How to Choose Low-Fat Meats

Flank Steak on a cuttin gboard
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When you’re shopping or dining out, it can be helpful to know which protein sources are low in saturated fat. While you might assume the best way to reduce your saturated fat intake is to stop eating animal products altogether, you can still enjoy fish, beef, pork, and poultry by choosing low-fat cuts and making meat part of an overall balanced diet.

Saturated Fat

There are four types of dietary fat: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. What makes these fats different is how they are put together at a biochemical level. The way these fats are structured influences how your body absorbs and uses them.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are liquid, while saturated and trans fats are solid. Fats that are liquid at room temperature, like olive oil, tend to be more beneficial to our health. Solid fats like butter are fine in moderation but can negatively impact our health when eaten in excess.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend keeping your daily intake of saturated fat to 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily total calories. If you’re eating 2,000 calories a day, that means limiting your saturated fat intake to about 13 grams (120 calories).

The relationship between saturated fat, high cholesterol levels (especially LDL) and an increased risk of heart disease is complex. Some studies have indicated that eating a lot of saturated fat raises cholesterol levels, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease.

Other studies haven't substantiated the link, rather, they have found some sources of saturated fat (such as dairy) may not increase heart disease risk. Rather, they may even be protective.

If you already have elevated lipid levels, making changes to your diet to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet can help lower your levels. It can also be beneficial if you're trying to manage your weight, blood sugar, or blood pressure.

The different types of fat are found in many of the foods we eat. The richest dietary sources of saturated fat for many people are meat and dairy products. However, some sources are healthier choices than others, and the way each meat is prepared and served can influence its contribution to your daily fat intake.

Fish and Seafood

If you’re watching your saturated fat intake, fish is often a safe bet. Just avoid breaded or deep-fried dishes. If you're concerned about mercury levels, choose seafood low in mercury. Fish is also packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

When you need something quick and convenient, try tuna that’s canned or in a pouch (look for options packed in water rather than oil). While fish is a favorite choice of dinner entree, it can also be easily added to a salad for extra protein.

If you're dining out, fish is one meat you're likely to frequently encountered fried. Instead of fried fish dishes, look for those that are broiled, baked, poached, steamed, or grilled.

Poultry

Poultry is another lean option you can cook at home or choose at a restaurant. Like with fish, avoid breaded or fried options. While it’s long been touted diet advice that only skinless chicken is healthy, the recommendation to remove the skin to avoid additional fat has been challenged in recent years, as fat in chicken meat and skin is unsaturated.

The exception to poultry as a lean option are goose and duck, which are are rich sources of saturated fat. However, duck fat is lower in saturated fat than butter or beef fat.

Poultry is an extremely versatile meat. On its own, it's a natural choice to build a meal around, whether it be oven, stove-top, or grill. Leftovers can be eaten cold in salads or sliced for sandwiches, and even the bones can be used as a base for soups and stews.

Like fish, chicken is also popular meat for frying. Chicken fingers, nuggets, and patties are often cooked with oils, butter, and breading—especially in fast food restaurants. Look for dishes with baked or grilled chicken. You may even be able to get some cuts, like chicken breast, without the skin.

Beef

Red meat might seem like food to avoid if you’re trying to keep your saturated fat low, but the trick is knowing how all the different options stack up nutritionally. The various cuts of meat available can be confusing (especially since the labeling and naming conventions aren’t standardized).

It's also important to remember (whether you're preparing a meal at home or dining out) to keep an eye on your portions. As a general guideline for meat, a single serving is about 3 ounces.

Don't worry if you can't weigh your portion out exactly; a 3-ounce serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.

This list of cuts isn’t exhaustive, but it includes some of the most popular options you’ll come across in the grocery store or a restaurant menu.

Ground

Short loin

  • T-Bone steak
  • Porterhouse steak
  • Filet mignon
  • Fillet steak
  • Strip steak
  • Tenderloin roast and steak

Sirloin

Round

  • Rump roast
  • Minute steak
  • Round steak
  • Bottom, top, and eye of the round

Other beef cuts

  • Flank steak
  • London broil

You can ask for lean cuts of meat when you're at the grocery store or butcher. Lean cuts of meat have less fat and are, therefore, lower in cholesterol.

Even if you start out with a cut of beef that isn't lean, you can easily trim away the excess fat and allow it to drain before cooking to reduce its fat content. If you're dining out, you may not be able to specify a leaner cut of meat, but you can certainly cut away the fat yourself.

The USDA defines a lean cut of meat as having 10 grams of fat or less per 3.5 ounces. Extra-lean cuts can have as little as 5 grams of fat per 3.5 ounces.

When choosing a cooking method, remember that options like frying require added fat like butter and oil, whereas baking, broiling, and roasting do not. Similarly, any sauces, basting, or seasoning you add to the meat will change its nutrition, adding not only carbs, fat, and calories, but salt and sugar as well.

Pork

If you’re not a fan of chicken and fish or you just find yourself getting tired of it, pork can be another low-fat option. Pork is also a great source of lean protein. When you're making a purchase, look or ask for leaner cuts such as "round" or "loin."

While the overall saturated fat content varies, you can also control it somewhat depending on how you cook pork. Some of the lowest-fat preparations of pork include:

  • Boiled ham
  • Loin and tenderloin cutlets
  • Lean, well-trimmed pork chops

If you want to keep your saturated fat intake low, it’s best to avoid processed pork products which are high in saturated and trans fat, as well as salt and additives.
That being said, an occasional piece of Canadian or crisp-cooked, well-drained bacon won’t completely disrupt your low-fat diet efforts.

Keeping portion sizes in mind, if you're having a meal out, consider packing up half your meal to take home—as what you are served is likely to be more than a single serving. For example, an extra serving of bacon from breakfast can be tossed in a salad later.

Lamb

If you like lamb, the best choice is a well-trimmed leg of lamb. One 3-ounce serving of lamb has about 4.5 grams of saturated fat. Lamb is also a rich source of lean protein as well as several important vitamins and minerals.

Like most meat, lamb can be used as the center of a meal or added to a dish, especially stew. One of the main attributes of lamb is that it pairs well with a variety of interesting flavors such as mint, citrus, garlic—even coffee and vanilla.

While lamb chops are the most popular preparation, they tend to be higher in fat. You don’t need to completely forego the cut—just save it for an occasional treat.

Veal

Deer meat, or veal, is another versatile protein source. With most cuts having 1 to 2 grams of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving, it’s also one of the most low-fat options. Veal can be broiled, roasted, or grilled similar to chicken and steak, but it’s texture also holds up surprisingly well in stews.

  • Chop
  • Rib roast
  • Leg cutlet
  • Top round

While veal is lean and tender meat to cook with, you will want to keep at least a thin layer of fat to help it retain its moisture. It's generally easy to prepare and lends itself to many flavors and dishes, but compared to other meats can be easy to overcook.

Cook veal to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (medium) to avoid drying the meat out. Plus, keeping a thin layer of fat will help preserve its juiciness.

Lunch Meats

Look for options that are low in fat, sugar-free, and aren’t filled with additives or preservatives like sodium nitrate. In fact, many brands have taken their most popular products and specifically crafted versions of low-sodium deli meats

Low-fat deli meats are a good source of protein. White meats, like roasted turkey or chicken breast, often have little to no saturated fat. Other choices include:

  • Uncured, slow-cooked, and black forest ham
  • Smoked turkey breast or ham
  • Organic roast beef

Other Protein Sources

If you’d prefer to avoid meat, there are several non-meat options for protein:

If you’re looking for meat substitutes that look and feel a little more like animal meat, there are many packaged varieties you can try. Look for those that are low-fat and low-sodium. Keep in mind that many “meatless meat” options are soy-based, so if you’re trying to avoid soy you may want to choose other protein sources.

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