Food & Fitness After 50: Lean Pork for the Protein Win

(Disclosure: The National Pork Board sent me a meal kit to try a lean pork dish. However, they did not ask me to write this post and I was not compensated to do so. As with everything I write, these are my opinions.)

We often talk about the importance of getting adequate protein as we age. In a recent post, we talked to three protein experts and the consensus is that older adults should aim to:

  • eat nutrient-rich sources of high-quality protein at every meal
  • ensure adequate protein to repair and replace proteins in the body
  • choose meats, fish, eggs, and dairy foods for highest quality protein (while vegetable proteins are popular, they are lower quality than animal proteins)
  • spread protein foods throughout the day.

One way to accomplish these goals is by choosing lean meats, like pork loin. Pork is a versatile meat that checks all the points listed above. It is no surprise that pork makes an appearance on many global tables. From soul food to Hispanic dishes, to summer grilling and holiday meals, pork is often the centerpiece.

Choose nutrient-rich protein

Pork is a nutrient-rich meat of high quality, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle repair and maintenance. It is recommended that older adults get about 30 grams of protein per meal…sounds like a lot, but easy when lean meat is part of the diet. A 3-ounce serving of lean pork has 24 grams of protein. Check out the serving sizes of other proteins that you would need to eat to equal 24 grams of protein.

Pork is also a rich source of vitamins and minerals needed for healthy aging: vitamins B1, 2, 3 (also called thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin), vitamins B6 and B12, and the mineral selenium. And while there are fattier cuts of pork (hello, bacon), there are 8 cuts of pork that are lean by the USDA definition (less than 10 grams of total fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving). Pork tenderloin and pork sirloin roast are leaner still. An easy way to remember to choose lean cuts of pork is to look for the word loin or chop in the name.

Even for those who are eating a plant-forward diet, animal foods do not have to be eliminated. Using small servings of meat can enhance the protein in a meal while still including lots of veggies, fruit, and grains.  You can see from my plate, that meat takes only a portion of the plate while veggies cover more than 2/3rd.

Safety First

Folks of my generation were afraid that under-cooking pork would give them a food-borne illness, so we overcompensated by overcooking. Overdone, leathery pork is not good! But, with current pig farming practices and safety inspections, we know that cooking pork to the proper internal temperature of 145⁰F (ground pork should be cooked to 160⁰F) eliminates any risk for food-borne illness. After it reaches the correct temperature, remove from the heat and let it rest for 3 minutes to preserve the juices. I always use a meat thermometer to ensure I don’t OVERCOOK the meat.

Setting the Record Straight

There are some other concerns people have about pork, or more specifically raising pigs. I reached out to registered dietitian, owner of Farm to Form Communications, and 5th generation South Dakota pig farmer, Charlotte Rommereim, to set the record straight on a few persistent myths.

Myth #1: All pigs are raised by “big ag” who care little for animal welfare.

“There are over 67,000 pig farms in the United States today.  Those pig farmers raise pigs in a variety of different ways based on their area, their farm’s history, and available resources and labor.  No matter the size of the farm, type of housing or pig farming practices, good animal care remains important to all pig farmers.  Through the over 100 years of pig farming on our family farm, we have changed the type of housing used, and I have seen good animal care practiced no matter whether they were housed in small huts like my grandfather had or indoors in the barns we built in 2005 and 2018,” says Rommereim .”

Myth #2: Raising pigs is bad for the environment.

“Pig farmers are continually improving their practices and have reduced their environmental impact over the last 50 years while continuing to have the best in animal care.  Research at the University of Arkansas showed a 75.9% reduction in land use, 25.1% less water, 7% less energy use, and 7.7% fewer carbon emissions from 1965-2015.”

Myth #3: Pork is full of hormones.

“NO, I repeat NO, hormones are used in raising pigs,” reports Rommereim. “Growth hormones are prohibited in raising pork or poultry. There is no advantage to the pork product labeled “no hormones added” as this is true for all pork so please don’t spend any extra money to have that on your label.”

I also asked Charlotte what she thinks about including pork in the diet for an older adult. Her reply echoes what was said earlier in the post. “Pork is an economical, versatile, and lean, nutritious protein choice for the older adult.  It can bring the familiar with a pork chop dinner or be the protein choice for a new taste experience.  Pork is the most popular protein in the world so you can take the opportunity during the pandemic to “travel the globe” by trying new pork recipes.  Pork pairs well with other food groups making it easy to have a healthy plate, for example pork stir fry with vegetables, or grilled peaches with pork tenderloin.” For another Powerful Pairing with pork, consider pulses, also called dried beans and peas. Pulses are unique and are counted as both a vegetable and a protein-rich food. The link to the Powerful Pairing website contains some great recipes, so give them a try.

Rommereim adds, “As a dietitian, I recommend the 8 great cuts of pork that meet the USDA criteria for lean including my favorite pork tenderloin.” She also stressed cooking to the proper temperature of 145⁰F for “tender, tasty, and safe pork.”

Her favorite recipe? “There are many on this website”and Charlotte adds, “I enjoy pork tenderloin a variety of ways, from a grilling with a simple dry rub of spices to stir frying with vegetables after a quick marinade.  I can get a nutritious meal on the table in a short amount of time. Like many, I struggle with meal planning and this fits my more spur of the moment decisions for a healthy meal.  When I have more time, my favorite recipe is one our family enjoys featuring pork tenderloin and our favorite summer fruit, peaches.”

Grilled Peaches and Pork

One- approximately 1-pound pork tenderloin

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, divided

2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 large peaches, peeled, halved and pitted

4 cups salad greens

1 teaspoon turbinado or granulated sugar

Combine 2 Tablespoons vinegar, juice, thyme, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Reserve 1 Tablespoon juice mixture. Pour the remaining juice mixture in a large zip-top plastic bag. Add pork, seal and marinate in the refrigerator for 1/2 to 1 hour, turning occasionally.

Place peaches, cut sides up on a plate, drizzle with remaining 2 Tablespoons vinegar.

Place pork on grill; grilling on each side, cooking until pork reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Set aside to rest.

Place peaches cut sides down, on grill; grill 4 minutes or until soft and slightly browned.  Turn and cook for 2 minutes or until heated through. Cut each half into 4 slices.  Cut slices of pork for serving.

Drizzle salad greens with reserved 1 Tablespoon juice mixture, tossing to coat. Divide salad greens evenly among 4 plates. Top with grilled pork tenderloin slices and peach slices; sprinkle evenly with turbinado sugar.

Yield: 4 servings

And, here is the recipe in the video that was sent courtesy of The National Pork Board.

Cherry Balsamic Pork Chops (Recipe from HelloFresh)

2 6-ounce center cut pork chops

1 small shallot, chopped

5 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

2 Tablespoons cherry jam

1/3 cup water

½ teaspoon sugar

1 Tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper

Pat pork dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in large pan over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned, about 4-6 minutes per side. Use meat thermometer to measure temperature and when it reaches 145⁰F, remove pork chops from pan and set aside.

In the same pan used to cook pork, add another drizzle of olive oil over medium heat. Add shallot; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 4-5 minutes. Add vinegar; simmer until slightly reduced, 30-60 seconds. Add jam and 1/3 cup water. Cook until thickened, 3-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and up to ½ teaspoon sugar to taste. Turn off heat. Stir in butter until melted. Return pork to pan; turn to coat in sauce.

Yield: 2 servings

Dr. Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved