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Getting to the Heart of a Healthy Diet: Protein-Rich Foods

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How Protein Choices Affect Your Health: | Protein Options:

image for high protein diet article Protein can come from dairy products, meats, poultry, nuts, legumes, and soy. They are a very important part of our daily diets and something our bodies need, 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 these fats may outweigh the benefits of the protein. There are also several very healthy forms of protein, so it is important to choose your protein sources wisely.

How Protein Choices Affect Your Health:

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 lower good (HDL) cholesterol.. A high level of bad cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks. Choosing low fat version of meats and 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. Some fish are high in fat, but 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.

Evidence indicates that specialized diets may prevent mild hypertension. Both the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the DASH low-sodium diet appear to help blood pressure control.

DASH incorporates low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and whole grains as part of a well-rounded diet.

Protein Options:

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 three 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

In order to get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, eat at least two servings (1 serving = 3 ounces) of fish per week. Those high in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Albacore tuna
  • Salmon
  • Swordfish

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 of 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:

  • Grilling
  • Broiling
  • Baking

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.
  • Try soy 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.

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-fat or fat-free 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 (about 185 mg in one large egg). 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 one egg yolk and a few egg whites.
  • In cooking and baking, use two egg whites, or one 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 Dietetic Association


Food and Nutrition

United States Department of Agriculture



Dietitians of Canada


Health Canada Food and Nutrition



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DASH Diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated Augus 26, 2012. Accessed November 19, 2012.

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Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB: Fish Intake, contaminants, and Human Health: Evaluating the Risks and the Benefits. JAMA. 2006;296:1885-99

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The Power of Protein. American Academy of Nutrion and Dietetics Foundation website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442460042&terms=protein. Accessed November 19, 2012.

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 November 19, 2012.

Last reviewed November 2012 by Brian P. Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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