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A Guide to Choosing Protein Wisely

Leave the deep fried chicken and salami on the shelf and open your mind up to new possibilities! Replace these fat-laden foods with the leaner protein options below.

Beans/Legumes

  • Dried beans or reduced-sodium canned beans that have been drained and thoroughly rinsed (black, lima, pinto, garbanzo, navy, or kidney beans).
  • Other legumes include lentils, black-eyed peas, and split peas
  • Bean products like bean spreads, black bean burgers, hummus, fat-free refried beans, or reduced-sodium baked beans 

Though they take more time and planning to prepare, dried beans and legumes have less sodium than canned varieties. You can learn more about the simple process of cooking dried beans from Michael Marks, Your Produce Man. In general, beans and legumes are a great source of protein, fiber, B vitamins, and more, while also being low in fat. They also made our Diabetes Superfoods list and there are so many ways to use them in the kitchen!

You can easily add them to salads, soups, casseroles, or chili. You can even make a bean salad for a side dish or to have as a snack. Use beans or lentils to replace meat in some recipes to make a vegetarian version. Bean products like hummus and spreads can be used as a healthy dip for vegetables or as a spread on a sandwich or wrap. Just remember beans, legumes, and bean products also have some carbohydrates. 1/3 – 1/2 cup of beans usually has about 15 grams of carbohydrate.

Meat substitutes/Soy Products

  • Soy and soy products include soy milk, edamame, soy nuts, tofu, and tempeh
  • Meat substitutes such as veggie burgers, meatless “chicken nuggets”, “beef” crumbles, etc.

These are some more vegetarian-friendly protein options that are lean and tasty. Keep an open mind and try them out. You may even want to set a goal to have at least 2 meatless meals per week.

Soy milk, edamame, and other meat substitutes can have varying amounts of carbohydrate in them. When you’re at the store, check nutrition labels to make sure the product you choose will fit with your meal plan.

Edamame, similar to beans, can be added to pasta dishes, salads, stir fries, pasta dishes, or they can be eaten as a side or snack. Soy nuts also make a great snack that you can take with you when you are on-the-go.

Tofu is made from curdled soymilk. It is low in calories and carbohydrates and high in protein. You can chop it up and add it to salads, stir-fries, pasta dishes, or you can lightly sauté it or cook it in a low-sodium sauce.

Tempeh is a soybean cake made from fermented soy beans. It is also low in fat and cholesterol. You can grill tempeh and use it as a burger substitute. You can also crumble it and add to sauces or casseroles in place of meat.  

When you prepare meat substitutes, cook them with a small amount of olive oil if needed. Check the instructions on the package. Many of these products, like veggie burgers, can be grilled or heated in the microwave without adding extra fat.

Eggs and egg products

  • Whole eggs (cooked with minimal fat)
  • Egg whites
  • Egg substitutes

Eggs are a source of high-quality protein and are a great choice for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can prepare all sorts of ways: scrambled, poached, over-easy, hard-boiled, and more.Try to choose a method that requires you to add little fat. Using a high-quality non-stick pan can be helpfu and cut down the need to add oil or butter.

Scrambling is one of the most common ways to cook eggs. Just whisk an egg with a tablespoon of milk and some freshly ground pepper. Spray a saute pan and heat it on medium heat. Add the egg mixture and stir until scrambled. Serve it with some cooked peppers and onions, along with a side of salsa or hot sauce and toast or baked potato wedges.

A egg sandwich makes an easy grab-and-go breakfast, especially if you simply microwave your eggs to cook them instead of cooking them over the stove. Make your egg sandwich with whole wheat bread or a whole wheat English muffin with a slice of reduced-fat cheese. When you have more time, try making a vegetable omelet, or even a quiche. You may also want to try adding an egg or egg whites to soups or stir fry dishes.

The yolk is the part of an egg that contains all of the cholesterol and fat. So when you only eat the egg white, you are still getting about the same amount of protein without the fat and cholesterol. You are also getting less calories. Egg whites will still work to make omelets, frittatas, scrambled eggs, etc. To replace one whole egg, use two egg whites.

Egg substitute is another great option. Egg Beaters is one brand of egg substitute that you've probably seen at the store. Egg substitutes are made using egg whites only, so they are also cholesterol-free and fat-free. Usually, about ¼ cup of egg substitute can be used in place of one whole egg.

Seafood

  • Fish (especially “fatty” fish that are great sources of Omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, tilapia, bass, etc.)
  • Shellfish (shrimp, crab, oysters, etc.)

Fish are usually lower in fat and cholesterol than most meat or poultry. Some types of fish are higher in fat, but the fats they contain are mostly unsaturated. A serving of fish is about 3 ounce or the size of your palm.

Cook fish using methods that don’t require adding extra fat like baking, broiling, grilling, steaming, poaching, or microwaving. Also, be wary of recipes that add a lot of butter or creamy sauces to the fish. Here are some ways you can incorporate fish into your meals:

  • Broil a tilapia, flounder, or sole filet and eat with a vegetable side and brown rice
  • Add shrimp or scallops to a hot pasta dish, like in this month’s recipe Cajun Shrimp and Pepper Pasta
  • Add shrimp to a homemade tortilla soup or salad
  • Bake a thick fillet (salmon, cod, snapper, or thick flounder) and top with black bean and corn salsa
  • Grill and slice a tuna, swordfish, or halibut steak and top a green salad with it. 
  • Use light tuna canned in water to make tuna salad with light mayonnaise and celery. Eat the tuna salad on a sandwich, salad, or with whole wheat crackers
  • Cook any fish and serve in tacos

Poultry, Beef, and Pork

  • Poultry such as chicken, turkey, or Cornish hen without the skin (choose white breast meat, which is lower in fat than the darker meat in the thigh and leg pieces)
  • Lean cuts of beef such as round, sirloin, and flank steak; tenderloin; rib, chuck, or rump roast; T-bone, porterhouse, or cubed steak
  • Lean cuts of pork such as boneless ham, Canadian bacon, tenderloin, boneless loin roast, and boneless loin chops

Again, choose from the different cuts of meat and poultry listed above. Other cuts will have more saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories.

Try cooking lean steaks or chicken breasts on the grill with some onions, garlic, and peppers. Roasting is also another great option for tenderloin or chicken. Refrain from frying these meats.
When buying ground meats, opt for the leanest option that you can afford. 90% lean or more is a great option! Use lean ground meats to make tacos, meat balls, enchiladas, chili, or tostadas!

Dairy

  • Low fat or non-fat milk (1%, ½% or skim)
  • Low-fat or non-fat regular or Greek yogurt (sometimes labeled as “light”)

We suggest choosing low-fat or non-fat dairy products. Milk and yogurt have some protein, but they are also a healthy source of carbohydrates, so you will need to count them in your meal plan. Usually, about one cup of milk has 12 grams of carb. The carb content of yogurt can vary between brands, so be sure to check the nutrition label.

Nuts and Seeds

  • All nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, pine nuts etc.)
  • Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame)
  • Nut and Seed Butters (almond butter, peanut butter, sunflower seed butter, etc.)

Nuts have some protein but also provide a significant amount of fat. However, they are still a better choice than processed or fatty meats because the fat they contain is mostly healthy fats. Usually about a handful of nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter (like peanut butter or almond butter) is a portion. Nuts and nut butters are dense in calories, so portion size is important.

Nuts make a great snack food, and they are easy to keep with you. Keep a bag of unsalted raw or dry roasted almonds, pecans, walnuts or cashews in at work or in your car. You may want to mix a few different kind of nuts, seeds, and a bit of dried fruit together for a trail mix snack. Peanut butter or almond butter on toast or an English muffin also makes a great grab-and-go breakfast in the morning.

Want More Ideas and Recipes?

Hopefully you have a better idea of what the best protein sources are and how you can use them in the kitchen. You have so many options! For even more examples and ideas, be sure to check out this month’s meal plan and our recipe archive.

Back to Why Protein Matters