Most of us know that proteins are the building blocks for just about everything in our body: from enzymes and hormones to bones, muscles and skin. The average adult needs between 60 and 80 grams of protein each day -- or roughly three servings -- to maintain muscle mass and effectively fight disease and infection. Protein can be found in eggs, cheese and legumes (beans, peanuts, peas and soybean-derived foods); but, meat is the most complete source of protein and often the go-to source of the nutrient. To reap the ultimate health benefits from meat, it's important to think lean.
What is Lean Meat?
What comes to mind when you think "lean meat?" Chicken? Turkey? They're all good choices, but you might be relieved to know they're not your only options when eating lean and mean!
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), lean meat is any serving of meat (3 ounces - about the size of a deck of cards) with less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol. Extra lean meat has less than 5 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol.
While skinless chicken breasts and turkey cutlets may still qualify as your best bets, even red meat can be healthy if kept lean and eaten in moderation. For the leanest ground beef, look for ground round (the leanest), followed by ground sirloin, ground chuck, and then regular ground beef (but aim for at least 90 to 95 percent lean, which contains about 5 grams of total fat per serving). Other lean options include:
Beef cuts with "loin" or "round" in the name (top round, round tip, top sirloin, bottom round, top loin and tenderloin)
Why Should I Eat Lean Meat?
Lean meats are packed with important nutrients like B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and B6), which help the body's metabolism, aid in red blood cell formation and play a vital role in our nervous system; iron, found particularly in red meat, helps maintain energy and carry oxygen through the bloodstream (and is especially important for teenage girls and women in their child-bearing years); magnesium, which is vital for building bones; and zinc, which is essential for our immune system.
What's more, eating lean beef, veal, pork, and poultry can be part of a reasonable weight management program that also includes generous amounts of fresh fruits and vegetable along with whole grains.
How Can I Fit Lean Into My Diet?
Although this information may seem overwhelming now, start incorporating lean meat into your diet with a simple substitution: Instead of using regular ground beef for those hamburgers, cook them with ground sirloin or even ground turkey or ground chicken. If you're really feeling daring, trade your T-bone for a top round steak. Another tip is to buy "choice" or "select" grades rather than "prime". Be sure to check the per serving fat content (fat grams or percent calories from fat) on the label. Some varieties of ground turkey can have as much or even more fat than ground beef -- it all depends on the cut.
No matter what recipe you're preparing, though, trim the visible fat before cooking meat -- even if it's lean. Also know that marinating your meat prior to cooking helps tenderize tough cuts and give them plenty of flavor (meaning you won't have to add sauces and gravies afterwards, which can also add unneeded fat and calories). For a healthier dish try broiling, grilling, roasting, poaching or boiling meat, poultry and fish instead of frying.
Most importantly, keep your portions in check. The days of focusing entrees on meat are dated. Try balancing your plate visually: half should be filled with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains, and the final quarter with lean meat.