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Getting to the Heart of a Healthy Diet: Protein-Rich Foods
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Getting to the Heart of a Healthy Diet: Protein-Rich Foods

image for high protein diet article Learn more about the following recommendation from the American Heart Association: Include fat-free and low-fat milk products, fish, legumes (beans), skinless poultry, and lean meats in your diet.

Here's Why:

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. Foods like 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 saturated 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-3s are believed to help prevent arteries from hardening and to help prevent blood from clotting and sticking to artery walls. With these actions, omega-3s can help prevent atherosclerosis and heart attacks.

To Help Lower Blood Pressure

Low-fat dairy products can help to prevent and lower high blood pressure. This finding came from the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (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.

Here's How:

Understanding Serving Size

The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 6 ounces cooked (2 servings) per day of fish, shellfish , poultry (without skin), or trimmed lean meat. A typical serving is three ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. This is equal to:

  • 1/2 of a chicken breast or a chicken leg with thigh (without skin)
  • 3/4 cup of flaked fish
  • 2 thin slices of lean roast beef

Go Fish

In order to get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, eat at least two servings (1 serving = 3 ounces) of fish per week. Those high in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Mackerel (Note: King mackerel from the Gulf of Mexico has quite high concentrations of mercury and should be avoided, at least by pregnant women and children.)
  • Lake trout
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Albacore tuna
  • Salmon

Further information from the FDA on mercury levels in fish can be found at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html . Other fish which contain high levels of mercury include tile fish, shark, and swordfish. Most people should limit their consumption of these particular fish species.

Leaner Meats

When eating meat and poultry, make leaner choices, for example:

  • Light 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. These choices are very low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
  • In restaurants and when cooking at home, choose lighter cooking methods, such as:
    • Baking
    • Broiling
    • Grilling

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

Magic Beans

Legumes are very versatile. Try some of the following 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 sautéed 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 in order 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 2 teaspoons of unsaturated oil , in place of one whole egg.
  • Try cholesterol-free commercial egg substitutes.


Last reviewed January 2007 by Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH

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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