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Nutrition Smack Down: Which Protein Is the Healthiest?

August 31, 2023

Whether you’re a vegetarian or a self-proclaimed carnivore, protein is likely a staple of your diet. But is tofu king, or does chicken rule the roost?

We asked registered dietitian Jamie Allers, MS, part of Hartford HealthCare’s Digestive Health Institute, to break down the healthiest protein options.

“There’s not necessarily one protein that’s better than the others,” she notes. “A lot of it depends on your health goals. Are you trying to decrease your fat intake? Your saturated fat levels? If so, then you would choose chicken, lean beef, fish, or plant-based protein.”

Here’s how they each stack up.

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1. Chicken

Lean and packed with protein, chicken is one of the healthiest options. But like anything, it depends how you cook it.

Allers suggests choosing white meat (breast or wings) over dark meat (legs or thighs), which tend to be higher in fat content.

Preparation is key, too. Leave the breadcrumbs and oil in the cabinet, and head to the oven or grill instead.

And a pro tip? Try removing the skin after the chicken is cooked. You’ll retain all the moisture, without the fat and extra calories.

> Related: Nutrition Smack Down: Chicken Breasts vs. Chicken Thighs

2. Beef

This is where it gets tricky. With so many different options, beef can be difficult to maneuver. Luckily, Allers has a few tips to point you in the right direction.

Just like with chicken, a lean cut will be your best friend. If you’re not sure how to tell which cuts are lean, look for options that say “round,” “loin,” or “sirloin.” Grass fed beef – of those same cuts – is typically even healthier.

These make easy additions to bowls, salads or fajitas, which are all healthy (and delicious!) options. Or if that sounds like too much work, you can always break out your Instant Pot and kick your feet up while dinner cooks itself.

3. Pork

Different cuts play a huge role here, too.

If you’re looking for a healthy option, pork tenderloin or pork chops are usually the best place to start. For an easy meal, toss either in the oven and whip up your favorite sauce.

But bad news for sausage lovers – processed pork that’s been cured or smoked can be particularly unhealthy. These include:

  • Sandwich meat
  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Sausage
  • Spam

4. Fish

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably committed to adding more protein to your diet.

And one of the best places to start? Fresh tuna. Weighing in at nearly 30 grams of protein per 100 grams of tuna, this is one of the most protein packed foods you’ll find.

But that’s not the only seafood loaded with protein – octopus, salmon, mackerel, shrimp and cod are all great options too.

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5. Tofu, tempeh or seitan

New to plant based proteins? The secret is in the sauce.

“For tofu or tempeh, if you are introducing them into your diet, start out using them in sauces or with marinades,” Allers suggests. “And you can use your favorite recipes, just swapping the protein source from say, beef to tempeh.”

6. Legumes

If you’re looking to pack in the protein without eating too much meat, tofu isn’t your only option. Some of the healthiest types of protein come in the smallest packages.

Beans, peas and lentils are other great plant based proteins, with 15 grams of protein in only a cup of black beans. Try sneaking these into your diet by swapping in lentil pasta or chickpea flour next time you cook.

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