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Your body can store any food as fat, but it can only make protein from other proteins--and every cell in your body needs proteins. Your body needs protein to make enzymes, hormones, and tissues; use vitamins and minerals; and keep the immune system strong. When it doesn't get the proteins it needs from food, your body uses its own protein, even if that means destroying muscle to get it. So, to be energetic and healthy and youthful, you should eat protein every day. Ideally, lean protein should fill one-third of your plate at lunch and dinner.

For some people, doing this is easy and natural; others need to make an effort to get enough protein, or to get the right kind of protein. The foods listed here are all excellent sources of high-quality protein, but the first choice selections are slightly lower in saturated fat.

Note: Beans are a low-fat source of protein, but they are not a complete protein, and they contain carbohydrates, too. If you are counting exchanges, an exchange of beans counts as one protein and one grain exchange. Beans are listed with Grains.

Try to have some of the first choice selections at each meal and even at each snack. Protein helps keep the sugar in your blood at a steady level: for the reasons, see How what we eat affects blood sugar.

First choice proteins

These proteins--fish, white meat, soy, game meats--are the best for your heart. Each first choice protein exchange contains about:

  • 1-5 grams of fat
  • 30-55 calories

1 whole egg

2 egg whites

1/4 cup egg substitute

1 ounce cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, trout, salmon, herring, bluefish, catfish, tuna (fresh or canned), squid

2 medium sardines

1 ounce ostrich, venison, buffalo


1 ounce chicken, turkey, or Cornish hen (white meat without skin)

6 medium oysters

5 small scallops

3 medium mussels

7 medium shrimp

1 ounce crab, lobster, clams

1/2 cup (4 ounces) tofu

7 grams protein from imitation meat items such as Gardenburger®, Morningstar Farms®, or Boca®

Second choice proteins

These proteins--red meats and fattier poultry--are slightly higher in saturated fat and not as healthy for your heart. Each second choice protein exchange contains about:

  • 3-5 grams of fat
  • 50-70 calories


1 ounce of USDA Select or Choice grades of lean beef trimmed of fat, such as flank, filet, round, and sirloin; tenderloin; chipped beef; roast (rib, chuck, rump); and steak (T-bone, porterhouse, cubed)

Note: Most beef products are too high in saturated fats to qualify even as second choices, so they are listed in with Level 4: the foods to be approached with extreme caution!

1 ounce roast, chop, leg

1 ounce liver, kidneys, sweetbreads

1 hot dog with 5 grams of fat per ounce

1 ounce rabbit


1 ounce lean pork, such as canned, cured, or boiled ham; Canadian bacon; tenderloin or loin chop

1 ounce chicken or turkey (leg or thigh without skin)

1 ounce chicken or turkey breast (white meat) with skin

1 ounce duck, without skin

1 ounce goose, without skin

1 ounce lean chop or roast

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