Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Proteins on a healthy diet

We are moving forward in this series on cooking/eating healthy. After discussing some general tips, grains, breads and veggies, in this Tip I want to look into the subject of proteins. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 5% of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian. Therefore, I will mostly be discussing meat/seafood. I will not be discussing cooking methods in this Tip but will leave that for the next one.

There are a couple of general recommendations that almost all experts will give. First is to avoid processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage and jerky. Second is to eat smaller portions of fish and meats. Given that, let’s move on to the sources of animal protein.

I am sure that most of you have heard that you should limit, or even eliminate, your intake of red meat. This includes beef, pork and lamb. Why is that? That recommendation is based on the fact that red meats have more saturated fat than other protein sources. I will note that there are some people out there that do not agree with this recommendation and feel that red meat is not as bad as everyone says. However, most experts feel that consuming red meat is often linked with cardiovascular disease.

When you do consume red meats, the recommendation is to eat leaner cuts. See the following chart for the USDA’a definition of lean versus extra-lean. These numbers are based on a 3½ ounce serving and will help you when looking at the nutritional labels in the store.

Fat10 gm5gm
Saturated fat4.5 gm2 gm
Cholesterol95 mg95 mg

For beef, another recommendation is to choose “Choice” or “Select” cuts as they will have less fat than “Prime” cuts. For example, if you look at one of the most popular (although one of the fattiest) cuts of beef – Ribeye Steak – the fact content is 50% higher for Prime than Choice. For ground beef, choose a package that is labeled at least “90% lean” and, if you can find it, 93% or 95% lean.

A look at the nutritional label of different cuts can be enlightening. A package of Choice Sirloin steak shows 10 gm total fat and 3 grams of saturated fat, putting it into the “Lean” category. The same serving size of a Choice Ribeye contains 17 grams of total fat and 8 grams of saturated fat.

The reason the fattiest cuts are more popular is that fat contributes to flavor and moistness. When choosing the leaner cuts, you need to take care when cooking so they do not dry out. I will discuss this more in my next Tip.

For pork, the leanest choices are pork loin and pork tenderloin.

The leanest cuts of lamb are loin, leg and shanks.


When most of us think of healthy meat, we think of poultry. The most common poultry we eat is chicken although turkey is another excellent choice. Much of the fat found in poultry is in the skin. The same serving size of skin-on poultry can have three times or more as much fat as skinless. Because the skin can protect the meat from moisture loss, many chefs will leave the skin on when cooking but remove it before eating.

Breasts will be the leanest type of poultry. Without the skin, chicken breasts have under 2 grams fat per 3 ounce serving and less than ½ gram of saturated fat. Chicken thighs can have twice as much fat as breast but would still qualify as lean. Many feel they have more flavor and are moister. Similar cuts of turkey will have even less fat than chicken although at these low levels, the difference is minimal. The lower fat content does, though, tend to make turkey drier.


Seafood is something that most of us probably do not eat as often as we should. Although seafood can be relatively high in fat, it contains some very heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats known as omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, seafood is considered the best (but not the only) source of this type of fat. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. There is another type of fatty acid known as omega-6 that is often discussed in tandem with omega-3. I will wait on the discussion of this fatty acid for an upcoming Tip on Fats.

Although the above mentioned fatty fish may be healthy, they are higher in total fat than other types of seafood. If you are in the market looking at the seafood, the flesh color will give you an indication of fat content. The leaner choices are those that are lighter in color whereas the darker ones are going to contain more fat, albeit healthy fats. Below is a chart showing you the fat content in a 3 ounce serving. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in seafood also varies with the fattier kinds containing more omega-3s. Examples include salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines. If you want more detail on this, see this article from Seafood Health Facts.

Fat ContentTypes of Seafood
High Fat (10 grams or more)Herring, Mackerel, Sardines, Salmon (Atlantic, Coho, Sockeye and Chinook)
Medium Fat (5 to 10 grams)Bluefish, Catfish, Rainbow Trout, Swordfish
Low Fat (2 to 5 grams)Tilapia, Halibut, Mussels, Ocean Perch, Oysters, Pacific Rockfish, Salmon (Chum, Pink)
Very Low Fat (less than 2 grams)Crab, Clams, Cod, Flounder/Sole, Haddock, Hake, Lobster, Mahi-mahi, Pollock, Scallops, Shrimp, Tuna

Plant sources of protein are great in that they do not contain saturated fats. Examples are beans, peas, lentils and nuts. They also provide dietary fiber and other nutrients.

Unless you are a committed vegetarian or vegan, it is good to know that both plant-based and animal protein have benefits and drawbacks. Animal foods are denser in essential amino acids and are more easily digestible.

Plant-based protein is often low in calories and high in fiber. It is, though, a little less digestible. Plant proteins rarely contain all the essential amino acids. This is not to say that you can’t get all the nutrients you need from plant foods; only that it takes effort and planning.

We all need protein although getting sufficient protein is not really a problem for most Americans. Learning how to pick and choose the best proteins is essential to a healthy diet. I hope this Tip combined with the next one on Cooking Methods will help you make better choices.