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Is Lean Protein Really Better For You?

We're often told to choose lean protein. But is lean protein actually healthier? Or is it long past time to retire this phrase? Nutrition Diva busts another food myth.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
Episode #513
Lean protein options

It's Not Always About the Fat, Either

Some protein-rich foods that are higher in fat, such as fried chicken or pepperoni, are foods that you’d want to limit anyway (but not necessarily because they are high in fat).

Fried foods, for example, tend to be high in HNEstoxic compounds that are formed when polyunsaturated oils are repeatedly heated or held at high temperatures. Most restaurants not only fry foods in polyunsaturated oils, but reuse the oil over and over again.

See also: Which Oils Are Best For Cooking?

Cured meats like pepperoni and ham are high in nitrates and nitrites which, when combined with protein, can form toxic compounds in the gut called nitrosamines. And this may be why diets high in cured and processed meats are linked with a higher risk of colon cancer.  

Remember that the dose makes the poison. It’s OK to enjoy fried foods or cured meats every once in a while. But these probably aren’t foods that you want to be eating every day. And here’s a fun fact: Eating lots of fresh vegetables can help to neutralize the formation of nitrosamines in the gut.  So if you are indulging in some cured meats, don’t skimp on the salad or crudites.

See also: Are Nitrates and Nitrites Bad for You?

Judging meat strictly by its fat content can also lead to some ridiculous conclusions. A serving of salmon has three times as much fat as a serving of ham, for example. But the fat in salmon is in the form of heart-healthy omega-3s while that lean ham is high in salt and nitrites.

Plus, we are being encouraged to seek out more plant-based sources of protein these days, such as legumes, seeds, and nuts. While legumes are certainly low in fat, nuts and seeds are up to 80% fat!

Eat Food, Not Protein

Here’s the thing: We don’t eat protein. We eat food. Most “protein” foods are going to provide a mixture of protein and other nutrients, such as fat or carbohydrate. But more to the point, most of our meals are going to contain more than one food. When we’re evaluating the nutritional makeup of various foods, we need to take the whole diet into consideration.

If you get a lot of your protein from legumes, for example, you’re also going to be getting quite a bit of carbohydrate in the mix. So you might not have quite as much room on the plate for grains or starchy vegetables. If you get a lot of your protein from nuts and seeds, on the other hand, you’re going to be getting a lot of fat along with it. So you may not have quite as much room in your meal plan for avocadoes or whipped cream. And if enjoy cuts of meat or types of fish that are relatively high in fat, you might not have quite as much room for nuts or high fat dairy. 

See also: Protein Density: How To Get More Protein for Fewer Calories

I think it’s time to retire the notion of lean protein. How about you?

Lean protein image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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