The 15 Healthiest (and Unhealthiest) Meats You Can Eat

Muscle-building protein is abundant in many plant-based foods, yet we often fill up with meat. This is okay as long as you understand the nutrition behind different foods. Confused about which meats to enjoy? These are the healthiest meats to add to your grocery cart — and the ones you should avoid altogether. Do not buy one common meat that will actually increase your risk of colon cancer (on page 10).

1. Healthy: chicken

chicken pieces on a grill

There’s a reason health-conscious eaters choose chicken. | iStock.com

Why: It’s low in calories, high in protein, and packed with B vitamins.

Utilized by fitness buffs, a 3-ounce serving of grilled chicken breast has around 130 calories and 25 grams of protein. It’s low in saturated fat, which according to the American Heart Association, makes it a better protein choice than red meat. And the B vitamins in poultry help with metabolism and contribute to a healthy skin and nervous system.

Next: Avoid this chicken if you can.

2. Unhealthy: chicken nuggets

golden, crispy chicken nuggets

Any food that’s been turned into a nugget probably isn’t the best choice. | iStock.com

Why: This mystery meat is packed with sodium, calories, and processed ingredients.

Chicken made our “healthy” list for good reason; chicken nuggets not so much. Although nugs may be a slightly better choice when (fast) food options are limited, keeping them stocked in your freezer isn’t advisable. For instance, Perdue’s nuggets have 210 calories and 480 milligrams of sodium in one serving. And the heavily-breaded morsels leave you with less actual meat.

Next: All pig-related meats are not created equal.

3. Healthy: pork tenderloin

sliced, cooked pork tenderloin

Perfectly cooked pork tenderloin is delicious and good for you. | iStock.com

Why: A 3-ounce serving of roasted pork tenderloin is similar to chicken in nutritional value.

Pork doesn’t deserve its unhealthy image; the USDA states both roasted pork tenderloin and chicken have about 120 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 22 grams of protein. One expert told Time chicken breast and pork tenderloin are pretty equal in leanness. Just steer clear of factory-raised pork tenderloin to avoid added hormones.

Next: It’s hard to resist this breakfast food — but you should try.

4. Unhealthy: bacon

Cooking bacon

Sorry, but bacon isn’t your best bet. | iStock.com

Why: Bacon is extremely high in sodium and fat.

Three slices of this cured meat yields around 150 calories, the majority from fat. It also has 570 milligrams of sodium per serving, which is 24% the recommended daily value. According to The Huffington Post, the salty meat can increase the risk for heart disease.

Next: If you love red meat, choose this kind every time.

5. Healthy: grass-fed beef

Fillet of beef

Grass-fed beef is pretty lean. | iStock.com

Why: Grass-fed beef comes from cattle who haven’t consumed grains.

Beef has been called both healthy and harmful. Confusing, right? However, grass-fed beef really can be good for you. Cooking Light says choosing grass-fed over grain-fed varieties can save you around 16,000 calories a year if you eat the typical amount. Grass-fed beef also has less fat and contains a decent amount of omega-3s, according to Mayo Clinic.

Next: Even the Irish should avoid this kind of beef.

6. Unhealthy: corned beef

Sliced corned beef

Corned beef is about as salty as it gets. | iStock.com

Why: This preparation majorly increases the fat and calories.

Nutritionix shows a 3-ounce serving of corned beef has 210 calories, 16 grams of fat (5 from saturated fat), and 830 milligrams of sodium. The protein content for one serving falls far short for the same amount of grilled chicken breast, too. It’s fine for the occasional treat, but stick to leaner cuts most of the time.

Next: A healthy bird alternative, especially if you love to hunt.

7. Healthy: pheasant

Bird hunting

This game bird is healthier than you think. | iStock.com

Why: Pheasant contains iron, vitamins, and selenium.

This may sound off-the-wall, but it’s a great alternative to your go-to meats. According to game-to-eat, “Pheasant and partridge also contain a high level of iron, protein, vitamin B6 and selenium, which helps to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.”

Next: Leave this bird in the pond where it belongs.

8. Unhealthy: Duck

Roasted duck

The skin is the real diet destroyer. | iStock.com

Why: Duck has tons of calories and fat.

Nutritionix shows ½ cup of roasted duck with skin totals 235 calories, 75% from fat. Eating a diet high in saturated fat can raise bad cholesterol and, according to the AHA, increases your risk of heart disease. Duck also has less protein than our healthier picks. When you want to indulge, ditch the skin to save some calories.

Next: We’re extra thankful for this meat.

9. Healthy: Turkey

Sliced turkey

It’s good for a lot more than your annual Thanksgiving feast. | iStock.com

Compared to chicken, a 3-ounce serving of turkey breast has slightly fewer calories and less fat, plus about the same amount of protein. Authority Nutrition says this extra lean meat is full of B vitamins, including selenium, which supports a healthy immune system. The best thing about turkey breast: its versatility. The poultry works well for everything from chili to sandwiches.

Next: Once considered healthy, this meat is linked to colon cancer.

10. Unhealthy: Deli meat

Assorted deli meat

Steer clear of cold cuts when you can. | iStock.com

Why: Cold cuts are filled with preservatives.

WebMD mentions cold cuts are one of the worst foods you can have in your fridge because they’re made with nitrites and have tons of sodium. They’re also associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. While deli meats may seem like a quick, easy way to eat protein, it’s much better to opt for less-processed options, like a slice or two of the aforementioned turkey.

Next: A richer flavor than beef, and it’s good for you

11. Healthy: Bison

Sliced steak

Bison is low in fat and loaded with protein. | iStock.com

Why: Bison get to roam free, which leads to a healthier diet.

According to Dr. Axe, bison can be a naturally healthier option because their diets aren’t filled with hormones or questionable feed. A 3-ounce portion of ground bison contains 152 calories and 7 grams of fat, only 3 of which are saturated. And the flavor is even richer than beef.

Next: Find an alternative next time you’re at the ballpark.

12. Unhealthy: Hot dogs

Hot Dogs in buns

Hot dogs are just too processed to be good for you. | iStock.com

Why: One hot dog can have 410 milligrams of sodium and only 6 grams of protein.

According to Business Insider, hot dogs are made with different meat trimmings, such as steak, chicken, and pork chops. These are combined with additives like corn syrup and salt, resulting in single beef hot dog packed with sodium but little protein. Experts also told Time the nitrates added during processing can contribute to cancer.

Next: As long as you don’t have an attachment to “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

13. Healthy: Lamb

cooked piece of lamb

Lamb is brimming with B vitamins. | iStock.com

Why: Lamb is an excellent source of zinc and iron, and it’s super rich in B vitamins.

According to Nourish With Lamb, “Lean lamb is a source of healthy, unsaturated fats. Forty percent of the fat in lean lamb is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.” So, stick with lean cuts, and you’ll do the body good.  

Next: Reconsider this tempting, honey-baked entree.

14. Unhealthy: Ham

honey-baked ham

There’s just so much sodium in most hams. | iStock.com

Why: honey-baked ham has 1,230 milligrams of sodium in just one serving.

You know deli ham isn’t good for you — and the fancier version is no different. Often consumed around the holidays, this salty meat should stay on the table for special occasions only. These types of hams are super cured and typically loaded with unnecessary sugars. Tasty? Yes. An unnecessary meat to consume regularly? Absolutely. 

Next: An awesome calorie-swap for your regular burger

15. Healthy: Veal

veal in a cream sauce with thick-cut fries

Veal has plenty of protein. | iStock.com

Why: It’s a great option when you crave iron and protein, but want to skip the burger.

Similar to pork, veal is lower in fat than most kinds of beef. In fact, SFGate says 3 ounces of ground veal contain just 146 calories, while the same serving of ground pork is about 252 calories. You can even make a tasty veal dinner right at home.

Next: Better than bacon but not by much

16. Unhealthy: Prosciutto

Prosciutto

Resist the prosciutto on that meat and cheese plate. | Anna Bobrowska/iStock/Getty Images

Why: horrible fat content per serving

Not only does a tiny two-ounce portion of prosciutto contain more than 10 grams of fat, but it’s also a sodium bomb, with 973 mg in each serving. It may look light and thin, but it’s deceptive.

Next: An unusual, but healthy bird

17. Healthy: Ostrich

Ostrich

An ostrich | All Things Animal TV via Youtube

Why: Ostrich tastes like red meat but it’s healthier.

This unconventional meat has half the fat of chicken and more than 24 grams of protein in a three-ounce serving. At 123 calories, ostrich is a great option for carnivores.

Next: Avoid the meat and cheese platter during happy hour.

18. Salami

Salami

So tempting with a cracker and some cheese | Tolisma/iStock/Getty Images

Why: way too much sodium

Salami will kill your salt goals for the day. One slice of this meat contains 17% of your daily recommended sodium intake.