Meat offers consumers a good source of complete protein, heme iron, and a wide variety of essential nutrients. But not all meat is created equal. Some meats are higher in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol — and when consumed regularly, are unhealthy for all us and, in particular, can make diabetes much harder to manage. The type of meat, the cut, the way it was raised, and the processing method all impact the nutritional value — or health consequences — of your protein selection. Sticking to quality, unprocessed, lean cuts of meat the majority of the time is the best way to enjoy animal protein without serious health risks. So, what is the healthiest meat to eat?
What is meat made of?
All meats are made of muscle, fat, and connective tissue. The muscle-to-fat proportion, the amount of connective tissue, and the type of the muscle determine the texture and flavor of meat and its best culinary purpose.
Each fat cell on meat contains a droplet of oil that bursts when it’s heated, dissolving flavor molecules into the dish. Tender cuts need minimal cooking to retain moisture and marbled cuts can be cooked over longer periods of time.
The connective tissues connect the muscle to the bone, and these break down during cooking at temperatures above 126℉. Longer, slower cooking transforms connective tissues into velvety and rich gravy.
Meat color is a good indication of the type of muscle and how it should be cooked. Color is related to levels of myoglobin: a red-colored, oxygen-supplying protein present in muscles. (The red liquid pooling at the bottom of a meat package is myoglobin, not blood.) The more myoglobin present, the darker and redder the meat. Darker meat is more flavorful, with more fat, iron, and flavor enzymes. White meat, on the other hand, is leaner, usually higher in protein and lower in fat (and therefore in calories). To benefit from a variety of nutrients, eating both white and dark meat is a good option.
The Healthiest White and Dark Meats
Chicken is relatively low in fat and high in protein. A skinless, boneless chicken breast is one of only two land animal meat cuts considered, by the National Institute of Health, to be a “very lean” source of protein. Chicken is a great source of iron, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins.
- Healthiest cut of chicken: Boneless, skinless breasts are the lowest in fat and highest in protein. Dark meat offers its own set of nutrients, but this higher-fat meat should be consumed in moderation. See our article on the healthiest way to cook chicken.
Turkey is a very lean, low-fat, high-protein food. Like chicken, the breast and wings of a turkey are considered the white meat, while the thighs and legs are the darker meat. Turkey is an excellent source of iron, selenium, choline, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12. It’s best to consume turkey breast or lean ground turkey — instead of deli-style, which can contain a lot of added and unnecessary sodium. Turkey contains a significant amount of connective tissue, especially the dark meat, which means it becomes soft and perfect for stewing.
- Healthiest cut of turkey: Fresh turkey breast or legs without the skin.
In general, red meats tend to have more saturated fat than white meats. Choosing lean cuts or low-fat portions of red meat can provide you with nutrients that white meat doesn’t contain, although it’s recommended that red meat be consumed in moderation.
Venison is now more widely offered in grocery stores (usually in the frozen section) and is the leanest red meat easily accessible, making it a good choice for the healthiest meat option. Venison, from elk or deer, contain more muscle and connective tissue than fat (because the animals travel such long distances). Deer and elk mostly consume a diet of bushes and grass and almost never eat any type of grain. The meat is mild in flavor, but rich in nutrients — including riboflavin, zinc, phosphorus, thiamine, iron, B12, and healthy polyunsaturated fats. The differences in the health consequences of the various cuts of meat, e.g., ground or steak, are not significant, as the animal is very lean all around.
- Healthiest venison cuts: Most cuts are lean and healthy. The foreleg and the shoulder are both low-fat, high-protein cuts, but need to be stewed or slow-cooked in order to break down. Ground or steak cuts are excellent choices.
Beef — starting with sirloins, flanks or filets — can be healthy for you in moderation as long as the cuts you choose are low in saturated fat. A cow offers large endurance muscles that result in rich, dark meat that is good for almost any style of cooking. Beef is high in iron, zinc, niacin, choline and B12 and it’s a complete protein — meaning it contains all the essential amino acids required for building proteins. The marbled look fat provides meat indicates higher amounts of saturated fats. If you choose a higher fat cut, trim the fat after cooking and before serving.
- Healthiest beef cuts: Look for “USDA Select” or “Choice” (not “Prime”) with trimmed fat, including rounds, sirloins or tenderloins, flank steaks, a roast (such as rib, chuck, or rump), or ground versions of anything on this list.
Pork is actually a red meat, despite its nickname (“the other white meat”). Pork can be healthy in moderation, but it has the lowest protein and highest fat proportions compared to other meats listed. Pork offers vitamins and minerals such as thiamine, niacin, iron, zinc, selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins (similar to turkey). It’s also rich in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that is easily used by the body. There are some lean cuts of pork that represent great sources of these nutrients, such as tenderloin.
- Healthiest pork cuts: Fresh ham (this shouldn’t have the same additives and preservatives as the deli version), cured or canned ham, loin (such as tenderloin, centerloin) and Canadian bacon.
The quality and taste of meat:
Farming and processing methods
How meat is raised and processed affects both the nutritional composition and quality, and therefore what is the healthiest meat to eat. Here are some of the most common labeling differentiators that can help you find the highest quality meat.
- Grass-fed meat comes from animals that graze on grass and forage for their feed. Most beef cattle start out grazing on grass and are then grain-finished, which is a common practice of most feedlots. Grass-finished is another term that indicates an animal grazed on grassland its entire lifetime. Grass-fed meat is usually lower in fat and contains more omega-3s than grain-fed or grain-finished beef, although the nutritional differences are not hugely significant. However, grass-fed meat can have a bitter taste — and often, cuts of meat lack the consistency that grain-fed meat provides (because cows are not all fed the same diet). Grain-fed meat contains lactones, which are pleasant-tasting substances, and these meats often contain more marbling and are therefore more fatty in flavor than the grass-fed counterpart.
- Organic meat means the animal has been fed 100% organic feed and has been raised with access to pastureland. Meat that has been certified organic also comes from animals who have not been administered hormones or antibiotics. Research suggests that organic products may be slightly more nutritionally dense than nonorganic products. Organic meat products also are more likely to have been slaughtered in a humane and stress-free environment, which produces better quality meat. (Stress causes adrenaline levels to rise, creating dry, firm, and dark meat.)
- Processed meats go through a wide variety of processing methods, such as smoking, curing, or reconfiguring into a new product. Processed meats include deli meats, hot dogs, bacon, and sausages. Processed red meats, inclucing bacon and sausage, have been linked to an increase in certain types of cancers and heart disease.
- Unprocessed meat is minimally processed and includes fresh cuts and ground meats.
Quick tips on buying the healthiest meat to eat
- Choose lean cuts. The less visible fat, the healthier it will be. Lean meats typically have the words “loin” or “round” on the package. If you’re buying ground meat, choose the extra-lean, 5% or 10% fat option.
- “Lean” is defined as a cut that has less than 3g of total fat per ounce and 55 calories or less per ounce.
- Choose unprocessed meats and season them yourself. Deli meat, bacon, and sausages are usually packed with sodium and preservatives.
- Choose meats that have the American Heart Association heart-check mark on the label. This indicates that this is a good choice for a healthy eating pattern.
So, what is the healthiest meat to eat? When it comes to choosing the healthiest meat option, be sure you get the most nutrients and benefits from your meal by selecting unprocessed, lean cuts and consuming white meat most of the time. Eating fattier or less nutrient-dense cuts once in a while won’t hurt if it’s a rarity in your normal eating pattern. Knowing how to navigate food labels and choosing meat that was raised humanely (and with a healthy diet) also ensures that you get high-quality meat. Being intentional and eating a variety of foods in moderation is the key.