Eating a Diet Moderate in Protein-Rich Foods
Eating a high-protein diet is not neccessary—or even healthful—for most of us. But including at least some protein-rich foods in our daily diet is. There are many protein-rich foods. They can be divided into a few major categories:
- Dairy products
- Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and other animal products
- Legumes, nuts, and beans
So does it matter which protein-rich foods you select? It does. As always, choosing a variety of foods is ideal, and when considering where to get your protein it's also important to be aware of the many protein-rich foods that are also rich in fat and cholesterol.
To Reduce Fat and Cholesterol
Full-fat dairy products (whole milk, yogurt, cheese), poultry skin, and many cuts of meat are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack .
Dietary cholesterol can affect blood cholesterol levels, but it does so to a much lesser degree than was originally thought, and also much less than saturated fat. Since saturated fat and cholesterol are often found together in foods, by limiting saturated fat, cholesterol intake will go down as well. Foods, such as shrimp and lobster, that are high in cholesterol, but very low in saturated fat, are not damaging to the heart. It is when these foods are drenched in butter or other saturated fat-rich sauces or ingredients that they can be a problem. Use lemon juice, broth, or olive oil instead.
Legumes have very little fat. And, like all foods from plant sources, legumes do not contain cholesterol. Legumes are also a good source of soluble fiber, which can lower blood cholesterol levels.
To Keep Arteries Healthy
Fish has less total fat and saturated fat than meat and poultry. Some fish are high in fat, but the fat is mostly omega-3 fatty acids—a type of polyunsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats, both mono and poly, are heart healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to prevent arteries from hardening, and to prevent blood from clotting and sticking to artery walls. With these actions, omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
To Help Lower Blood Pressure
Low-fat dairy products can prevent and lower high blood pressure. This finding came from the DASH study, which examined dietary means of preventing and lowering high blood pressure. Researchers are not sure of the exact reason for this effect, but they believe it is partly due to the mineral calcium, which is abundant in dairy products.
Understanding Serving Size
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than six ounces per day of cooked fish, shellfish, poultry (without skin), or trimmed lean meat. A standard serving is three ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. This is equal to:
- ½ of a chicken breast or a chicken leg with thigh (without skin)
- ¾ cup of flaked fish
- two thin slices of lean roast beef
To get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, eat at least six ounces of fish per week. Those high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Lake trout
- Albacore tuna
Remember that large, cold water fish, such as tuna, may be contaminated with heavy metals like mercury. Pregnant women are especially at risk and should follow current recommendations regarding fish intake. You may choose to supplement your diet with high quality fish oil that has the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids without the risk of mercury contamination.
When eating meat and poultry, make leaner choices:
- Light (rather than dark) meat of 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 15% fat
- Lean ham and pork, such as tenderloin and loin chop
- Lean cuts of emu, buffalo, and ostrich; they are very low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol
In restaurants and when cooking at home, choose lighter cooking methods, such as:
Make these substitutions:
- Use ground turkey in place of ground beef
- Buy "choice" or "select" grades of beef instead of "prime"
- Use turkey sausage in place of regular breakfast sausage
Try soy and vegetable-based products; often with the other flavors of the recipe, you'll barely notice the difference:
- Textured vegetable protein in place of ground meat
- Veggie or soy burgers and hot dogs in place of the meat versions
Legumes are very versatile. Try some of these ways to work them into your diet:
- Roll a tortilla around pinto beans, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and low-fat cheese, and warm it in the oven
- Top a baked potato with sauteed black beans, onions, scallions, and some salsa
- Dip carrot sticks and apple slices in hummus
- Use a bean spread on sandwiches instead of mayonnaise
- Toss white beans and tomatoes with pasta and fresh basil
- Throw a can or two of beans—any kind—into a pot of chili or soup
- Fold eggs around pinto beans and tomatoes for your next omelet
- Have baked beans with hearty dinner rolls for a warm, satisfying meal
In the Dairy Case
To make the switch to lower fat dairy products, try this:
- If you are used to full-fat or 2% milk, mix your regular milk with 1% at first to wean yourself off the higher fat milk. Slowly make the mixture more 1% until you are used to the lighter taste.
- If you can't get used to skim milk, 1% is still a good low-fat option.
- Mix cheeses too. Use some regular and some low-fat, so you won't feel you're missing out on the flavor.
- When choosing low-fat yogurts, note that the calorie levels are often only lower in the versions that are "light" as well as low in fat.
And What About Eggs?
An egg is an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals. It is also rich in cholesterol (about 215 mg in one egg). The cholesterol is only in the yolk of the egg, not the white. The American Heart Association advises people to eat no more than 3-4 egg yolks per week to help keep dietary cholesterol levels within a healthful range—less than 300 mg per day.
To enjoy eggs without consuming too much cholesterol, make a few substitutions:
- Make an omelet with one egg yolk and a few egg whites.
- In cooking and baking, use two egg whites, or one egg white plus two teaspoons of unsaturated oil, in place of one whole egg.
- Try cholesterol-free commercial egg substitutes.
American Dietetic Association
The Nutrition Source
Harvard School of Public Health
US Food and Drug Administration
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
American Heart Association. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1200000. Accessed July 6, 2008.
US Department of Agriculture. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome. Accessed July 6, 2008.
Last reviewed July 2008 by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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