Picking Healthy Proteins

marinating meat for grilling

The American Heart Association recommends choosing healthy sources of proteins. Here’s how:

  • Eat fish and seafood regularly.
  • Include protein mostly from plant sources.
  • Choose fat-free and low-fat dairy products.
  • Choose lean and unprocessed meats and poultry.

Fish, nuts and beans

Fish and shellfish are good sources of protein. They also provide other nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids that are hard to find in other foods. Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk of heart failure, coronary heart disease, cardiac arrest and the most common type of stroke (ischemic). Try adding these fish to your weekly menu: anchovies, herring, mackerel, black cod, salmon, sardines, bluefin tuna, whitefish, striped bass and cobia.

Plant foods also contain plenty of protein plus important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Among the best plant-based sources of protein are beans, peas, lentils, nuts and some whole grains such as sorghum. Dried or canned (no salt added or low sodium) beans, including pinto, kidney, garbanzo, black, are all good for you. Add lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas to your shopping list, too. Plant sources of protein do not contain saturated fats and provide dietary fiber and other nutrients. Nuts, peanuts and soybeans also contain healthy unsaturated fats. 

Meat and poultry

In general, red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish and plant proteins. Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. If you eat poultry, pork, beef or other meats, choose lean meat, skinless poultry, and unprocessed forms. Eat them in healthy portions. One serving of cooked meat, fish or chicken is 3 ounces.

A 3-ounce portion is:

  • About the size of a deck of cards
  • A small chicken drumstick or thigh
  • 3/4 cup of flaked fish
  • 2 thin slices of lean roast beef (each slice 3" x 3" x 1/4")

Many people choose not to eat meat. You can get all the nutrients your body needs without eating meat. Here are a few ways how:

  • 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. 
  • Eggs are also a good source of protein, and provide other sources of nutrients that benefit your health like vitamin D (which aids bone health and the immune system) and choline (which helps metabolism and liver function).

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

How to eat healthier proteins

  • Breakfast
    • Add beans to breakfast tacos, scrambled eggs or a vegetable omelet.
    • Replace bacon and sausage with low-sodium, nitrate-free turkey or veggie bacon.
    • Stir unsalted nuts into cooked cereal 
    • Mix fruit into fat-free, no-sugar-added yogurt.
  • Lunch
    • Slice up leftover chicken or turkey for sandwiches. Or use it on top of greens.
    • Enjoy a bowl of bean or lentil soup with added veggies.
    • Eat a tuna sandwich on whole-wheat bread. Swap out some of the mayo with ripe avocado.
  • Dinner
    • Grill, bake or microwave skinless chicken breasts, discarding all visible fat.
    • Sprinkle fish fillets with lemon and salt-free seasonings and bake or grill them.
    • Wrap a whole fish in aluminum foil with lemon and onion slices. Then put in the oven or on the grill.
    • Top your salad with beans, nuts, fish or skinless chicken.
    • Add beans to a soup or casserole.
    • Make bean burgers with black beans or chickpeas. 

Shopping tips

  • Dried beans, peas and lentils are very inexpensive. Dried lentils cook quickly, while dried beans and peas require more preparation time. Look for no-added-salt or low-sodium canned varieties. Rinse canned beans before cooking or eating to remove excess sodium.

  • Choose fish high in omega-3 fatty acids. Low-sodium canned fish are also a healthy choice.

  • Tofu, a plant-based protein, is found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.

  • Look for fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk, yogurt or cheese, or unsweetened fortified soy beverage.

  • Choose cuts of meat that have the least amount of visible fat. Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef rather than "prime." Lean cuts of meat contain the words “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package.

  • Choose lean or extra-lean ground meat (no more than 15% fat).

  • Choose poultry that has not been injected with fats or broths.

  • Minimize processed meats such as deli slices, bacon, ham, salami, sausages, hot dogs and jerky.

  • Look for the Heart-Check mark on food labels to find products that align with the American Heart Association’s recommendations for an overall healthy eating pattern.

Preparation tips

  • Feature vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils and fruits, with smaller portions of fish, low-fat or nonfat dairy, or lean unprocessed meats if desired.

  • Flavor any type of protein well with salt-free spices and herbs, garlic, and onion.

  • When preparing meat, trim off visible fat or poultry skin before cooking and pour off the melted fat after cooking.

  • If roasting a whole chicken or turkey, remove the skin before carving and serving the meat. Use healthier cooking methods: bake, broil, stew and roast.

  • Chill meat juices after cooking so you can easily skim off the hardened fat. Then you can add the juices to stews, soups and gravy.

*Some types of fish contain high levels of mercury or other environmental contaminants. Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or nursing, as well as young children, should check this U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest advisories to avoid eating contaminated fish.

No Nonsense Nutrition: Protein Mistakes We All Make.
Mallory Brown, a registered dietitian at the American Heart Association, sets the record straight on protein.

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