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Manuel's Top Five: Choosing Healthy Lean Meats (Other Than Chicken)

By L.K. Regan

Last week, our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, gave us a list of his top five super-foods, functional foods with health benefits beyond just nutrition. This week, Manuel is shifting gears to take us shopping again—this time at the butcher's. If you are tired of chicken breasts, we've got some very good news for you: there are lots of other healthy meat options.

Villacorta is going to explain a way of categorizing meats so that you'll know exactly what you're eating. Then, he'll give his top five specific cuts of meat for anyone who wants to eat lean but still have meat in his diet. But vegetarians, you have not been forgotten! Next week, Manuel will give his top five vegetarian options for protein. If you are bypassing the butcher, we invite you to return next week for vegetarian suggestions.

For the purposes of today's discussion, Villacorta says, "I'm not going to go over questions of organic or grass-fed, etc. For today, we're focusing on fat contents and cuts." Why put a focus there? Because there are a lot of misconceptions about which meats are healthy to eat. Ultimately, fat amounts will vary according to type and cut—not source. In other words, Villacorta says, "Organic, grass-fed, or any of the other options—the fat amount does not vary. What changes is the profile of the fats. So, grass-fed beef's fat may have more omega-3s, but the amount of fat does not change." Today, we are talking about the sheer amount of fat in various types of meat. And, with that in mind, Villacorta has a way of putting meats into four categories.

Four Categories
These categories are based on fat content. "An ounce of meat, regardless of type, has seven grams of protein," Villacorta says. "What varies is the amount of fat, so that's what you want to get a handle on." If you buy your meat packaged, it will come labeled with fat and calorie content. When you read those labels, Villacorta warns to be careful of serving sizes. "Most of us eat four to six ounces at a sitting; a chicken breast is normally six ounces, for instance," Villacorta points out. But packages may give information for a different serving size. Ultimately, what you want to know is the number of grams of fat per ounce, so that you can calculate the total fat in the serving you will actually eat. So, divide the number of grams of fat per serving by the number of ounces in a serving to get the fat grams per ounce.

Then, put that information into the following set of categories, and you will know what kind of meat you are buying. Of these four categories, Villacorta advises doing the bulk of your eating in the first two, with extreme moderation in the last two categories.

  1. Extra-Lean or Very Lean Meats: These are meats with four percent or less of fat. That translates to zero to one gram of fat per ounce of meat. Of course, this will include the ubiquitous skinless chicken or turkey breast, as well as white fishes (sea bass or tuna, for instance), egg whites, and even fat-free cheeses. Why cheeses? "In my eating plans, cheeses are a meat," Villacorta says, "because they don't have carbs and, just like with meat, an ounce of cheese has about seven grams of protein." Look below, however, for some creative suggestions of other very lean meats that may surprise you.

  2. Lean Meats: These meats are seven to 10 percent fat. That means they have between one and three grams of fat per ounce. You may see them labeled as 90 to 93 percent fat-free. This category includes most steaks (filet mignon, New York strip steak), as well as dark meat poultry (without skin), and fatty fishes (mackeral, salmon).

  3. Medium Fat Meats: Here you're looking at between 10 and 15 percent fat, which is roughly five grams of fat per ounce. This includes most ground beefs, rib-eye steaks, whole eggs, and some cheeses (mozzarella, for instance). This kind of thing adds up quickly. If you think that a hamburger is about five ounces of ground beef, and there are five grams of fat per ounce, one burger can load you up with 25 grams of fat. That's no joke.

  4. High Fat Meats: This will be any meat with anything above 15 percent fat, meaning eight or more grams of fat per ounce. This is all the luxury foods: bacon, sausage, most cheeses, and spare-ribs.

Five Great Choices
Now, armed with these categories and some basic math skills for calculating the number of fat grams per ounce, you can tell which meats are indulgent and which are solid nutritional choices. Remember, meat will always be seven grams of protein—by choosing a lean meat, all you're losing is the fat, not the protein. But there are some surprising revelations when you approach your meats with this mathematical perspective. Here are Maneul's top five meat choices that go beyond the chicken breast:
  1. Ground beef: Ground beef can be extremely fatty—but it doesn't have to be, if you take control of what beef is ground. Sirloin steaks are a lean meat, with three to four percent fat. Grind them and they make great hamburgers. "I go to the butcher and ask for a pound of sirloin," Villacorta says, "and I have them grind it for me. Now I have a very high-quality meat that is low in fat and has no surprises. I use it in bolognese sauce for pasta, meatloaf, meatballs, lasagna, burgers—any delicious beef recipe." For Villacorta, there is no need to cut out beef completely, as long as the beef is lean. "This kind of lean beef is so low in fat in general that it is low in saturated fat. It eliminates most of the problems of red meat through being so lean." Beef's back on the menu!

  2. Pork: It's not just the other white meat. Two cuts of pork in particular are very lean, and seriously delicious. A regular pork chop is a medium fat meat—but a loin chop is quite lean, and makes a nice change from chicken breast (remember to grill or broil rather than fry). The tenderloin is another ultra-lean cut of pork, that you can cut into pieces to cook, or cook as a whole and then slice. Pork tenderloins are delicious treated with a spice rub and grilled or broiled—no need for fatty sauces.

  3. Fish: There are trade-offs in any diet, and one trade Villacorta is happy to make is a bit of fat for a substantial health benefit in other ways. Enter salmon, which, despite being an oily fish and therefore a lean (rather than very lean) meat, has so many omega-3s that Villacorta thinks it's more than worth it. Four to six ounces of salmon a couple of times a week won't overload your fat intake, and the omega-3s will protect your cells from damage.

  4. Chicken sausages: Remember when we said sausages were a high fat meat? Well, there is an exception to this rule—chicken sausages. "Per link, chicken sausages have six grams of fat," Villacorta says, "and a link is two ounces, so that's three grams per ounce. As long as you only eat one link, that's completely fine. Use a sausage as an enhancing flavor for pasta sauces, put it in an egg white omelette, or add it to beans for good flavor."

  5. Cheese: It may come as a surprise, but Villacorta is a big fan of cheese. "When people come to my office and I say you can have cheese, they are always astonished," he says. "But you have to go out and find good cheeses. Babybel Light cheeses, or the sliced Jarlsberg Light (which melts beautifully, by the way), or light cream cheese. Any of these are great choices in moderation." Mmmmm... cheese!
Overall, we hope the message is clear: as long as you know how much fat you're really getting in your meats, there are many delicious options beyond the basic chicken breast. Time to talk to the butcher.