How meat and poultry fit in your healthy diet

A healthy, balanced diet includes a variety of protein foods from both animal and plant sources. Like fish, eggs, nuts and beans, meat and poultry are rich in protein and other important nutrients. However, red meat can also be a source of unhealthy saturated fat. The same is true for poultry depending on the cuts you select and how you cook it.

With a few simple tricks and tips, meat and poultry can still be a part of tasty and healthy entrees that include your favorite protein foods. Learn how to choose the healthiest selections of meat and poultry and how to prepare them using low-fat methods.

Selecting meat and poultry

  • Look for lean cuts. Lean cuts of beef include round, chuck, sirloin and tenderloin. Lean pork or lamb includes tenderloin, loin chop and leg.
  • Go skinless. The leanest poultry is white meat from the breast with no skin. If you prefer dark meat, be sure to remove the skin before eating.
  • Check percentages. When buying ground beef, look for packages with the highest percentage of lean meat — 90% or higher.
  • Watch the ground. Ground poultry can have as much fat as ground beef has, or more, because it often includes dark meat and skin. To make the leanest choice, choose ground breast meat, or look for 90% lean ground chicken or turkey.
  • Be selective. Choose beef that is labeled "Choice" or "Select" instead of "Prime," which usually has more fat. If you can't resist the higher-fat cuts, use them as an occasional indulgence rather than a regular option.
  • Choose fresh. Try to choose fresh over processed meats, which are preserved by smoking, curing, salting and/or with preservatives and chemicals. Limit the frequency and amount of processed meats, such as sausages, deli meats and bacon to 1 ounce no more than a few times a month.

Preparing meat and poultry

  • Trim the fat in meat. Cut off any visible, solid fat from meat before cooking it. Remove any remaining visible fat from pork and beef before eating.
  • Remove the skin in poultry. When roasting chicken or turkey, it's OK to leave on the skin for cooking. The skin helps keep poultry tender and flavorful. But remove the skin and the fat underneath it before eating.
  • Use marinades. Marinades tenderize and keep meat and poultry moist while cooking. They can also enhance flavor that may otherwise be lost when you trim fat. Choose low-fat marinades, such as mixtures of herbs or spices with wine, soy sauce or citrus juice.
  • Go low. Low-fat cooking methods include grilling, broiling, roasting, sauteing and baking. Cooking melts away much of the fat in meat and poultry. So when you cook meat or poultry in your oven, be sure to put it on a rack on a baking pan so that the fat drips away.
  • Skim ahead. Make dishes in which you cook the meat in liquid, such as soups and stews, a day or two in advance and then refrigerate. As the dish chills, the fat hardens on the top and you can easily skim it off.
  • Drain the fat. After cooking ground beef or poultry, drain the fat from the pan and rinse the meat with hot water. Blot the meat with a paper towel to remove any remaining fat and the water.
  • Watch serving sizes. Reducing your portion size decreases the amount of fat and cholesterol in your diet. If you choose to eat meat, aim for no more than 3 ounces (85 grams) per meal, no more than a couple of times a week. That's about the size of a deck of cards. Three ounces also equals half of a boneless, skinless chicken breast, or one skinless chicken leg with thigh, or two thin slices of lean roast beef.

Eating meat and poultry in moderation

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that most people cut back on saturated fat, which comes mainly from animal sources of food, such as red meat and poultry. When you do eat meat and poultry, choose lean cuts. Include fish and seafood in the menu more often — at least twice a week — instead of meat and poultry. Try eating more plant-based meals and consider eating one meatless meal each week. Remember that legumes, such as beans, lentils and peas, as well as nuts and seeds are also rich in protein.

That's not to say you can't enjoy meat and poultry if you choose. But keep it healthy by selecting lean cuts and using low-fat cooking methods.

Last Updated Nov 19, 2019

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