Meat, Poultry, and Fish: Picking Healthy Proteins

marinating meat for grilling

Why are chicken, fish and beans better for you 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 meat as long as you limit the amount and choose healthier types.
  • One portion of meat is two to three ounces or about the size of a deck of cards.
  • 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 roast.
  • Minimize processed red meats like bacon, ham, salami, sausages, hot dogs, beef jerky and deli slices.

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

How to Eat More Poultry, Fish and Beans

  • Breakfast
    • Add them to breakfast tacos, scrambled eggs or a vegetable omelet.
    • Replace bacon and sausage with low-sodium, nitrate-free turkey or veggie bacon.
  • 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.
    • Have a seafood salad.
  • 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, fish or chicken.
    • Add beans to a soup or casserole.
    • Make black bean burgers or garbanzo bean burgers from scratch.

Many people choose not to eat meat for various reasons, 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. 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.

AHA Recommendation

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

Shopping Tips

  • Non-fried fish and shellfish such as shrimp, crab and lobster are lower in saturated fat and a healthy alternative to many cuts of meat.
  • Choose fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Some types of fish contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants. Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or nursing — and young children — should avoid eating potentially contaminated fish.
  • Choose cuts of meat that have the least amount of visible fat. Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef rather than "prime."
  • Choose lean or extra lean ground beef (no more than 15% fat).
  • Choose poultry that has not been injected with fats or broths.

Preparation Tips

  • 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")
  • Trim all visible fat off of meats.
  • Instead of frying, prepare meats by baking, broiling, roasting, microwaving or stir-frying. Pour off the fat after browning.
  • 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.)
  • 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.

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