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Everyday Healthy Protein Choices
Here are some useful tips in how to make healthy protein choices within your weight and fitness goals. The key is to eat lean (lowfat) protein to keep calories in check and to make choices that provide the natural nutrients in the food without artificial ingredients.
Non-Vegetarian: Healthy Protein Choices
Beef, Pork and Lamb. If you eat meat, keep your beef, pork and lamb choices to less than 18 ounces per week. (American Institute of Cancer Research, 2008). Beef, pork and lamb are also higher in saturated fat which in excess could lead to higher blood cholesterol levels which is a risk for heart disease. Wild game is also a lean choice. When choosing foods from the beef/pork/lamb category, select “loin” cuts that can be cooked from the fresh state. Pasture-raised/grass-fed choices are healthier for both you and the environment. Growing livestock contributes more to global warming than all forms of transportation combined (UNFAO, 2007), so eating less meat and more plants is a good “green eating” choice. Choose brands that have not used antibiotics in raising the animals. Avoid processed cuts of any meat. If a packaged item is chosen, look for brands that are without additives and preservatives such as nitrites and MSG.
Chicken and Turkey. Poultry is lower in saturated fat than many cuts of beef and pork, so it is a better option for protein than most “red” meats. The protein content of poultry is the same as beef, pork or any other animal-derived meat. Light meat poultry is a better choice than dark meat (less fat and calories). Check ground chicken or turkey for added ingredients and fat content. Choose products that are just light meat, not the skin and fat and a long list of artificial ingredients. Fresh cooked poultry is better than processed. Make choices that are pasture-raised/grass fed, as the omega-3 content and nutrient levels may be higher in the finished product. The terms cage-free, free range or 100% vegetarian fed is no guarantee of a healthier product unless verified with the producer. Choose poultry that was not raised with antibiotics or growth hormones. A boneless skinless chicken breast that is bigger than a deck of cards is not normal!
Fish. Fish has the same amount of protein per ounce as red meat or poultry. The advantage of fish is it’s low saturated fat content, making it a heart healthy choice. There is no organic certification for fish. Therefore, choose fish based on environment (sustainability) and safety (mercury). You can see how your
favorite fish ranks.
Fish with the highest mercury content (avoid these fish:
Tilefish, King Mackerel, Swordfish and Shark
Fish that are either overfished and/or have a higher rate of contamination (skip these fish):
Orange Roughy, Chilean Sea Bass, Red Snapper, Grouper,Farmed Salmon.
Best sources of healthy omega-3 fats that are sustainable and lower in mercury:
Wild Alaskan Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Coho Salmon, Atlantic Mackerel, Herring and Sardines.
Good sources of healthy omega-3 fats that are sustainable and lower in mercury:
Shrimp, Ocean Perch, Canned Light Tuna, Pacific Cod, Farmed Tilapia, Farmed Catfish, Farmed Oysters and Farmed Rainbow Trout
As with any protein choice, prepare your protein by grilling, baking, broiling, stir-frying or steaming instead of frying to keep the calories in check. Try to eat several fish meals per week. Choose a variety of fish since mercury and other contaminants in fish vary by source.
Milk and Yogurt. The protein content of milk and yogurt is of high quality, similar to meat. One cup of milk or yogurt provides 8 grams of protein, about the same as one ounce of meat (7 gms protein per ounce). Healthy carbohydrates are naturally provided in milk and yogurt, but try to select brands without excessive added sugar. Cow forms of milk and yogurt are naturally high in saturated fat, so a more heart healthy choice is a non-fat version. Cheese is naturally high in fat so you must carefully plan fat into your calorie allowance. Cheese is not a rich calcium choice. Choose milk and yogurt that is produced without antibiotics and the without added hormones such as rBGH (bovine growth hormone). If you don’t drink milk, consider a calcium-fortified soy milk (similar in protein compared to cow's milk). Rice milk is usually fortified with calcium, but it is low in protein (1 gram per cup). Most adults need two to three dairy (or alternative calcium) servings per day.
Eggs. Egg white is an excellent source of protein. There are many nutrients in the yolk, but this is also where the fat (calories) and cholesterol are stored. A few egg yolks here and there during the week are okay, but enjoy the egg white protein as often as you would like. The ideal egg is raised “free range” as they may be higher in healthy omega-3s, Vitamin E and Vitamin A (reported in Mother Earth News, 2007).
Vegetarian: Healthy Protein Choices
Soy Protein. Soy protein is an excellent quality protein source. Soy contains a fair amount of fat naturally, and although it is a healthier plant fat, you need to plan for the extra calories or choose reduced fat forms of soy. Look for calcium-fortified sources of soy as soy is not naturally a good calcium source. Some soy proteins are higher in fiber unlike meat proteins, so they can help satisfy hunger. Twenty-five grams of soy protein daily (3 to 4 soy food servings) can assist in lowering blood cholesterol levels if used on a consistent basis. If you have a history of estrogen-related breast cancer you may NOT want to use soy routinely as soy has phyto-estrogen properties. Shop for soy foods that are “non-GMO” (not genetically modified). Read labels for soy containing meat substitutes to be sure the added ingredients don’t negate the benefits of the natural soy.
Beans. Beans, such as black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and similar hearty beans are a good source of protein, fiber and healthy carbohydrate. Beans are cheap and versatile. Sneak beans into salads, soups, as a side dish and into main dishes to help fill you up without the saturated fats in animal-derived proteins. One half cup of beans provides 6 grams of protein compared to 7 gms protein per ounce of meat.
Nuts and Seeds. These protein sources contribute to your protein intake, but the quality of the proteins is less than soy, dairy or meat protein. This is not a concern as long as you eat a variety and adequate amount of plant proteins every day. Nuts and seeds are considered heart-healthy choices, but at the expense of many extra calories. For example, to get 7 grams of protein (what you get from one ounce of meat) from peanut butter you must eat 2 Tablespoons, or 160 calories. Be sure to consider the calories when using nuts and seeds in a meal or snack. Nuts and seeds are convenient proteins for snacks on the road when healthy proteins are not otherwise available. Nuts and seeds are good sources of Vitamin E.
Nuts with less than 2 grams saturated fat per ounce (better for heart health):
Almonds, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts
Nuts with more than 2 grams saturated fat per ounce (less heart healthy):
Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamia nuts, coconut
Quinoa is a seed that is an excellent source of protein while also providing carbohydrate fuel. One half cup of quinoa provides 110 calories and 4 grams of protein and is an excellent carbohydrate and fiber source. It is generally used as a grain alternative and is a nice protein option for vegetarian diets.
Protein Supplements. Whey protein is a valuable protein choice, especially post workout as a recovery snack. The addition of carbohydrate in a whey protein supplement is an advantage for recovery as well. Milk is the natural source of whey and can be used for recovery just as well as a whey supplement. Recovery is only an issue after extended workouts or when a meal will not eventually follow the workout.
can provide healthy proteins, but choose brands that are not just glorified candy bars with excess sugar and calories.
Healthy Protein Portions
Protein is a powerful nutrient, important for building up the body’s protein stores and for repair of muscle fibers after a workout. A lack of protein can impact your immune system and allow your body to use costly fuel stores that otherwise could be used for energy. Too much protein provides excess calories…going to your fat stores, not your muscles!
A three ounce portion of meat is similar in size to a deck of cards or the palm of a small hand (diameter and thickness). A one ounce portion of meat is similar to a floppy disk or a golf ball. Measure meat after it is cooked or as ready to eat, as meat decreases in weight with cooking by about 25%. Use a kitchen scale to measure your protein before eating to assure your portion is just enough, but not too much.
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