There are sound nutritional reasons to include meat in your diet; healthy meat is a terrific source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. But beware: Some meats are heavy in unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol. By choosing the leaner cuts and cooking meat in healthful ways, you can make the most of your meat dishes.
Meat: A Nutrition Powerhouse
Foods in the meat group go beyond red meats like beef and lamb — they also include poultry, pork, fish, and shellfish. While their flavors vary widely, each of these types of meat provide nutrients the body needs:
Protein. Protein is the basis of bones, muscles, and other body structures and is essential to many of the body’s systems.
Vitamins. These include the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as important B vitamins, notably niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6 — which are involved in many body functions such as regulating the nervous system and making red blood cells.
Minerals. The main minerals found in meat are iron needed for blood health; zinc, for a healthy immune system; and magnesium, used in the bone-building process.
Fatty Meats That Aren’t Good for You
Some meat choices or cuts also include saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which raise levels of the unhealthy LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in your blood. Saturated fat and cholesterol are more prevalent in organ meat, ground meat including fresh sausage, bacon, some luncheon meats, and in fatty cuts of all meats.
Fatty but Healthy “Meats of the Sea”
Some fatty types of fish are actually good for you. They provide unsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which protect against heart disease — and that your body can’t make on its own. Fatty fish supply the PUFA known as omega-3 fatty acids.
Choosing the Best Meat Varieties
When you’re cooking meat, start with the leanest varieties. You can see how much white solid fat there is on a piece of meat when you buy it and easily trim it off before cooking. These meats and cuts have the least fat:
When cooking beef: Choose cuts with the words “round” and “loin” in the name, including top and bottom round, round eye, top loin, sirloin, and tenderloin.
When cooking pork: Opt for tenderloin, pork and center loin, and ham.
When cooking chicken: Pick chicken and turkey breasts and cutlets.
When cooking ground meat: It’s hard to know how much fat many types of ground meat contain; for instance, regular ground beef might be only 75 to 85 percent lean. Ground beef labeled “lean” should be only 10 percent fat, with less than half of it saturated; “extra lean” is less than 5 percent fat, but nearly all of its fat may still be the saturated kind.
Grinding your own meats at home with a food grinder, sometimes available as an attachment to a food processor or other small kitchen appliance, can take the guesswork out of determining fat content.
Try Something New at the Meat Market
If you think only of beef or chicken when planning meals, you’re missing out on a variety of tastes. With the growing popularity of many ethnic cuisines and the quest for leaner types of protein, new and unusual cuts (at least for the American diet) are available.
Beefalo. This lean choice is actually part bison (the word used for American buffalo to distinguish it from Asian and African animals) and part beef. Beefalo has up to 20 percent protein and only 5 percent to 7 percent fat, compared to beef’s 10 percent. These animals roam freely, eat grass or hay, and are not given antibiotics or growth hormones.
Goat. Goat cheese is a delicacy many people are familiar with, and now goat meat is also available. Goat, considered a red meat, is becoming more popular because of the growing interest in Jamaican food and other cuisines that use it. Goat meat is very lean; meat from a young goat, or kid, is tender, while adult goat has more flavor. Cuts are similar to those available for lamb, from chops to roasts and kebab or stew chunks.
Rabbit. Popular in European cooking, like French bistro food, rabbit is available fresh or frozen and can be a substitute for chicken; it’s a lean, rich source of protein with a mild flavor.
Game. This term refers to all wild birds and animals, but many varieties are now raised on farms. Venison (deer), boar (wild pig), alligator, and birds like pheasant, squab, and quail are all healthier choices to consider.
About Meat Inspections
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service inspects beef, lamb, pork, goat, and domesticated poultry, including chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guinea, and ostrich. Inspection of buffalo, rabbit, and other game by the USDA is voluntary, not mandatory, so ask if your meat was inspected before you buy.