The 15 Healthiest (and Unhealthiest) Meats You Can Eat

Muscle-building protein might be abundant in certain plant-based foods, yet we typically look to meat to get our fill. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, until you start to look at how vastly different the nutritional makeup is for different types. After all, a super fatty cut of steak isn’t exactly going to keep you as trim as a boneless, skinless piece of poultry.

If you’re scratching your head about which choices you should be making, we have you covered. Here are a few healthy meats you should definitely toss into your grocery cart, plus several less-than-wholesome options you’ll probably want to skip.

1. Healthy: Grass-fed beef

Fillet of beef

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

Beef has been praised as both a healthy and harmful food choice. Confusing, right? However, grass-fed beef, which comes from cattle raised without the use of grain, really can be good for you. Cooking Light says choosing grass-fed beef over grain-fed varieties can save you around 16,000 calories a year if you eat the typical amount. Obviously, that can really help out your waistline. Grass-fed beef also has less fat and, according to Mayo Clinic, it even contains a decent amount of omega-3s.

2. Healthy: Pork tenderloin

sliced, cooked pork tenderloin

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

Pork doesn’t deserve the unhealthy image it’s garnered over the years, so let up already. In fact, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service reveals a 3-ounce serving of roasted pork tenderloin is similar to chicken in nutritional value, with 120 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 22 grams of protein. If you need more convincing, know one expert told Time chicken breast and pork tenderloin are pretty much equal when it comes to how lean they are. Just be sure to steer clear of factory-raised meat to avoid added hormones. And stick with lean cuts.

3. Healthy: Chicken

chicken pieces on a grill

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

A common protein choice for fitness enthusiasts, chicken is known for being low in calories and high in protein. According to Nutritionix, a 3-ounce serving of grilled chicken breast has around 130 calories and 25 grams of protein. It is also low in saturated fat, which according to the American Heart Association, makes it a better protein choice than red meats. It’s also loaded with B vitamins. Livestrong mentions these nutrients help with metabolism, contribute to healthy skin, and also maintain a healthy nervous system.

4. Healthy: Bison

Sliced steak

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

A less common source of protein, bison may actually be healthier than beef. According to Dr. Axe, one factor that makes bison a naturally healthier option is that the animals roam free. Because of this, their diets aren’t filled with hormones or other questionable feed. A 3-ounce portion of the ground meat contains 152 calories and 7 grams of fat, only 3 of which are saturated. And the flavor is even richer than beef.

5. 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 source of meat is filled with B vitamins, including selenium. This nutrient can help  support a healthy immune system. And the best thing about turkey breast is its versatility. The poultry works well for everything from chili to sandwiches.

6. Healthy: Lamb

cooked piece of lamb

Lamb is brimming with B vitamins. | iStock.com

As long as you don’t have any unreasonable attachments to “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” this red meat can actually be quite good for you. In fact, lamb is an excellent source of zinc and iron, and it’s super rich in B vitamins, as well. 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 be doing the body good.  

7. Healthy: Pheasant

Bird hunting

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

This may sound a bit off-the-wall, but it’s a great alternative to your typical go-to meats. Turns out, pheasant is way healthier than you may think. 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.” Not to mention, if you live in a bird-hunting region, it’s usually fairly accessible.    

8. Healthy: Veal

veal in a cream sauce with thick-cut fries

Veal has plenty of protein. | iStock.com

Similar to pork, the other red meat in its category, veal is lower in fat than most kinds of beef. It’s a great option when you’re fixing for iron and protein, but want to skip the burger. In fact, SFGate say 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.

9. Unhealthy: Bacon

Cooking bacon

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

Pork can be great for your body, but unfortunately this processed version falls short. Three slices yield around 150 calories, the majority of which comes from fat. The cured meat also delivers 570 milligrams of sodium for this portion, which is 24% the recommended daily value. According to The Huffington Post, the tasty meat can also increase the risk for heart disease and cancer. It’s best to skip this salty stuff.

10. Unhealthy: Corned beef

Sliced corned beef

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

Corned beef definitely falls under our list of unhealthy meat options because of the way it’s prepared. Nutritionix shows a 3-ounce serving 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.

11. Unhealthy: Hot dogs

Hot Dogs in buns

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

This highly processed, ballgame favorite is, unfortunately, a very unhealthy meat. According to Business Insider, hot dogs are made with different meat trimmings, such as steak, chicken, and pork chops. Those trimmings are then combined with additives, including corn syrup and salt. A single beef hot dog can have 410 milligrams of sodium, only 6 grams of protein, and 150 calories. Experts also told Time the nitrates added during processing can contribute to cancer.

12. Unhealthy: Duck

Roasted duck

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

Duck is one of the worst meats that you can eat due to lots of calories and fat. Nutritionix shows that ½ cup of roasted duck with skin totals 235 calories, 75% of which come from fat. Eating a diet high in saturated fat can raise bad cholesterol and, according to the American Heart Association, this can increases chances of heart disease. Duck also has less protein to offer than our favorite picks. When you do want to indulge, ditch the skin to save yourself some calories.

13. Unhealthy: Deli meat

Assorted deli meat

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

Deli meats were once thought to be much healthier than they actually are. WebMD mentions cold cuts are one of the worst foods you can have in your refrigerator because they’re filled with preservatives. Like hot dogs, most are made with nitrites and have large amounts of sodium. They are also associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. While deli meats may seem like a quick and easy way to get some protein, it’s much better to opt for less processed options.

14. Unhealthy: Chicken nuggets

golden, crispy chicken nuggets

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

Chicken made our “healthy” list for good reason. Chicken nuggets, on the other hand, have landed a spot on our unhealthy list, which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. These bite-size favorites may be more mystery meat than actual poultry, which is why we’d be remiss to not mention them at all.

Although nuggets may be a somewhat 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 just one serving. And, given the size of a nugget, the heavily-breaded skin to actual chicken ratio leaves you with less meat, and more crisp.

15. Unhealthy: Ham

honey-baked ham

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

You know deli meat ham isn’t good for you, and the fancier version is no different. Often consumed around the holidays, this salty meat needs to stay where it belongs: on the Christmas dinner table. A honey-baked ham has 1,230 milligrams of sodium in just one serving. These types of hams are super cured and typically loaded with unnecessary sugars, as well. Tasty? Yes. An unnecessary choice of meat to have on hand? Absolutely. 

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