What are the healthiest animal protein sources?

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Protein plays many roles in the human body. It’s used in the production of muscle and structural tissues, as well as the production of many hormones, transport molecules and antibodies. Protein acts as a source of energy and provides essential amino acids (the ones we must get from food, since our bodies are unable to make them).

Many people get their protein from animal products. This can be beneficial, since animal proteins are considered complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. Unfortunately, not all sources of animal protein are created equal. Here’s what you should know so you that can choose the healthiest option.

What are the healthiest sources of animal protein?

It’s best to choose leaner protein sources and, as much as possible, cut back on red meat (e.g., pork, beef, lamb) and processed meat (i.e., preserved by smoking, salting, curing or adding other preservatives). Both diets high in red meat and diets high in processed meat have been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer. If you do choose to eat red meat, choose leaner sources like those included in the list below.

Look for sources that are low in saturated fat, are unprocessed or are high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats and omega-3s. Some good examples are:

  • White-meat poultry, such as chicken or turkey breasts
  • Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, lake trout, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Lean or extra-lean cuts of beef such as sirloin or round cuts, greater than 93% lean ground beef
  • Eggs and egg whites
  • Non-fat/low-fat Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk 

Remember that it’s still important to eat a diet that includes a variety of both plant and animal protein sources, in addition to plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Although individual plant protein sources (e.g., beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains) don’t contain all nine essential amino acids, plant sources also offer more fiber and a different variety of vitamins and minerals than animal sources of protein. And even though individual plants don’t contain all nine essential amino acids on their own, when eaten in combination throughout the day, they do provide enough of the essential amino acids to meet the body’s needs.

What are the best ways to cook these proteins?

Cooking proteins changes chemical bonds and makes them more digestible. Cooking meat also kills potentially harmful bacteria on the meat that can cause food-borne illness. However, some methods of preparation are better than others.

Baking, boiling, broiling, poaching or steaming are some of the better cooking methods. Frying usually means additional calories, fat and, often, breading; frying fish at high temperatures can degrade healthy fats in fatty fish. Research by the American Institute of Cancer Research indicates that charring and cooking meats at high temperatures cause compounds to form that can increase risk of cancer. Also, like with any food, adding lots of butter, cheese, sour cream, marinades or salt will affect the overall nutrition of the dish.

What’s the best serving size?

Three to four ounces (21-28 grams of protein) per meal is considered a serving. That amount is approximately the size of a deck of cards.

However, protein requirements can vary from person to person depending on factors like age, activity level or medical conditions. In general, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram. For example, the RDA for a 150-pound person would equate to 55 grams of protein per day. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it’s the minimum amount you need to maintain good health — not the specific amount you’re supposed to eat every day.

Emilie Vandenberg is a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.