10 Unhealthiest Proteins To Avoid, According to Dietitians

10 Unhealthiest Proteins To Avoid, According to Dietitians

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Protein, often in the spotlight for its importance in our diets, frequently raises questions about how to consume it adequately. People often wonder about the right amount for weight loss or muscle building.

Protein sources come from plant-based options like beans, soybeans, and lentils and animal-based seeds like chicken, fish, and beef.

However, it’s crucial to recognize that the nutritional value of proteins can vary widely, leading to healthier and less healthy options based on their nutrient profiles.

Unhealthy protein sources still offer beneficial nutrients, such as protein and zinc. However, the issue with unhealthy options often lies in their high saturated fat and sodium content, which can pose risks like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer if consumed regularly. It’s essential to note that not all unhealthy protein options are harmful for the same reasons.

Below, we’ve listed ten protein sources that should not constitute a regular part of your healthy eating plan. You should still wholly avoid them, as all foods can fit into a balanced diet.

However, you may want to consider healthier versions of these foods or indulge in them only occasionally. Read on to discover how to enjoy your favourite “unhealthy” protein sources more beneficially.


Deli meats are a convenient lunch or dinner option, but it’s advisable to limit their consumption in a healthy eating plan. A slice (33 grams) of bologna contains 92.7 calories, 2.44 grams of saturated fat, and 455 milligrams of sodium.

Typically, you’ll use multiple pieces of this highly processed meat when making a bologna sandwich. If you’re visiting the deli counter, consider alternatives like sliced ham and turkey, which are lower in saturated fat. You can also find lower sodium versions at many grocery stores.


Bratwurst, a beloved German sausage, is another protein source to consume in moderation. One link (85 grams) of pork bratwurst provides 283 calories, 8.5 grams of saturated fat, and 719 milligrams of sodium.

Like bologna, it falls into the category of overly processed meats, resulting in products high in saturated fat and heart-harming sodium. Reserve indulging in Bratwurst for special occasions.

Pork Belly

While it’s essential to remember that no food should be entirely off-limits, it’s wise to limit your intake of pork belly.

A 3-ounce pork belly contains 242 calories and 7 grams of saturated fat. High saturated fat consumption is associated with cardiovascular disease risk, making it advisable to enjoy pork belly in smaller portions alongside nutrient-rich, high-fiber foods like vegetables and beans.

Hot Dogs

Traditional hot dogs, often associated with baseball games, are typically high in saturated fat and calories. Regularly consuming processed meats like hot dogs can elevate your risk of cardiovascular disease.

A single Hebrew National Hot Dog provides 25 grams of saturated fat and 480 milligrams of sodium, 25% and 21% of the daily recommended maximums, respectively.

Moreover, hot dogs often contain nitrites and nitrates, potentially linked to specific cancer types. If you’re craving a hot dog, consider choosing healthier options made from lower-fat meats (such as turkey and chicken) and free from nitrites and nitrates.

Hard Salami

A 4-ounce serving of hard pork salami contains 460 calories, 13.4 grams of saturated fat, and 2,550 milligrams of sodium.

It amounts to 61% of the daily recommended maximum of saturated fat and 111% of the recommended maximum of sodium! If you genuinely desire hard salami, minimize portions to one ounce and indulge occasionally.


While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends consuming 8 ounces of seafood weekly for its omega-3 fatty acid benefits, it’s crucial to be cautious when selecting seafood options. Swordfish is among the seafood choices with the highest mercury content at 0.995 ppm.

The FDA suggests that pregnant or breastfeeding women should consume 8 to 12 ounces of lower-mercury seafood choices per week to mitigate potential adverse health effects associated with mercury intake.

Mercury has raised concerns regarding its possible links to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and anxiety. Instead of avoiding seafood altogether, choose lower-mercury options like salmon or shrimp.

Plant-Based ‘Meat’ Replacements

Plant-based “meat” replacements, including sausages, burgers, and similar products, may not always be as healthy as they seem.

Some of these options can be high in sodium, making them unsuitable for daily consumption. If you enjoy plant-based “meat” replacements, examine the nutrition facts panel to ensure they align with your health goals.


Three ounces of sliced beef and pork pepperoni provide 428 calories, 15 grams of saturated fats and 1,340 milligrams of sodium.

Many pepperoni varieties also contain nitrites and nitrates. As mentioned earlier, these preservatives have potential links to certain cancers.

If you’re a pepperoni fan, seek alternatives that are lower in calories and saturated fat. Some brands also offer nitrite- and nitrate-free options for those who prefer them.


A link (101 grams) of Italian pork sausage contains 293 calories, 8.71 grams of saturated fat, and 569 milligrams of sodium.

Like other processed meats, sausages tend to be higher in calories, saturated fat, and sodium than what’s suitable for regular consumption.

If sausage is part of your dietary preferences, explore healthier alternatives with reduced levels of these less-than-ideal nutrients readily available in stores.


One of the less healthy protein sources is Spam. A 2-ounce serving of original Spam contains 180 calories, 6 grams of saturated fat, and 790 milligrams of sodium.

On a 2,000-calorie diet, this translates to 30% of the recommended maximum daily intake of saturated fat and 34% of the recommended daily sodium intake.

Consistently consuming foods high in saturated fat and sodium can increase the risk of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

If you crave this shelf-stable option, consider Spam Lite, which offers lower fat, sodium, and calorie content.

Remember, moderation is essential when enjoying these “unhealthy” protein sources. While they can be part of your diet, it’s necessary to strike a balance and opt for healthier choices most of the time to support your overall health and well-being.


Q: Why are some protein sources considered unhealthy?
A: Some protein sources are considered unhealthy due to their high content of unhealthy fats, sodium, preservatives, and additives. They may contribute to health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Q: Are processed meats unhealthy?
A: Yes, processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and deli meats are high in saturated fats, sodium, and preservatives like nitrates and nitrites. These factors can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions.

Q: How does red meat affect health?
A: While red meat is a good source of protein and essential nutrients, consuming it in large quantities, especially fatty cuts, can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers due to its high saturated fat content.

Q: Is fried chicken a bad protein choice?
A: Yes, fried chicken is high in unhealthy fats and calories due to the frying process and the breading. Regular consumption can lead to weight gain and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Q: Are protein bars and shakes always healthy?
A: Not always. Many commercial protein bars and shakes contain added sugars, artificial flavors, and unhealthy fats. They can be high in calories and not as beneficial as whole food protein sources.

Q: What makes certain dairy products unhealthy?
A: Full-fat dairy products like certain cheeses, whole milk, and cream can be high in saturated fats and calories. Consuming them in excess can contribute to weight gain and cardiovascular problems.

Q: How do plant-based proteins compare in terms of health?
A: While many plant-based proteins are healthy, some processed plant-based protein products, like certain veggie burgers or meat substitutes, can be high in sodium, additives, and unhealthy fats. It’s important to choose minimally processed options.

Q: Are eggs an unhealthy protein source?
A: Eggs are generally healthy and a good source of protein and nutrients. However, consuming them in moderation is key, as they do contain cholesterol. For individuals with specific health concerns, it may be wise to limit intake.

Q: How can I identify unhealthy protein sources when shopping?
A: Read nutrition labels and look for high amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. Avoid products with a long list of artificial ingredients and preservatives.

Q: Are there healthier alternatives to common unhealthy proteins?
A: Yes, opt for lean proteins such as skinless poultry, fish, beans, lentils, tofu, and low-fat dairy products. These options provide protein with less unhealthy fats and additives.

Q: How can I balance my protein intake to support overall health?
A: Incorporate a variety of protein sources, including lean meats, fish, plant-based proteins, and dairy, while minimizing the intake of processed and high-fat proteins. Ensure your diet is balanced with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Q: What are some tips for avoiding unhealthy proteins when eating out?
A: Choose grilled, baked, or steamed protein options instead of fried. Avoid dishes with heavy sauces or breading. Opt for lean cuts of meat and ask for dressings and sauces on the side to control sodium and fat intake.

Q: How can I make healthier protein choices at home?
A: Prepare meals using lean meats, fish, beans, and legumes. Use cooking methods like grilling, baking, and steaming instead of frying. Include a range of protein sources to create a well-balanced diet.

Q: Are there specific protein-rich recipes that are healthier alternatives?
A: Yes, consider recipes like grilled chicken salad, baked salmon with vegetables, lentil soup, tofu stir-fry, and quinoa bowls with beans and avocado. These meals provide high-quality protein without excessive unhealthy fats or additives.

Q: Can unhealthy protein sources be part of a balanced diet in moderation?
A: Yes, occasional consumption of less healthy protein sources can be part of a balanced diet. The key is moderation and balancing them with healthier choices most of the time.

Q: How does portion size affect the healthiness of protein intake?
A: Even healthy protein sources can contribute to weight gain and other issues if consumed in excessive amounts. Portion sizes are important for maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet.

Q: What are the long-term effects of consuming unhealthy protein sources?
A: Regular consumption of unhealthy proteins can lead to chronic health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers. It’s important to make healthier choices to support long-term health.


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