Meats can be an excellent source of protein, along with iron and many B-vitamins (like riboflavin and thiamin.) Pork, chicken, and beef are great assets to daily nutrition.

So where do most people go wrong? You guessed it. Portions!

How much protein do we actually need?

An adult’s minimum protein need is 0.37 gm protein per pound of body weight (a 150 lb person would need 55 gm protein/day). If we are trying to build our muscle mass, we need about of 0.55 per pound of body weight (a 150 lb person would need 83 gm protein per day). It is thought that elderly people probably need this higher amount of protein. (A person who is overweight should use an “adjusted body weight” to determine his protein needs–consult with a Registered Dietitian to determine your specific protein needs).

Our bodies can use up to a maximum 30g of protein to make muscle at any one time. That’s approximately 4 oz of cooked meat–chicken, pork, beef, or fish, and it does not need to all come from meat (see below for foods with equivalent amounts of protein to 1 ounce of meat). We need to divide our protein intake between at least 3 meals per day.

Foods with protein equivalent to 1 ounce of meat

  • 1 ounce hard or semi-hard cheese (e.g. cheddar, jack, swiss, colby)
  • 1 extra large egg
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup cottage cheese
  • 3 ounces Tofu
  • 1/2 cup cooked dried beans or lentils
  • 1/4 cup almonds
  • 2 tablespoons almond or peanut butter

Buying and preparing meat: What to know before you shop

Buying and preparing your own meat will help keep portions under control (and save you money.) Trying to figure out how many ounces of meat you are consuming during a restaurant meal can be a difficult task.  The weight of meat given on the restaurant menu is the raw weight of the meat; depending on the fat content of the meat, it is going to shrink 25-35% with cooking. Thus, a quarter pound (4oz) burger actually ends up being 2.6 to 3 ounces after it is cooked and that 1/2 lb or 8 ounce steak or burger ends up being 5.2 to 6 ounces of cooked meat.

A 1/3 pound burger is a good final portion for a person with higher protein needs; it will end up being 3.4 to 4 ounces cooked meat or 24 to 28 gm protein, add a 3/4 ounce slice of cheese and you get an additional 5.25 gm protein–you can easily end up with more protein than you thought you were getting, AND that means you are likely getting more calories than you thought you were.

At the store, check the weight on the label–a single chicken breast, for example, can be two or three times the size of a recommended serving. A chicken and veggie stir fry recipe for 2-3 people may only need a single breast. Another great way to stretch your purchases while getting the recommended amounts of protein? Pair your meat with some beans like lentils and keep your portions down to 2 oz.

The deal with red meat? Moderation is key

You’ve probably heard conflicting reports about the health benefits of red meats like beef, lamb and pork. Yes, studies have shown that people who eat red meat on a daily basis have a higher incidence of cardiovascular or heart disease than those who eat poultry and fish and little to no red meat. Possible causes may be the saturated fat in red meat and/or the high level of heme iron in red meat. Getting more iron than we need is thought to increase inflammation, which in turn may increase risk of heart disease.

Our iron needs are highest in childhood, when we are growing quickly, and in menstruating women, who lose blood (thus iron) every month. The form of iron in red meat (heme iron) aides in your body’s absorption of the iron in other foods, like legumes, and even supplements.

Babies start needing an iron source around 4 to 6 months, and red meat can be a great place for them to get it (pureed meat can actually be a first food for babies. After all, iron-fortified cereals are a product of the late 20th century.)

Adult men and post-menopausal women have much lower iron needs, so do not benefit as much from the iron in red meat. The saturated fat in red meats is something for all of us to be aware of and can be dealt with by eating very lean cuts of meat (e.g. flank steak), and/or by eating grass fed beef (lower saturated fat and higher omega 3 fatty acids than meat from grain fed animals!), and by keeping our portions small–try grilled shish kabobs in place of steak, or chili made with beans an a little beef.

An easy takeaway to remember: no matter what type of meats you are purchasing, moderation is key.