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The Great American Protein Switch


Submitted by Megan Morris

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Chicken or beef? These days, Americans are choosing chicken more and more often.1 From 2014 to 2015 beef consumption fell about 0.3 pounds per person per year while chicken consumption rose about 5.8 pounds.1 What does this “protein switch” mean for the health of Americans?

Chicken and other poultry products can be up to ten grams lower in saturated fat than their red meat alternatives (pork, beef, lamb, veal, and mutton).2,3,4 Saturated fat raises the amount of cholesterol in blood, increasing the risk of developing heart disease.5 Therefore, eating less red meat can be protective against heart disease. Cutting back on high fat proteins has also been shown to protect against obesity and certain types of cancer, such as colorectal cancer.2

This does not mean that you need to avoid red meat all together. Simply choose lean options as often as possible and eat smaller portions. Red meats that are considered lean and, therefore, have less saturated fat are labeled as choice, select, sirloin, roast, round, loin, or steak.6,7 A one-pound package of extra-lean or lean ground meat can make about four hamburgers and each will have approximately five to ten grams of fat.Most burgers are larger than this and consequently have higher amounts of saturated fat. A serving of meat, which is about three to four ounces, is equivalent to a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.

Another way to increase lean protein variety is by including vegetarian and fish sources of protein. Beans and legumes are excellent sources of protein. They are low in sodium and fat, and high in protein and fiber. Fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be heart protective.8 Research recommends eating eight ounces of fish a week, or about two servings.9 Nuts and seeds contain protein and monounsaturated fats, another type of fat that is beneficial for heart health.10 The DASH diet recommends eating four to five servings, about 1/3 cup each, per week.11 Variety also ensures that you get the essential nutrients that your body needs in order to stay healthy.9

Americans have been choosing leaner proteins and reaping the benefits of diets lower in saturated fat. However, red meat certainly has not disappeared from dinner plates, nor does it have to. Choose lean options when possible and aim for a variety of proteins throughout the week for added health benefits.


  1. Interagency Agricultural Projections Committee. USDA agricultural projections to 2025. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/projections/USDA_Agricultural_Projections_to_2025.pdf. Published February 2016. Accessed November 2016.
  2. Daniel CR, Cross AJ, Koebnick C, Sinha R. Trends in meat consumption in the United States. Public Health Nutr. 2011;14(4):575-583.
  3. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service: National nutrient database for standard reference release 28: Basic report: 05011, chicken, broilers or fryers, meat only, raw. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/834?manu=&fgcd=&ds=. Accessed December 2016.
  4. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service: National nutrient database for standard reference release 28: Basic report: 13330, beef, variety meats and by-products, mechanically separated beef, raw. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3792?fgcd=&manu=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=50&offset=&sort=default&order=asc&qlookup=beef&ds=. Accessed December 2016.
  5. American Heart Association. Saturated Fats. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Saturated-Fats_UCM_301110_Article.jsp#.V-M3TNyksWU. Updated September 12, 2016. Accessed September 2016.
  6. Mayo Clinic. Healthy lifestyle: Nutrition and healthy eating. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/cuts-of-beef/art-20043833. Accessed October 2016.
  7. American Heart Association. Eat more chicken, fish and beans. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Eat-More-Chicken-Fish-and-Beans_UCM_320278_Article.jsp#.V-M3ptyksWU. Updated December 2, 2014. Accessed September 2016.
  8. The Nutrition Source. Omega-3 fatty acids: An essential contribution. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/. Accessed October 2016.
  9. United States Department of Health and Human Services, United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines: 2015-2020. United States Department of Health and Human Services, United States Department of Agriculture. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/acknowledgments/. Accessed September 2016.
  10. American Heart Association. Monounsaturated fats. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Monounsaturated-Fats_UCM_301460_Article.jsp#.V_Q5ZpMrKRs. Updated September 16, 2016. Accessed October 2016.
  11. Mayo Clinic. DASH diet: Healthy eating to lower your blood pressure. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/dash-diet/art-20048456. Published April 8,2016. Accessed December 2016.
  12. Liebman, B. The changing American diet. Nutrition in Action. September, 2013:10-11. Print.
  13. Picture source: unsplash.com

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