Protein provides essential nutrients to help you build muscle, lose weight, lower blood pressure and sleep better. Animal-based proteins like meat, eggs, fish and dairy are an easy and delicious way to eat a balanced diet, but not all proteins are created equal.
“Getting enough protein, and the right kind of protein, is really important to feel your best, for your body to operate well and to maintain your health as you age,” said Katy Brown, DO, an endocrinologist at Samaritan Weight Management Institute.
What Makes a Healthy Protein?
Protein is found in many different foods, including plants and animal products. A healthy animal-based protein is rich in one great ingredient – protein – in addition to polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, vitamin B12, iron and other valuable nutrients. Avoid proteins that are highly processed and have added fat or salt.
“In a Mediterranean-style diet, which works well for many people, I encourage my patients to get protein from both plant and animal sources,” said Dr. Brown. “Lean, unprocessed animal proteins are a great source of nutrition, especially when you choose high-quality proteins like wild salmon or Greek yogurt.”
When looking for a healthy animal protein, Dr. Brown recommended the following options:
|Fish & Shellfish||
|Fish and shellfish in general are a good source of lean protein. Make an effort to add fatty fish, which are rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, to your diet two or three times a week.|
|Choose whole pieces of poultry over processed nuggets or lunch meat.|
|Eggs & Dairy||
|Four to six eggs a week are fine for most people. Greek yogurt, which is strained to remove the excess whey, has more protein than traditional varieties and is a good source of probiotics. Choose plain, unsweetened yogurt. Select flavorful, natural cheese to compliment a dish. Avoid cheese that is processed like canned or American cheese.|
|Wild game is typically leaner than farm-raised meat, reported Dr. Brown. Trim visible fat before eating.|
Beef: Chuck, rib, rump roast, round, sirloin, cubed, flank, porterhouse, T-bone or tenderloin.
Lamb: Chop, leg or roast.
Pork: Canadian bacon, center loin chop, leg (fresh ham) or tenderloin.
|Red meat is eaten in a Mediterranean-style diet, but typically not as often as fish and other plant proteins. Dr. Brown recommends limiting red meat to about once a week or less, choosing lean, trimmed cuts and avoiding processed meats like sausage, bacon, hot dogs or lunch meat.|
Be Wary of Processed Meat
Processed meats like sausage, bacon, hot dogs and lunch meat go through a curing process using added nitrates and/or nitrites to give it that signature salty flavor, pink color and keep it from spoiling.
Nitrates and nitrites occur naturally in many foods including fruits and vegetables. By themselves they are not harmful, but when processed/cured meat is cooked over high heat the nitrates and nitrites can interact with the protein to create nitrosamine. Some nitrosamines can cause cancer in laboratory animals and may increase the risk of certain types of cancer in humans.
Confusingly, packaged meats like bacon or hot dogs labeled “uncured” or “no nitrates or nitrites added” can still contain nitrosamines. Bacon from the meat counter is another tricky product. While it might feel fresher than something prepackaged, it has still been cured. Don’t be fooled by a healthy-sounding label – enjoy all processed meats sparingly.
Best Ways to Prepare Protein
"Steaming, grilling, broiling and roasting are the best cooking options for seafood and meat,” said Dr. Brown. “You want to avoid adding lots of saturated fat or salt, which can negate the health benefits of a lean protein.”
Think grilled chicken to top your salad rather than crispy chicken that has been breaded and fried.
When you serve your dish, avoid butter or cream-based sauces. Instead, use lemon, vinegar, herbs, spices or miso for seasoning. Many herbs and spices are anti-inflammatory, so adding them to your meal provides even more good-for-you ingredients.
Fresh or frozen fruit is a sweet addition to yogurt and cottage cheese, while veggies like bell pepper, mushrooms and spinach can liven up your scrambled eggs.
Stick to Recommended Serving Sizes
Although protein often takes center stage at a meal, remember to stick to recommended serving sizes.
“Glamorous food photos and restaurant portions have distorted how large we think a serving should be – it’s often much smaller than people expect,” said Dr. Brown. “I recommend filling about half your plate with vegetables first, then adding the protein and whole grains to the rest of the plate.”
A simple food scale can help while you learn to visualize serving sizes.
Recommended serving sizes:
- Seafood and meat – 3 oz. or about the size of a deck of cards.
- One egg.
- Yogurt – 6 oz. or about ¾ cup.
- Cottage cheese – 4 oz. or about ½ cup.
- Cheese – 1.5 oz. or about ¼ cup shredded.
Does Organic Matter?
The USDA certifies animal products as organic when the animals are fed organic feed and forage, and are not given antibiotics or hormones. The regulations also require the animals be able to engage in natural behaviors, like grazing.
“From a medical standpoint there isn’t enough research to say eating organic contributes to a longer life or less disease than eating conventionally raised products. The most important consideration is to choose a high-quality protein, which will have the biggest impact on your health,” said Dr. Brown. “However, there are ongoing questions as new information becomes available. If organic is in your budget, great, but if that’s not available to you then a conventionally raised protein is absolutely a healthy option.”
Plant Protein Options
Protein is necessary but animal products aren’t the only way to get it.
“Small amounts of protein are found in most plant foods,” said Dr. Brown. “Whole foods are the best source because the part of the plant containing the protein hasn’t been processed away.”
If you’re looking to reduce the amount of meat in your diet, Dr. Brown recommended these sources of plant-based protein for meals and snacks:
- Legumes/beans – Lentil, kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, split pea and more.
- Soy – Tempah, tofu, edamame and soy milk.
- Whole grains – Some of these are actually seeds, but are treated like grains for dietary and culinary purposes, notes Dr. Brown. Choose whole wheat, amaranth, quinoa, spelt, teff, buckwheat, oats, brown rice and wild rice.
- Seeds – Pumpkin, chia, hemp, ground flax, sesame and sunflower.
- Vegetables – Most vegetables have some protein but broccoli, asparagus, sweet potato and Brussels sprouts are higher than others. Fill half your plate with a variety of vegetables at each meal.
- Nuts and nut butters – Using nut butter in a meal or eating a snack of mixed nuts is an easy way to add protein on the go.
Don’t worry about measuring your protein unless you have specific health needs and your doctor has recommended it, suggested Dr. Brown.
“Make sure you get some protein with every meal and snack, but eating a variety of foods will fulfill the protein requirements for most people,” she said.
Start by adding some broccoli to your bowl of whole wheat pasta or a handful of nuts with a piece of fruit. If you find yourself getting hungry before your next meal, that’s a sign to add more protein to your diet.
Start Small for Lasting Change
Changing ingrained dietary habits can feel overwhelming, especially if you don’t love cooking or feel uninspired cooking for one.
“You don’t have to overhaul your diet overnight,” said Dr. Brown. “Making small changes to include healthy proteins in meals and snacks is a great start.”
Learn how to make healthy meals and other lifestyle changes to support your weight loss journey with Precision Wellness, a 16-week, evidence-based program at Samaritan Weight Management Institute.