For many Americans, proteins are the central focus of our meals. If dinner was a football team, the protein would be the quarterback. In other words, the protein tends to be the foundation of the meal that the other ingredients play off of. This flavor importance comes at a good reason. Not only are proteins very tasty and robust, but there’s a lot of nutritional value in them. What are these health benefits, and are all proteins made equally?

The Upsides and Downsides of Protein

Protein is one of the most important macronutrients that you can commonly get in your diet. It serves many purposes in your body. Protein is critical for growing and maintaining your muscles, though the benefit of this isn’t just for body builders. As we age, we can start to lose muscle mass, making physical activity more difficult and tiring. A healthy diet with enough proteins can also be good for your bones, power your immune system, and help you lose weight by promoting fullness and boosting your metabolism. These are only a few of the benefits, illustrating just how important proteins are to our general health.

High protein intake is associated with a number of health risks, most notably cardiovascular issues, mostly from saturated fats.

But there can be risks to having too much protein, and even the right amount isn’t without its downsides. High protein intake is associated with a number of health risks, most notably cardiovascular issues. The main culprit here is meat-based proteins, which can often be high in saturated fats. Over time, these can raise your LDL, or bad cholesterol. While all fat may not be as bad for us as we once thought, an overabundance of it (especially the unhealthy types) can still cause a number of issues. Red meats specifically, like beef or pork, tend to be higher in saturated fats, leading to studies that link high protein intake to cardiovascular events (i.e., heart attacks). It is worth noting that red meat can be healthy in the right amounts, especially unprocessed red meat, but again, it should be part of a balanced diet.

Why Healthy Proteins are Important

At this point, the importance of finding a balance between getting your recommended amount of protein each day without overdoing it is clear. You need a good bit of protein, but too much can be bad for your heart, especially the wrong sources of protein. Luckily, there are good sources of protein that lack the high saturated fat content that can put your heart at risk. One study looked at a few of these lean protein diets compared to a high fat protein diet and found a statistically significant difference in lowered chances of chronic heart disease and total mortality rates. It all comes down to making healthier choices for your proteins.

Healthy Sources of Protein

A good rule of thumb when looking for healthier proteins is that the less saturated fat they have, the leaner they’ll be. We’ll look at a few of the most widely available and healthier suggestions.

Lean Cuts of Red Meat

Yes, red meats tend to be the highest in saturated fat, but sometimes, you just need a good steak. If you’re craving some beef or another red meat, you can avoid some of the fat by looking into leaner cuts. Not all cuts of meat are created equal, with come containing more fat than others. Pork belly is going to have more fat than tenderloin, for example. In fact, that pork tenderloin is as lean as a skinless chicken breast (more on them later). For beef, stick with sirloins and roasts, which tend to be the leanest cuts.


Fish tend to be some of the best sources of lean animal-based proteins. It’s no surprise that, of the foods where almost all the calories come from protein, over half are white fish. This rises to 70 percent of the list if you include shrimp, which are also excellent sources of low-fat protein. We also can’t leave out one of our favorite fish, salmon. We’ve written about this red-tinted fish a ton, but for good reason. It’s a lean protein, but what fat it does have is made up mostly omega-3 fatty acids, which are outrageously good for you. (Seriously, here are three articles where we discuss different benefits of salmon and omega-3 fatty acids.)

Poultry and White Meat

Chicken and other poultry are also lean proteins that you can use in just about every meal. There are many ways you can ensure your poultry is as lean as possible. Of all the different types of chicken meat, the leanest is white meat, so it pays to stick with the breast meat. You can also make the meat a bit leaner by removing the skin, which contains saturated fat (though it also has a lot of healthy unsaturated fats). You should be careful with ground chicken or turkey, however, because fat can be snuck in to keep the meat moist. Watch the percentages and try to stick around 90 percent if you’re watching your fat.

Non-Meat Proteins

Of course, if you’re looking for lean proteins, non-meat (vegetarian) proteins can help you get your essential nutrients without much of the added fat. The abundance of meat substitute products on the market now have made it easier than ever to get non-meat proteins, though some may have added fats and sugars to mimic the flavor of meat. Among the vegetables that are high in protein, you can find soy (one of the most popular meat replacements), different varieties of beans, spinach, mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts, to name a few. These vegetables, especially soy and mushrooms, can handle many different flavors and styles of cooking, making them great versatile ingredients.

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Protein is an essential nutrient to the way our bodies function properly. If you’re watching your fat intake or your heart health, paying attention to the right kind of protein can make a massive difference. It certainly helps that you have a lot of delicious and versatile options to pick from!