Pay attention to the protein package. Fish, poultry, and beans are your best bets.
Animal protein and vegetable protein probably have the same effects on health. It’s the protein package that’s likely to make a difference. A 6-ounce broiled porterhouse steak is a great source of protein—about 40 grams worth. But it also delivers about 38 grams of fat, 14 of them saturated. That’s more than 60 percent of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat. The same amount of salmon gives you 34 grams of protein and 18 grams of fat, 4 of them saturated. A cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein, but under 1 gram of fat.
Read more about protein and your health.
So when choosing protein-rich foods, pay attention to what comes along with the protein. Vegetable sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and whole grains, are excellent choices, and they offer healthy fiber, vitamins and minerals. The best animal protein choices are fish and poultry. If you are partial to red meat, stick with the leanest cuts, choose moderate portion sizes, and make it only an occasional part of your diet.
5 Quick Tips: Choosing Healthy Protein Foods
1. Mix it up. Most reasonable diets provide enough protein for healthy people. Eating a variety of foods will ensure that you get all of the amino acids you need.
2. Go low on saturated fat. Beans, fish and poultry provide plenty of protein, without much saturated fat. Steer clear of fatty meats and use whole-milk dairy products sparingly. For more information on saturated fat, read “Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good.”
3. Limit red meat—and avoid processed meat. Research suggests that people who eat even modest amounts of red meat have a higher risk of developing colon cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and a higher risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, or any cause. There’s also substantial evidence that replacing red meat with fish, poultry, beans, or nuts, could help prevent heart disease and diabetes—and could lower the risk of early death. So make red meat (beef, pork, lamb) only an occasional part of your diet—no more than two 3-ounce servings a week—if you eat it at all. And skip the processed stuff—bacon, hot dogs, and deli meats—since that’s linked even more strongly to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes risk. Try these healthy protein recipes for nuts and tofu, fish and chicken.
4. Eat soy in moderation. Tofu and other soy foods are an excellent red meat alternative. In some cultures, tofu and soy foods are a protein staple, and we don’t suggest any change. But if you haven’t grown up eating lots of soy, there’s no reason to go overboard: Two to 4 servings a week is a good target; eating more than that likely won’t offer any health benefits and we can’t be sure that there is no harm. And stay away from supplements that contain concentrated soy protein or extracts, such as isoflavones, as we just don’t know the long term effects. Read more about soy and health.
5. Balance carbs and protein. Cutting back on highly processed carbohydrates and increasing protein improves levels of blood triglycerides and HDL, and so may reduce your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, or other form of cardiovascular disease. It may also make you feel full longer, and stave off hunger pangs. For tips on how to choose high quality carbs, check out the Carbohydrates section of The Nutrition Source.
Read more: How much protein do I need each day?
Read more: Why all protein isn’t alike
Read more: How to choose healthy protein
Read more: Protein and weight control
Read more: Soy protein and health
Read more: Why nuts are healthy for the heart
Read why healthy protein sources—fish, poultry, beans, nuts—play a starring role on Harvard’s new Healthy Eating Plate.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source is to provide timely information on diet and nutrition for clinicians, allied health professionals, and the public. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The information does not mention brand names, nor does it endorse any particular products.