Part 10 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement
By Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic - Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute
Fats and carbohydrates both have been branded by various fad diets over the years as nutritional bad guys that should be avoided at all costs. Protein, on the other hand, has somehow maintained a sterling reputation as a nutritional good guy. The truth, of course, is that all three are good guys, as long as you choose the right kinds and don't eat too much.
Responsible for building your muscles, bones and blood, protein plays a vital role in your health. But even this good guy can go bad if you make unhealthy choices. Choosing mostly fatty cuts of beef and pork can raise your cholesterol and your weight, increasing your risk of heart disease. Eating lots of processed meats, such as packaged deli meats, hot dogs, salamis and sausages, has been linked to an increased risk of some cancers.
Your resolution is to pick better proteins. In addition, pay attention to portion size – those complex carbs and healthy fats need a place on the plate, as well.
Eat fish twice a week
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least one serving of fish per week; the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 8 ounces – closer to two or three servings – weekly. Salmon, trout, herring, sardines, anchovies and Pacific oysters are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease and may lower blood pressure.
If those benefits don't move you toward the seafood aisle, maybe this will: eating fish is associated with losing weight. You won't shed pounds with breaded, fried or fast-food fish, but studies show that eating fresh fish that is pan seared, broiled, grilled or served sushi style helps promote weight loss. On a budget or short on cooking time? Canned tuna and salmon do the job, too.
Do chicken right
Not all chicken is created equal. And given that Americans eat about 50 pounds of chicken per year (that means several times a week), there are a lot of opportunities to make things better.
First, choose mainly breasts rather than thighs and legs. Chicken breasts are lower in fat and calories than the dark meat.
Next, remove the skin – this can cut the fat in a serving of chicken by 50 percent. I recommend removing the skin before cooking to prevent the fat from the skin from melting onto the meat. Some worry that removing the skin makes the meat less juicy, but I find that taking the skin off allows sauces, rubs and marinades to penetrate the meat better for fuller flavor.
Finally, pay attention to preparation. Roasting and stewing are the healthiest ways to prepare chicken. Deep frying or purchasing anything called a "nugget" or a "finger" – not so healthy.
Choose leaner red meat
While there are benefits to reducing your consumption of red meat, moderate amounts of lean red meat can fit into a healthy diet. Different cuts of beef have very different fat and calorie profiles, so choose the leanest cuts. Top sirloin is one of the leanest, weighing in at 172 calories and 2.2 grams of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce serving (note: most restaurant servings are three to four times larger than this healthy serving size). Rib eye, at 248 calories and 5.7 grams of saturated fat per 3.5 ounces, is one of the fattiest.
Eat beans at least once a week
Beans are an excellent, fat-free source of protein. Black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes are all high in beneficial phytochemicals. They're also incredibly high in fiber – one cup gives you half a day's recommended intake. That fiber teams up with high water content to keep you feeling full while taking in fewer calories overall. Enjoy a variety of beans in soups, chilis, tacos, casseroles and other dishes. Here are two super-simple recipes for black beans and lentils.
Eat tofu once a week
Replacing higher-fat proteins, such as red meat and cheese, with naturally low-fat and low-calorie tofu can help you reduce your body fat and your cholesterol. Tofu comes in many textures, from extra firm to silken. The firmer varieties hold their shape on the grill or in the wok, so they work well as meat substitutes in barbecues or stir-fries. Softer versions crumble easily and can be used in place of eggs, ricotta or even cream cheese in some recipes. Try this easy recipe for a five-minute tofu scramble.
Other good choices to include
I've focused mainly on main-course proteins, but there are many other healthful sources that can help you spread your protein evenly throughout the day. For breakfast, try scrambling two egg whites with tomatoes, spinach or mushrooms. Peanut butter or almond butter spread on whole-grain toast makes a quick lunch or snack. Other nuts and seeds make great snacks, as well. Milk, yogurt and cottage cheese provide whey protein, which is excellent for repairing and building muscle after a workout.
Just be careful to count all of the protein you take in throughout the day to make sure you're not getting more than you need.
Keep your eyes on the portion size
As important as protein is, if you eat too much of it, your diet can easily tip out of balance. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most adults need only 5 ounces to 6-1/2 ounces of protein per day. That's not much, so make the quality count.
For a clear picture of what a balanced plate looks like, check out www.choosemyplate.gov. (This site also offers links to help vegetarians balance their protein intake.) While protein may have been the center of the plate at one time, these days it has moved aside to make way for the rest of the good guys.
James Beckerman, a cardiologist with the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of “The Flex Diet.” You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.