Health Benefits of Meat, Poultry, and Fish

Foods in the meat, poultry and fish group are diverse, but they have something important in common -- protein. The amount and quality of the protein in these foods varies. Animal foods contain high-quality, or complete, protein, which means they supply all the amino acids your body needs to build the protein used to support body functions.

Besides protein, foods from this group supply varying amounts of other key nutrients, including iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin E, and B vitamins (thiamin, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12). On the downside, some of the foods in this group contain higher amounts of fat, saturated fat, and some cholesterol.

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In this article, we will explore the benefits of eating meat, poultry, and fish as part of leading a healthier lifestyle. Eating healthy makes your body stronger and can be part of an alternative treatment against various illnesses. Let's get started by reviewing how much is enough for one serving.

 

Benefits of Red Meat

Could it be that red meat -- wonderful, juicy, stick-to-your-ribs red meat -- might actually have healing properties, other than the obvious way it makes your taste buds come alive? Why yes, yes it could. But you must honor the word "lean" in front.

You may need to cast meat as a bit player rather than the main character in your meals (sorry, but that means no more eating an entire 16-ounce steak in one sitting). Lean red meat, including beef, veal, and pork (sometimes referred to as "the other white meat"), can indeed be part of a healthful diet. They contribute nutrients that may help you maintain good health and prevent or even fight disease.

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Beef, veal, and pork are packed with high-quality protein. They are also a nutrient-dense source of iron and zinc, minerals that many Americans have trouble getting. While it is possible to get enough iron or zinc without eating meat, it's not easy. Eating lean meat is also a dandy way to get vitamin B12, niacin, and vitamin B6. So, including some lean meat in your diet can be nutritionally uplifting.

Pork or lamb: Look for cuts with "loin" or "leg" in the name. Pork cuts include tenderloin, top loin roast, top loin chop, center loin chop, sirloin roast, and loin rib chop. Lamb cuts include leg, loin chop, arm chop, and foreshanks.You can also look for cuts labeled "lean" or "extra lean." According to federal labeling regulations, cuts of meat labeled "lean" must contain ten grams of fat or less per three-ounce serving, and cuts labeled "extra lean" must contain five grams of fat or less per three-ounce serving. Don't be confused by ground beef labeled with a number followed by "percent lean." This refers to the weight of the lean meat versus the fat.

For the leanest ground beef, simply look for ground beef that is at least 92 to 95 percent lean -- it contains about five grams of total fat per three-ounce serving. Or look for ground round, which is the leanest, followed by ground sirloin, ground chuck, then regular ground beef.

When it comes to portions, forget the 14-ounce steak. To put a reasonable portion in perspective, three ounces of meat is about the size of your palm or a deck of playing cards. If you choose to eat all of your meat group servings at one meal, you can enjoy a steak that weighs about five to seven ounces or is about the size of two decks of cards. Or you can include a smaller portion of meat as a side dish and load up on vegetables and grains instead.

No matter the cut, choose raw meat that looks evenly red (grayish-pink for veal and pork) and not dried out. Refrigerate all meat as soon as you get it home. Place it on a plate so drippings won't contaminate other foods. If you don't plan to cook the meat within three to four days (one to two days for ground meat), freeze it.

Preparation and Serving Tips

Defrost meat in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or sitting in cold water that you change every hour.

Never let it sit out at room temperature, which invites bacteria to multiply.

Choose your cooking method to match your cut of meat. Some lean cuts, such as beef cuts from the round, do better with a method that includes a liquid, such as braising or stewing. Grilling, roasting, broiling, and pan-frying work well for beef loin cuts. To minimize risk of food borne illness, be sure ground meat is cooked until the internal temperature is 160 degrees Fahrenheit -- or until the center is no longer pink and juices run clear. Roasts and steaks should be cooked until the internal temperature is at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Pork needs to cook to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trim all visible fat from meat before cooking. If you cannot buy ground meat as lean as you like, you can reduce the fat by placing cooked ground meat in a colander and pouring hot water over it. To tenderize tough lean cuts, try marinating, which also adds flavor, or do it the old-fashioned way and pound your meat with a mallet to break down the connective tissue.

Another major source of protein is chicken. In the next section, let's focus on the different benefits of consuming chicken and other poultry products as part of a healthy daily diet.

Benefits of Poultry

Chicken and turkey are often considered healthy, low-fat alternatives to beef, but that's not always true. A piece of dark meat, such as a chicken thigh, with the skin on can carry a hefty fat load. You have to make the right poultry choices to really save on fat. Your best bet? Skinless white-meat chicken or turkey. It's lowest in fat and calories. Removing the skin before eating poultry saves fat and calories. But you quickly lose your low-fat advantage if you deep-fry it, smother it in fatty sauces or gravies, or cover it with cheese.

If you're trying to cut back on fat, skinless white-meat poultry offers a great low-fat protein option.

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You should be aware, however, that chicken and turkey contain about the same amount of cholesterol per serving as beef. Poultry is a generous source of some B vitamins that aren't as plentiful in beef, but it is only a fair source of iron.

Ground turkey is also available, but often it's higher in fat than you might think because it may also contain ground turkey skin. For a truly low-fat ground turkey, look for "ground turkey breast."

Selection and Storage

When choosing a whole chicken or turkey, look for one that is plump and firm with skin that looks moist and supple. The skin should have a creamy white or yellowish color (color varies depending on what the bird was fed), and it should have no odor.

Poultry is a highly perishable food that presents a standing invitation to bacteria if it's not stored properly. If you buy a fresh, whole chicken or turkey, be sure to store it right away in the coldest part of your refrigerator and use it within two to three days. If you don't plan to use it within that time, wash it, dry it, cut it into parts, wrap it, and freeze it. It will keep for up to nine months. If you freeze it whole, it will keep for one year.

Never let poultry thaw at room temperature. Thaw it in the refrigerator, and set it on a plate to catch drippings. It will take anywhere from one to two days to thaw a small 8 to 12-pound turkey, four to five days for a 20-pounder.

Preparation and Storage Tips

When you handle raw poultry, wash your hands thoroughly afterward with soap and warm water before you touch any other food or utensil. Also be sure to thoroughly wash the cutting board and utensils used during preparation. Skip this important food-safety step and you're risking cross contamination -- transferring bacteria like salmonella from raw poultry to other foods served at the meal. Cooking kills salmonella bacteria, but if the bug is transferred to a raw salad, for example, food poisoning can result.

If you marinate chicken or turkey, do it in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter at room temperature. And don't use the marinade as a sauce for the cooked bird unless you boil the marinade before serving.

Though fried chicken is an American favorite, especially the fast-food variety, it's also loaded with fat. Opt for lower-fat methods of preparation. Roasting is a good fat-saving cooking technique for whole chickens and turkeys. Skinless chicken or turkey breasts are perfect for marinating in low-fat sauces or, when cut up and mixed with vegetables, for stir-frying. Chicken or turkey breasts also work well on the grill. If you want to add a sauce, wait until the poultry is almost done. Spread it on any sooner and it could scorch and burn before the breast is cooked all the way through.

No matter how you prepare chicken or turkey, be sure it's cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit for whole birds and dark meat and to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for boneless roasts and breast meat -- the meat should be white, not pink, and the juices should run clear.

Standard advice has long been to remove the skin of chicken or turkey before you cook it to save fat and calories. But it turns out that fat and calories are about the same whether the skin is removed before or after cooking. Since skinless poultry tends to dry out during cooking, keep the skin on while cooking to hold in moisture and flavor. Just remember to remove the skin and any fat left behind before eating.

If you are looking for more variety in your diet, fish also offers another source of protein and possesses disease-fighting potential if it is prepared properly. In the next section we will review the benefits of including fish as part of your healthful daily diet.

Benefits of Fish

Fish makes a fabulous addition to any healthy diet. Its fat content is generally low (many types provide 20 percent or less of calories from fat), making it a great protein option. And the fat it does contain appears to hold promise of preventing and healing disease.

Eating fish instead of meat or poultry usually means less total fat, but it almost always means less saturated fat (as long as you're not ordering a deep-fried fillet and smothering it with tartar sauce).

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And that's important when it comes to the health of your heart and blood vessels. Ironically, though, fatty fish are better for you than lean fish, because they contain more omega-3 fatty acids.

Two omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), do a ton of good for your heart. EPA reduces the stickiness of blood platelets, preventing blood clots that can lead to heart attack and stroke. They also reduce triglyceride levels (see Heart Disease and Stroke for a discussion of the importance of triglycerides). DHA helps prevent irregular heartbeats by stabilizing electrical activity in the heart.

One study has linked omega-3s with less risk of sudden cardiac death. Another found that older people who eat just one serving of fatty fish a week are 44 percent less likely to die from a heart attack. And more recent research has confirmed the benefits of eating fish for both men and women.

The Physician's Health Study of 22,000 men, for example, found that those with the highest blood levels of omega-3s had the least risk of sudden death. And the Nurses' Health Study of 85,000 women found two to four servings a week reduced heart-disease risk by one-third. Even those who ate fish as little as one to three times a month showed benefits. As a result of much of this research, the American Heart Association now recommends two weekly servings of fish. (Supplements of fish oils, on the other hand, are not generally recommended by medical experts because higher doses -- which are possible with supplements but improbable through consumption of fish -- may cause bleeding problems.)

Omega-3s have also shown promise in easing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Again, adding fish to the menu just two to three times a week has been suggested as a sound starting point.

You don't have to buy fresh to get the health benefits that omega-3 fatty acids offer. Canned fish, including tuna, sardines, and salmon, offer the same omega-3s as fresh varieties.

Selection and Storage

Fish doesn't stay fresh long. If handled properly, fatty fish, such as bluefish, tuna, salmon, mackerel, or herring, lasts only about a week after leaving the water; lean fish, such as cod, haddock, or perch, lasts about ten days. To be sure the fish you buy is fresh, check for a "fishy" smell. If you detect one, don't buy it. Whether you buy whole fish, fish fillets, or steaks, the fish should be firm, not soft, to the touch. The scales should be shiny and clean, not slimy. Check the eyes; they should be clear, not cloudy, and should be bulging, not sunken. Fish fillets and steaks should be moist; steer clear if they look dried or curled around the edges.

It's best to cook fresh fish the same day you buy it. (Fish generally spoils faster than beef or chicken, and whole fish generally keeps better than steaks or fillets.) But it will keep in the refrigerator overnight if you place it in a plastic bag over a bowl of ice. If you need to keep it longer, freeze it. The quality of the fish is better retained if the fish is frozen quickly, so it's best to freeze fish whole only if it weighs two pounds or less. Larger fish should be cut into pieces, steaks, or fillets. Lean fish will keep in the freezer for up to six months; fatty fish, only about three months.

Preparation and Storage Fish

Preparing fish without adding lots of fat is simple. The key to keeping fish moist and flavorful lies in taking advantage of fish's natural fat and juices. The number one rule: Preserve moistness. In practical terms, that means avoiding direct heat, especially when preparing lean fish. You'll get the best results with lean fish, such as flounder, monkfish, pike, and red snapper, if you use moist-heat methods, including poaching, steaming, or baking with vegetables or a sauce that holds moisture in.

Dry-heat methods, such as baking, broiling, and grilling, work well for fattier fish.

Fish cooks fast. That means that it can overcook quickly. You can tell fish is done when it looks opaque and the flesh just begins to flake with the touch of a fork. The general rule of thumb for cooking fish is to cook ten minutes per inch of thickness, measured at the fish's thickest point.

Marinades do wonders for fish. But as with poultry, keep safety in mind. Never marinate at room temperature; only in the refrigerator. And never use the marinade as a sauce for prepared fish unless you boil the marinade first.

Meat, poultry, and fish can all be excellent sources of protein. With the right selection, preparation, and storage, these three items can form the backbone of any healthy diet and give your body more disease-fighting potential.

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