Lean Protein: What Is It and What Are the Best Sources?

Whether you want to maintain your weight, shed a few pounds, increase your energy levels, or build muscle, you’ll want to make room for whole food sources of protein on your plate.

But like most things, not all proteins are created equal.

Lean protein is your best bet, and we’ll break down everything you need to know about this superior protein choice.

What is a lean protein?

The USDA definition of lean meat protein is one that has less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per portion. [100 grams]says Diana Gariglio-Cleland, RD, a registered dietitian in Washington.

11 lean protein foods

Plants are naturally low in fat, so we’ve highlighted some grains and legumes that are particularly high in protein. Below you will find the best sources of protein and their nutritional information.

1. Boneless skinless chicken breast

Grilled Chicken Breast on Cutting Plate |  Lean protein

per 3.5-ounce serving, cooked: 30 grams of protein

Boneless skinless chicken breast is a fitness-friendly and weight-loss eating plan staple: It’s sky-high in protein and low in calories.

“Chicken provides vitamins B3 and B6, which help with carbohydrate metabolism,” says Anees Rehman, MD. “It also provides selenium, which is an excellent antioxidant.”

Grill, roast, bake or steam – make sure to remove the skin first.

2. White fish

White fish plate with vegetables  Lean protein

per 3.5 ounces, cooked: 19 grams of protein

White-meat fish — such as tilapia, cod, flounder and pollock — are high in protein and very lean, with just 100 calories per 3.5-ounce serving.

Salmon isn’t technically a lean protein, as a 100-gram serving contains about eight grams of fat.

However, it’s a heart-healthy fat, and salmon contains more omega-3 fatty acids than white fish, so it’s still a great option for your diet.

3. Away with pork

Chopped pork loin  Lean protein

per 3.5 oz., cooked: 28 grams of protein

The old ad campaign calling pork “the other white meat” was onto something: The lean cut of pork has almost as much protein as chicken, is an excellent source of vitamin B6, and is a good source of potassium and zinc.

To make sure you’re buying lean pork, look for the words “loin” or “round” on the label.

4. Lean beef

Chopped Beef Plate |  Lean protein

Per 3.5 ounces, cooked: 23 grams of protein

“Lean meat provides an excellent source of protein and iron with fewer calories and less fat,” says Rehman.

When buying ground beef, 95% lean or more counts as “lean protein”; Choose grass-fed beef to get the most heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

5. Tuna

Bread topped with tuna  Lean protein

per 3.5 ounces, cooked: 19 grams of protein

Canned tuna is a very convenient source of lean protein for lunch or post-workout snacks, with less than two grams of fat per serving.

It is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and selenium. Concerned about mercury content?

The FDA says canned light tuna is low in mercury and two to three servings per week is safe.

This is not the same for albacore/white tuna, which is high in mercury – it is recommended that you limit it to one serving per week.

6. Shrimp

Pan fried prawns  Lean protein

per 3.5 oz., cooked: 16 grams of protein

Shellfish, along with shrimp, are a highly nutritious source of protein: Just one serving of shrimp provides more than half of your daily recommended intake of selenium and vitamin B12.

7. Plain Greek yogurt

Bowl of Greek yogurt  Lean protein

per 6-ounce container: 17 grams of protein

A serving of plain Greek yogurt packs 17 grams of protein, compared to nine of regular yogurt.

This is because Greek yogurt is strained, and therefore thicker and more concentrated.

Avoid flavored yogurt (extra added sugar), but add fresh fruit, cinnamon, or nuts.

8. Beans

Jar of beans  Lean protein

Per 1/2 cup, cooked: 6 grams of protein

An excellent lean-protein base for soups, stews or chili (or a topper for salads), beans contain five grams of protein per half cup.

And unlike other lean proteins, they’re a source of fiber, providing six grams per serving.

9. Tofu

Tofu bowl  Lean protein

1/2 cup each: 10 grams of protein

There’s a reason tofu is a vegetarian meat alternative – its high protein content.

A half-cup serving has nine grams, with 4.5 grams of fat and just 75 calories.

10. Farrow

Farro's plate  Lean protein

1/2 cup each, cooked: 10 grams of protein

If “super grains” existed, farro would probably fall into that bucket. This ancient grain has double the protein found in quinoa.

Like other whole grains, farro also provides fiber—five grams per half cup.

11. Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese bowl  Lean protein

1/2 cup each: 11 grams of protein

A 1970s dieter’s favorite worth pulling out of the archives and back into your refrigerator.

Cottage cheese is exceptionally low in fat—less than five grams of fat and about 90 calories per cup.

What are the benefits of lean protein?

Here are some reasons why you might not want to cut out lean protein in your diet.

1. It can increase satiety

Protein helps fill you up, and lean versions do so with less fat and fewer calories.

2. May be beneficial for maintaining and building muscle

“Protein is an essential building block for muscle,” says Samantha Presicki, MCN, RD, LD, CPT, lead registered dietitian with Snap Kitchen in Austin, Texas.

3. It is believed to be associated with weight loss

Because it keeps you feeling full and can help build muscle, lean protein can be a tool to help you lose weight.

4. It can help the body move efficiently

“Some proteins act as enzymes, which help in thousands of biochemical reactions in the body,” Presicki says. “They are necessary for things like digestion, energy production, blood clotting and muscle contraction. Some proteins also act as hormones, helping communication between cells, tissues and organs.”

Graphic List of Lean Protein Foods Chicken Breast Lean Protein

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