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Is Beef, Chicken, Or Fish Best For Building Muscle & Losing Fat?

By Charlie Seltzer, MD / February 19, 2016

To build muscle, there is no nutrient more necessary than protein. It also aids fat loss by promoting satiety, or feelings of fullness, and helps spare muscle tissue in the face of a reduced-calorie nutrition plan.

Beef, chicken, and fish are all excellent sources of protein and are carb free or low carb1, and consuming protein from a variety of sources is ideal. All animal proteins are complete, which means your body cannot make the nutrients you receive yourself.

Still, depending on your goals, medical issues, and body type, some may be more beneficial than others, but this has more to do with the fat (and calorie) content than the actual source of protein.

1. Beef

Beef comes from cows and generally has the more fat that chicken or fish. The make-up of fat in beef varies with how the cows are fed. Compared to grain fed, grass-fed beef has less overall fat but a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and can help build muscle and burn fat.

The leanest cuts of beef are:

The fattiest cuts of meat are rib-eye (37.6 grams of fat) and T-bone (25.6 grams of fat) steaks. I looked at many nutrition data sites, including the USDA’s, and found a great variation in the amount of fat in filet mignon, which many people think is a very lean cut. Fat content ranged from just 3 grams per serving to more than 15 grams.

2. Chicken

White meat chicken is low in fat and high in protein. Like filet mignon, I found many different nutritional profiles, with fat content ranging from 1 gram to 6 grams per 4 ounces of skinless breast. Skinless dark meat chicken’s fat content ranges from 6 to 12–plus grams per serving depending on the source of the nutrition data.

Chicken skin is mostly fat and eating the skin can quickly add unnecessary fat and calories to your nutrition plan. It is a better idea to skip the skin and get your fat from healthier sources like olive or coconut oil, nuts and avocado.

3. Fish

Fish is a very healthy protein choice. Fattier fish, generally from cold water, contain significant amounts of heart-healthy (and muscle-friendly) omega-3 fatty acids. Wild fish tend to have more favorable fat profiles than farm-raised fish, particularly salmon. However, higher fat content (even if it is the healthiest kind of fat) means higher calories, and if you’re trying to lose body fat you must keep this in mind.

Certain kinds of fish can be high in toxins, particularly mercury, and you should generally avoid or limit intake from these sources. Larger fish at the top of the food chain, like big eye or Ahi tuna, swordfish, shark and king mackerel contain significant amounts of mercury. Smaller fish such as sardines are high in both protein and omega-3 fatty acids and low in toxins. Additionally, they are cheap and an environmentally-sound choice, as they are plentiful and reproduce quickly.

If you chose to eat canned tuna, light tuna contains less mercury than albacore. Canned salmon is a better option, though fat content can vary significantly depending on the kind of salmon. Canned pink salmon is high in protein, low in fat and contaminants, and relatively inexpensive. The Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains a list2 of the best and worst seafood choices based on environmental impact and contaminants. I recommend visiting the site for the “best” choices and then picking seafood from the list that contains the proper nutrient breakdown for your goals.

4. Game Meats

Game, like venison (deer), elk and bison tend to be lean and high in protein. However, they often come with a high price tag and can be difficult to cook. Overcooking lean protein results in a tough, unpalatable meal. Game meats can taste “gamey” if not prepared properly. Still, learning how to work with these protein sources can expand your options and be a welcome change to chicken and beef.

There Really Is No Best Protein – Choose Variety

Really, there is no “best” protein source for losing fat and building muscle. I recommend using a variety of sources and tailoring your choices to your body and your goals. For example, if you do better with a lower carbohydrate plan, then using protein sources with higher fat content may help you. If total calorie content is your main concern, you’ll do better with the leanest protein choices but can potentially miss out on beneficial fats.

Like most things, a certain protein source can be good or bad depending on your circumstances. In all cases, moderation and common sense should be your guide, and all choices should be made within the context of a healthy lifestyle.

Show 2 References

  1. Some shellfish, like squid and scallops, contain measurable amounts of carbohydrate.
  2. Seafood Watch. Monterey Bay Aquarium. 2014.

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16 Comments

  • Charlie Seltzer, MD says:

    @Peter,
    I do like pork and opt for organic, pasture raised pork when I do eat it. Bacon also finds its way into my nutrition plan on a regular basis as well.

  • bob says:

    What do you say about plant protein to animal protein, I am currently reading THE CHINA SYNDROME, which a studyt done in china. It says eating plant protein will reduce or eliminate cancer causing agents. I question this but the science he shows on the study is pretty convincing.

    • Charlie Seltzer says:

      I have not read the China Study, but there are a number of analyses on it, both supporting and refuting its conclusions. The site rawfoodsos.com has interesting content. I am not saying that the woman who maintains the site is right or wrong, but I think it is always a good idea to look at both sides of an argument. Personally, I disagree with the conclusions of the book.

  • jennifer says:

    hi....I would like to know if it's ok to eat bacon because some people say it is and some list bacon among the most unhealthy food out there...

  • Ed Zeldin says:

    Grass-fed beef also contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which has been proven to have a fat-loss effect.

  • tonyh says:

    over here in England we eat back bacon which has a higher lean meat content, it seems in the U S you eat what we call streaky bacon which is at least 60% fat. Stay healthy go English every time !!!!

  • Hiwot says:

    Keep up the good work !! Love all your article !!

  • Allan says:

    Here in Oz our game meats are low in fat and high in protein.
    Kangaroo, crocodile, camel, emu and rabbit.
    What we used to consider dog food is now even served in up market restaurants.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Haven't been to Australia, would love to visit. Have never tried those meats before, but as you say, usually game meats are pretty low in fat.

  • Wayne says:

    I'm always on the lookout for good sources of protein that are cheap, easy to prepare, and sustainable. Beans and eggs are great but I'm getting bored of them. After reading this article I've been trying to cook things with sardines. The best I've come up with so far is a frittata with a can of sardines and some leafy greens. I find adding spicy mustard to the mix adds some complexity to the flavor so I don't just taste salt and fish. Thanks, Charlie, for laying out the case for small fish.

  • B.H. says:

    I found meat intake is best than to take supplements for building muscles and losing fat.We all know natural foods are always good for our health.

  • Matt says:

    Hey Charlie,
    I have being doing functional training for years, following Mike Boyle's group out of Boston, MA. Your approaches parallel a lot of his training and I have had great success with it. Big fan of your articles.
    Unfortunately I have always neglected diet until more recently after reading your get ripped article. I have had noticeable changes following the high protein/low carb diet (protein 30%, Fat 50%, carbs 20%), all positive. I became a little concerned after the new USC article came out claiming high (animal based)protein diets had higher cancer and all cause mortality rates. I know observation studies have a lot of pitfalls AND the author owns a plant-based protein company, but I was still curious to hear your thoughts on these findings.

    http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-high-protein-diets-age-20140304,0,7389424.story#axzz2vWSVF3NJ

    • Charlie Seltzer says:

      Matt-
      I appreciate the kind words and I am glad you find my articles valuable. I disagree with conclusions of the authors of that study, and the China Study for that matter. Here is my comment from above, which applies here as well:

      I have not read the China Study, but there are a number of analyses on it, both supporting and refuting its conclusions. The site rawfoodsos.com has interesting content. I am not saying that the woman who maintains the site is right or wrong, but I think it is always a good idea to look at both sides of an argument. Personally, I disagree with the conclusions of the book.

    • Charlie Seltzer says:

      If you torture a data set long enough it will admit to anything.

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