We’ve all experienced grocery store confusion in the meat aisle. With so many choices of meat, so many different cuts of each type of meat, and qualifiers like wild or farmed, grass-fed, organic, and free-range, choosing the tastiest and healthiest option to throw on the grill can seem downright daunting.
Americans eat a lot of meat. (What’s more American than a big, juicy hamburger? A big, juicy hamburger with a slice of apple pie.) Meat provides high quality protein and important nutrients, like vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. But not all meats are created equal. Some types, particularly those high in saturated fats and processed meats, raise your cholesterol and are associated with higher risk of disease.
You don’t need an advanced degree to approach the meat counter with confidence. Here we demystify the process of buying healthy meat so you can choose the option that’s best for both your recipe and your body.
All nutrition information listed below is based on a raw, 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving roughly the size of a deck of cards.
When it comes to choosing healthy meat, fish swims to the top of the list.
In addition to providing protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, selenium, zinc, and iodine, fish is noteworthy as an excellent source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend most adults consume 8 to 10 ounces of fish and seafood per week (that’s about 2 to 3 servings).
Eating fatty fish, in particular, may be associated with a slew of health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease and depression, improved brain health, and lower risk of postpartum depression, to name a few.
One of the best parts about fish is how quick and easy it is to prepare. Brush with olive oil, season with flaky salt and pepper, and grill, roast, or broil your way to a delicious and incredibly healthy meal.
Fish cooks quickly and can go from raw to charred in a matter of seconds, so don’t overcook it. A good rule of thumb is to cook fish for 10 minutes for each inch of thickness.
Some of the best choices of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- salmon (Atlantic, farmed): 208 calories, 20 grams (g) protein, 13 g fat, 2.5 g omega-3 fatty acids
- Atlantic mackerel: 205 calories, 18 g protein, 14 g fat, 2.51 g omega-3 fatty acids
- herring: 158 calories, 18 g protein, 9 g fat, 1.63 g omega-3 fatty acids
- sardines (canned in oil): 208 calories, 25 g protein, 11 g fat, 0.982 g omega-3 fatty acids
- rainbow trout (wild): 119 calories, 21 g protein, 3 g fat, 0.693 g omega-3 fatty acids
Chicken is one of the most popular and versatile meats to cross the road and hop on our dinner plates. There are innumerable ways to prepare it, both simple and complex. And nothing makes for an easy but impressive dinner party meal like a whole roast chicken.
Chicken provides high quality protein along with nutrients like vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, selenium, and phosphorus.
When seeking the healthiest cuts of chicken, skinless is the way to go. While dark meat (leg and thigh) contains slightly more fat than white meat (breast and wing), the difference in fat between dark and light meat is dwarfed by the difference in fat between skin-on and skinless cuts.
Cook chicken to 165°F (73.8°C), but no higher to keep the meat juicy and tender.
- chicken breast, skinless: 120 calories, 23 g protein, 3 g fat
- chicken thigh, skinless: 121 calories, 20 g protein, 4 g fat
- ground chicken: 143 calories, 17 g protein, 8 g fat
- chicken breast, with skin: 172 calories, 21 g protein, 9 g fat
- chicken thigh, with skin: 221 calories, 17 g protein, 17 g fat
Turkey isn’t just for Thanksgiving. Turkey is a rich source of protein, niacin, and vitamin B6, along with zinc and vitamin B12.
You may have heard the amino acid tryptophan in turkey makes you sleepy — thus the need for a nap after Thanksgiving dinner. In truth, your sleepiness is probably due to your body digesting a large, heavy meal (or maybe having to listen to Uncle Leo’s annual retelling of that time he caught a muskie in the St. Lawrence River) rather than a few slices of turkey.
Turkey is actually higher in protein and lower in fat than chicken. So get gobbling.
- skinless breast: 114 calories, 24 g protein, 1 g fat
- dark meat without skin: 108 calories, 21 g protein, 3 g fat
- breast with skin: 157 calories, 22 g protein, 7 g fat
- ground turkey: 148 calories, 20 g protein, 8 g fat
- dark meat with skin: 166 calories, 20 g protein, 9 g fat
Mooove over, beef! After roaming North America for millennia, it’s time for bison to roam onto your plate.
Since they typically spend their lives grazing on the range, bison is lower in total fat, lower in saturated fat and higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids than beef. Bison is also an excellent source of vitamin B12, iron, and zinc.
A small study examined the health effects of one large meal and seven consecutive meals of beef compared with bison. It found that while eating beef significantly raised triglycerides and measures of inflammation in the body, eating bison did not. This suggests that, compared with beef, eating bison is healthier for your heart.
Bison is delicious as burgers, in chili, and in stews. Moist cooking methods keep bison, with its lower fat content, juicy and tender. Braising and stewing are excellent options. But you can use bison in place of beef in nearly any recipe — so give me a home where the buffalo roam…
- top sirloin: 113 calories, 21 g protein, 2 g fat
- ribeye: 116 calories, 22 g protein, 2 g fat
- top round: 122 calories, 23 g protein, 2 g fat
- chuck: 119 calories, 21 g protein, 3 g fat
- ground bison: 146 calories, 20 g protein, 7 g fat
Let’s hear it for the “other” white meat. Pork is higher in heart-healthy unsaturated fats than beef, lamb, or even bison. It’s also a rich source or iron, zinc, vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin B6, and is particularly high in thiamin.
That being said, not all cuts and preparations of pork are equal. Compare the calories and fat in pork tenderloin with those in bacon and you’ll understand why that bacon-laden brunch, while undoubtedly delicious, isn’t doing your heart any favors.
Choose leaner cuts of pork, like tenderloin, sirloin, or pork chops, for a healthier choice.
Cook pork to 145°F (62.7°C) internally to make sure it is safe to eat but not overcooked and dry.
- tenderloin: 109 calories, 21 g protein, 2 g fat
- sirloin: 121 calories, 23 g protein, 3 g fat
- chops: 127 calories, 22 g protein, 4 g fat
- ham: 136 calories, 21 g protein, 5 g fat
- ribs: 140 calories, 21 g protein, 6 g fat
- ground pork: 263 calories, 17 g protein, 21 g fat
- bacon: 393 calories, 14 g protein, 37 g fat
We’ve all heard the news that eating too much red meat isn’t great for our hearts or the environment. Red meat tends to have more saturated fat than poultry, fish, and vegetarian sources of protein, which may raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.
That being said, beef provides high quality protein along with nutrients like iron, zinc, niacin, choline, and vitamin B12. If you choose cuts that are lower in saturated fat there can be a healthy place for beef in your diet — just don’t overdo it.
Grass-fed and grass-finished beef is higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed cows. FYI: “grass-finished” means the cattle ate exclusively grass and foraged their whole lives and “grass-fed” can mean that they started eating grass but transitioned to other grains.
Grass-fed or grass-finished ground beef is delicious, better for the environment and contains more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it also contains more total fat than lean ground beef.
We tend to think beef is beef, and a burger is a burger — but there’s a wide variety in what you get from different cuts and different grades of beef.
- eye of round: 116 calories, 23 g protein, 2 g fat
- top round: 116 calories, 24 g protein, 2 g fat
- ground beef (97% lean): 121 calories, 22 g protein, 3 g fat
- top sirloin (select): 127 calories, 22 g protein, 4 g fat
- top sirloin (choice): 135 calories, 22 g protein, 5 g fat
- tenderloin (select): 148 calories, 22 g protein, 6 g fat
- tenderloin (choice): 158 calories, 22 g protein, 7 g fat
- ground beef (grass-fed): 198 calories, 20 g protein, 13 g fat
- ribs: 239 calories, 19 g protein, 18 g fat
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration labels beef that meets safety standards (and thus makes it onto shelves) as USDA Prime, USDA Choice, or USDA Select. Don’t be fooled by the fancy names, though. The USDA grades meat based on juiciness, flavor, and texture, but it doesn’t take nutritional information into account.
Cuts labeled “Prime” are the fattiest, with thick marbling (aka layers of fat), tender meat, and lots of flavor. “Choice” cuts are high quality but leaner, and “Select” meats are the leanest cuts with little to no marbling.
Pay attention to the numbers when buying ground meat, whether it’s chicken, turkey, beef, or anything else. Packages labeled as “regular ground beef” in the store can contain as much as 30 percent fat.
Cooking with fattier ground meat makes for juicier, moister dishes. But if fat intake is a personal concern, stick to the leaner side (90 to 95 percent lean) and look for recipes that get more flavor from seasonings and other ingredients.
Ground turkey might sound like a leaner choice than red meat, but keep an eye on the label. Most ground turkey is a combination of light and dark meat, which can sometimes have the same or higher fat content than lean or extra-lean beef.
Choosing among the vast selection in the meat case can feel like entering the weight room in Gold’s Gym — intimidating. But knowing which cuts are the healthiest can narrow down the selection, helping you choose meat that not only tickles your taste buds, but loads you up with good nutrition.
In general, make fatty fish your friend (most of us don’t eat enough of it), opt for poultry or pork, leaner cuts of grass-fed or grass-finished beef, and try substituting bison for meals you’d otherwise have with beef. When in doubt, always check the label or with a dietician.