Return to Index
Getting to the Heart of a Healthy Diet: Protein-Rich Foods
Protein can come from dairy products, meats, poultry, fish, nuts, legumes, and soy. Our bodies use them to:
- Create, repair, and maintain tissue
- Build enzymes and hormones
- Help fight infection
You should choose your proteins with care. Some proteins (like red meat) are high in saturated fats. Eating too much of these fats may cause harm over time. There are many healthy forms of protein to choose from, though.
How Protein Choices Affect Your Health
Choose the Right Ones
Full fat dairy products (whole milk, yogurt, cheese), poultry skin, and many cuts of red meat are high in saturated fat. Saturated and trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, while lowering good (HDL) cholesterol. A high level of LDL in the blood raises the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD). This can lead to a heart attack. You can lower the risk by choosing lean meats and low- or non-fat dairy products and watching your serving sizes.
Plant based proteins like legumes are a good option. They have little saturated fat. You can add them to your meals so that you get enough protein without cholesterol risks.
Keep Arteries Healthy
Fish has less total fat and saturated fat than meat and poultry. Some fish are high in fat, but this fat is mostly omega-3 fatty acids—a type of polyunsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats, both mono and poly, are heart healthy. Omega-3s are thought to help keep arteries from hardening and to help keep blood from clotting and sticking to artery walls. Omega-3s may also help lower the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
Dark meat fish have higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Keep in mind that fish oil pills have not been proven to have the same benefits.
Lower Blood Pressure
Learn About Serving Size
The American Heart Association says we should eat no more than 5.5 ounces of fish, shellfish, poultry (without skin), or trimmed lean meat per day. A serving is 3 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. This is the same as:
- ½ of a chicken breast or a chicken leg with thigh (without skin)
- ¾ cup of flaked fish
- 2 thin slices of lean roast beef
You should also eat at least 2 servings (1 serving = 3 ounces) of fish per week to get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Albacore tuna
Some fish have high mercury levels. If you plan on getting pregnant, are pregnant, or are a nursing mother, you should not eat shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. You can learn more about fish and mercury exposure at the Environmental Protection Agency Fish Consumption Advisories website.
Shellfish can be higher in cholesterol than other kinds of fish, so try to limit how much you eat.
You can still eat meat but look at the type of meat you choose. Good choices are:
- 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.
The healthiest ways to cook these lean meats are by:
Here are some healthy cooking tips:
- Use ground turkey in place of ground beef
- Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef instead of "prime"
- Use turkey sausage in place of breakfast sausage
and vegetable-based products, such as:
- 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. They are great sources of protein, dietary fiber, and can be counted as a vegetable or a protein serving. Here are some ways to add them:
- Have some baked beans as a side dish.
- Add beans to chili, rice, or salad.
- 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 also 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 added source of protein but can also have a lot of saturated fats. People who eat or drink dairy products should use low- or non-fat milk, yogurt, or cheese.
Make these changes slowly over time. Find healthy dairy products you like and try many types. Here are some easy ways to make small changes:
- Mix full fat or 2% 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 choice.
- Use a mix of regular and low-fat cheeses, 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.
Take a few of these tips and start to work them into your daily menu. Healthy eating does not have to be boring or leave out all your favorite foods. Watch your serving sizes on foods that are higher in saturated fats and look for ways to swap them with healthier proteins or fats in your favorite meals. You may find the healthier versions taste just as good!
American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
Dietitians of Canada
DASH diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/dash-diet. Accessed January 15, 2018.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020%5FDietary%5FGuidelines.pdf. Accessed February 10, 2020.
Dietary considerations for cardiovascular disease risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/dietary-considerations-for-cardiovascular-disease-risk-reduction. Updated December 11, 2019. Accessed February 7, 2020.
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 December 2, 2014. Accessed February 10, 2020.
Mercury. US Department of Environmental Protection website. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/mercury. Accessed February 10, 2020.
- Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN
- Review Date: 11/2019
- Update Date: 02/03/2021