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Can pork be a healthy choice?

Pork has a poor reputation as a healthy food for some very good reasons. The only exposure many people get is in salt-filled slices of ham or fattening strips of greasy bacon. When people are asked to rank meats from "most healthy" to "least healthy," pork routinely ranks at the bottom of the list.

How things have changed. The pork sold in stores today is quite a bit different from what was on the shelves 30, 20, even just 10 years ago.

In 2006 several different cuts of pork were analyzed by the Agricultural Research Service for the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) nutrient data set. When the results were compared to tests conducted a decade before, researchers found all but one were leaner than cuts previously measured. Amazingly they all still had the same levels of protein.

Six common cuts of pork saw their fat levels fall by 16% and their saturated fat levels by an incredible 27%, all because of selective breeding programs farmers took to provide the buying public with leaner cuts of meat. In fact, over the last 20 years, the fat levels in pork have fallen by an unbelievable 31%.

It's especially amazing when you compare pork tenderloin to skinless chicken breast, one of the ideal low-fat meats. A three-ounce serving of lean pork tenderloin has 102 calories, 2.9 grams of fat and 17.9 grams of protein. A three-ounce serving of roasted, skinless chicken breast has 141 calories, 3 grams of fat and 26.4 grams of protein. The pork has 25% fewer calories and it's lower in total fat!

An added bonus is that pork has no artery-clogging trans fat. Who could have predicted a day when some pork cuts would be a healthier option than chicken?

The key, of course, is choosing the right cut. You should avoid spare ribs, ground pork, sausage and bacon. They have 20 to 38 grams of fat per 3 ounce serving. Cuts like tenderloin, loin chop, sirloin chop or lean ham have only 2 to 9 grams of fat per 3 ounce serving.

A good rule to follow is this. When dealing with almost any four-legged animal, the leanest cuts tend to come from the loin. It's true for beef, bison, lamb and pork. So when you shop, the words you're looking for are "loin" or "round" for the lowest fat options.

To help you the next time you're buying pork, use the following chart. It shows the major cuts of meat along with the fat, calories and protein per 3 oz. serving. Cuts in GREEN are the healthiest options, YELLOW indicates caution while those in RED should be avoided or saved for a special occasion.

This is where all those cuts come from.

There is a downside to the new leaner pork. In the old days, a piece of pork had so much fat; the meat was hard to mess up. Even when it was cooked longer than it should, it remained tender and moist. The leaner pork is easy to overcook and can end up tough or dry. You can avoid that by using a thermometer and cook it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, but no higher. The meat will be slightly pink on the outside and remain tender inside.

If you're cooking a larger cut of meat like a roast, only cook it to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Then take the pork out of the heat, cover it with a lid or aluminum foil and let it sit about 10 minutes before you cut it up. During those few minutes, the temperature inside the roast will keep rising to 160 degrees and the juices will spread out evenly so it'll be moister.

If you do end up with the fattier cuts, there are a couple of things you can do.

  • Cook the meat a day in advance and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. The fat will rise to the top and you can simply scrape much of it off. Reheat the meat and it's good to go.

  • Rescue fatty pork chops. Since most of the fat tends to be around the edges, simply trim it off before cooking.

  • If you've got a roast, broil or grill it on a rack so more of the grease can drip away.

  • Stir-frying or pan-broiling in a non-stick pan with broth is another way to keep the meat moist and fat levels lower.

Go ahead and add some of "The Other White Meat" to your healthy diet today.

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