Eating a high-protein diet is not neccessary—or even healthy—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 is also important to be aware of the many protein-rich foods that are also rich in fat and cholesterol.
Full-fat dairy products (eg, whole milk, yogurt, cheese), poultry skin, and many cuts of meat are high in cholesterol and saturated fat. Saturated fat
raises blood cholesterol. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for
coronary heart disease, which can lead to a heart attack.
In addition to having a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat, the American Heart Association (AHA) also recommends reducing your intake of trans fats. Trans fats, commonly listed on the nutrition label as "hydrogenated oil," can be found in many snack foods, like cakes, cookies, and crackers, as well as fast foods, like French fries and onion rings.
By choosing protein-rich foods that are low in cholesterol and unhealthy fats, you may be able to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Fish is a good source of protein that 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 considered heart healthy. While studies are conflicting, omega-3 fatty acids may be able to prevent arteries from hardening and prevent blood from clotting and sticking to artery walls. With these actions, omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Low-fat dairy products are recommended as part of a hearty-healthy diet. Choosing low-fat dairy products is part of the DASH diet, which is specifically designed to lower blood pressure. It emphasizes the importance of eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products, lean meats, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Some studies have shown that following a DASH diet can decrease the risk of death from cardiovascular events such as stroke and heart attack.
The AHA 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 two servings 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, but always talk to your doctor before starting any supplements.
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
- When dining
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:
- 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.
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 cannot 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 will not feel you are 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".
An egg is an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals. It is also high in cholesterol (about 200 mg in one egg). The cholesterol is only in the yolk of the egg, not the white. For a healthier option, the AHA advises people to substitute two eggs whites for each egg yolk.
Other substitutions that you may want to try include:
- 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.
Cooking for lower cholesterol. American Heart Association website. Available at: . Updated February 8, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
DASH diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated August 26, 2011. Accessed September 11, 2012.
DASH diet. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: . Updated May 15, 2010. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations. American Heart Association website. Available at:
. Updated June 29, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Dietary recommendations for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated July 30, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. American Heart Association website. Available at:
. Updated September 7, 2010. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Fish oil. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: . Updated August 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
High cholesterol. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: . Updated July. Acce 27, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Kassel K. Eating a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: . Updated January 2011. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Meat, poultry, and fish. American Heart Association website. Available at: . Updated January 20, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2012.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
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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