake them.
    • Wrap a whole fish in foil with lemon and onion slices; then bake or grill.
    • Add beans, unsalted nuts or low-fat, low sodium cheese to your salad.
    • Make low-sodium bean soup or a casserole.
    • Make black bean burgers or garbanzo bean burgers from scratch.

Many people choose not to eat meat for religious reasons or because of other concerns, including health. You can get all the nutrients your body needs without eating meat. For people who don’t want to eat meat (or much meat), there are many healthy ways to get enough protein.

AHA Recommendation

  • Choose nonfried fish, shellfish, poultry without the skin, and trimmed lean meats, no more than 5.5 ounces, cooked, per day.
  • Enjoy 8 ounces of nonfried fish (especially oily fish) each week, which may be divided over two 3.5- to 4-ounce servings.
  • Choose seasonings with no or lower amounts of salt and sodium such as spices, herbs and other flavorings in cooking and at the table.
  • Select meat substitutes such as dried beans, peas, lentils or tofu (soybean curd) in entrees, salads or soups.

Choose from

  • Non-fried fish and shellfish such as shrimp, crab and lobster are low in saturated fat and are a healthy alternative to many cuts of meat.
  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Some types of fish may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants. Shark, swordfish, tilefish (golden bass or golden snapper) and king mackerel are examples. Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or nursing — and young children — should avoid eating potentially contaminated fish.
  • Chicken and turkey (without skin); ground turkey.
  • Lean beef (round, sirloin, chuck, loin). Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef rather than "prime."
  • Lean or extra lean ground beef (no more than 15% fat).
  • Lean veal (except commercially ground).
  • Lean ham, lean pork (tenderloin, loin chop). Ham and Canadian bacon are higher in sodium (salt) than other meats.
  • Lean lamb (leg, arm, loin).
  • Lean cuts of emu, buffalo and ostrich. These are very low in saturated fat and sodium.
  • Wild game (rabbit, pheasant, venison, wild duck without skin). These usually have less saturated fat than animals raised for market (duck, goose).
  • Processed sandwich meats (turkey, chicken, turkey ham, turkey pastrami or lean boiled ham). Check the amount of sodium; some have 25% or more of the daily value.

Shopping and preparation tips

  1. A 3-ounce cooked portion is about the size of a deck of cards. To help you judge serving sizes, a 3-ounce portion equals:
    • 1/2 of a chicken breast or a chicken leg with thigh (without skin)
    • 3/4 cup of flaked fish
    • 2 thin slices of lean roast beef (each slice 3" x 3" x 1/4")
  2. Choose cuts of meat that have the least amount of visible fat and trim this visible fat off of meats. Buy "choice " or " select " grades of beef rather than "prime."
  3. Instead of frying, prepare meats by baking, broiling, roasting, microwaving or stir-frying. Pour off the fat after browning.
  4. Remove the skin and fat under the skin before cooking poultry pieces. (The exception is when roasting a whole chicken or turkey. Remove the skin before carving and serving the meat.) Choose poultry that has not been injected with fats or broths.
  5. Chill meat juices after cooking, so that you can easily skim off the hardened fat. Then you can add the juices to stews, soups and gravy.
  6. Look for frozen dinners and entries that are low in saturated fat and sodium.
  7. A one-cup serving of cooked beans, peas or lentils, or soybean curd (tofu) can replace a 2-ounce serving of meat, poultry or fish.  Two ounces of peanut butter counts as 1 ounce of meat.

Note: Adults over age 50 should get vitamin B-12 from lean meat, fortified foods or vitamin supplements to meet the recommended intake of 2.4 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B-12 per day.


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