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Getting to the Heart of a Healthy Diet: Protein-Rich Foods
Protein can come from dairy products, meats, poultry, fish, nuts, legumes, and soy. They are a very important part of our daily diets and something our bodies need, in order provide amino acids to:
- Create, repair, and maintain tissue
- Help build enzymes and hormones
- Help build immunity to fight infection
As with any food group, it is important to choose your particular proteins carefully. Some protein-rich foods (like red meat) are high in cholesterol and saturated fats. The harms of regularly eating these fats to get adequate amounts of protein may outweigh the benefits. There are several very healthy forms of protein, so it is important to choose your protein sources wisely.
How Protein Choices Affect Your Health:
Fat and Cholesterol
Full fat dairy products (whole milk, yogurt, cheese), poultry skin, and many cuts of red meat are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Saturated and trans fats raise blood cholesterol, in particular they raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, while lowering good (HDL) cholesterol.. A high level of bad cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD), which can lead to a heart attack. Choosing leaner meats and low- or non-fat dairy products and watching your portion sizes can help reduce this risk without completely eliminating these foods.
On the other hand, plant based proteins, like legumes have very little saturated fat or cholesterol. These are good to incorporate into your diet so that you get enough protein without cholesterol risks.
Fish has less total fat and saturated fat than meat and poultry. Although some fish are high in fat, the fat is mostly omega-3 fatty acids—a type of polyunsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats, both mono and poly, are heart healthy. Omega-3s are believed to help prevent arteries from hardening and to help prevent blood from clotting and sticking to artery walls. Omega-3s may help prevent atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
Dark meat fish contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. It is important to note that although eating fish has more evidence for benefits, fish oil supplements have not been proven to carry the same benefits.
To Help Lower Blood Pressure
Keeping your blood pressure within normal limits will also help keep your heart healthy. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet (and the DASH-Sodium diet) have shown to reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. DASH incorporates low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and whole grains as part of a well-rounded diet.
Understanding Serving Size
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 6 ounces cooked (2 servings) per day of fish, shellfish, poultry (without skin), or trimmed lean meat. A typical serving is 3 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. This is equal to:
- 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
Again, in order to get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, eat at least 2 servings (1 serving = 3 ounces) of fish per week. Those high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Albacore tuna
Certain types of fish may have high mercury levels. If you plan on becoming pregnant, are pregnant, or a nursing mother, avoid shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. Updates about fish and mercury exposure can be found at the Environmental Protection Agency Fish Consumption Advisories website.
Shellfish can be high in cholesterol that other kinds of fish, so again, make an effort to limit how much you eat.
You can still eat meat, but what the type of meat is an important factor. When eating meats opt for:
- Light-meat chicken, Cornish hen, and turkey without skin.
- Lean cuts of beef, such as round, sirloin, chuck, and loin.
- Lean or extra lean ground beef that has no more than 10% fat.
- Lean ham and pork, such as tenderloin and loin chop.
- Lean cuts of emu, buffalo, and ostrich. These choices are very low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
Now that you know the kinds of meats that are better for you, don't ruin the healthy choice with heavy cooking methods. These cooking methods are healthier options:
Consider these substitutions in your recipes:
- Use ground turkey in place of ground beef.
- Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef instead of "prime."
- Use turkey sausage in place of regular breakfast sausage.
and vegetable-based products; often with the other flavors of the recipe, you will barely notice the difference:
- Textured vegetable protein in place of ground meat
- Veggie or soy burgers and hot dogs in place of the meat versions
Beans and peas are the mature forms of legumes, which are very versatile. They are also great sources of protein, dietary fiber, and can be counted as a vegetable or a protein serving. Here are some easy ways to add legumes to your daily diet:
- Add beans to chili, rice, or salad
- Have some baked beans as a side dish
- Try hummus (ground chickpeas) instead of other dips on a whole grain cracker or pita bread
- Top a baked potato with sautéed black beans, onions, scallions, and some salsa.
- Use a bean spread on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise.
- Toss white beans and tomatoes with pasta and fresh basil.
- Fold eggs around pinto beans and tomatoes for your next omelet.
Nuts are another plant protein, so toss a handful on vegetables, in stir fry, or in yogurt. They are good for you and the crunch adds extra texture.
In the Dairy Case
Dairy products are an additional source of protein but can also have a lot of saturated fats. If you already eat or drink dairy products, make some changes by using dairy products like low- or non-fat milk, yogurt or cheese.
It may take some time to get used to, so ease your fat content down slowly. After a short adjustment period, the difference will seem to fade. Find healthy dairy products you enjoy and try different things. Here are some easy ways to make small changes that have big effects:
- If you are used to full fat or 2% milk, mix your regular milk with 1% at first to wean yourself off the higher fat milk. Slowly add more 1% until you are used to the lighter taste. If you cannot get used to skim milk, 1% is still a good low-fat option.
- Mix cheeses, too. Use some regular and some low-fat, so you will not feel you are missing out on the flavor.
- When choosing low-fat yogurts, note that the calorie levels are often lower in the versions that are "light," as well as being low in fat.
An egg is an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals. It is also rich in cholesterol. The cholesterol is only in the yolk of the egg, not the white.
To enjoy eggs without consuming too much cholesterol, make a few substitutions:
- Make an omelet with 1 egg yolk and a few egg whites.
- In cooking and baking, use 2 egg whites, or 1 egg white plus 2 teaspoons of unsaturated oil, in place of one whole egg.
- Try cholesterol-free commercial egg substitutes.
Making drastic changes rarely work out. Take a few of these tips and start to work them into your everyday menu. Healthy eating does not have to be boring or exclude all your favorite foods. Watch your portion sizes on foods that are higher in saturated fats and look for ways to substitute healthier proteins or fats in your favorite recipes. You may find the healthier version tastes just as good!
American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
Dietitians of Canada
Health Canada Food and Nutrition
Meat, poultry, and fish. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Meat-Poultry-and-Fish%5FUCM%5F306002%5FArticle.jsp. Updated August 11, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2014.
DASH diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 3, 2013. Accessed October 24, 2014.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Accessed October 24, 2014.
Dietary recommendations for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated October 20, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2014.
Eat more chicken, fish, and beans than red meat. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/WeightManagement/LosingWeight/Eat-More-Chicken-Fish-and-Beans-than-Red-Meat%5FUCM%5F320278%5FArticle.jsp. Updated February 19, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2014.
Fish consumption advisories. US Department of Environmental Protection website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/mercury/advisories.htm. Updated June 10, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2014.
Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB: Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: Evaluating the risks and the benefits. JAMA. 2006;296:1885-1899.
Savica V, Bellinghiere G, et al. The effect of nutrition on blood pressure. Annu Rev Nutr. 2010;30:365-401.
Tips to help you make wise choices from the protein foods group. US Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/protein-foods-tips.html. Accessed October 24, 2014.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 10/2014
- Update Date: 10/24/2014