The Best Lean Protein Foods, No Matter Your Dietary Preferences

A dietitian shares the perks of choosing lean proteins over other options — and explains what a "lean protein" food is in the first place.

Lean Protein Dishes
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You've likely heard time and time again just how important it is to score enough protein each day. And for good reason: The macronutrient supports essential body functions such as tissue repair, cell maintenance, hormone function, enzymatic reactions, and muscle building. Protein also helps regulate blood sugar and keeps you feeling full, making it useful for weight management (if that's what you're after).

But the type of protein you choose matters, and generally, you'll want to opt for "lean protein." The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a lean protein source as having less than 10 grams of total fat (4.5 grams or less from saturated fat) and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol in a 3.5-ounce serving. Another way to define lean protein is a protein source that has 2 to 3 grams of fat per ounce.

Due to the lower fat content, lean protein foods also tend to have fewer calories per serving. ICYDK, fat contains 9 calories per gram and protein offers 4 calories per gram, so a higher-fat meat such as a ribeye steak will have more calories than the same portion size of a leaner cut, such as a filet mignon. So if you're keeping an eye on calories or your intake of saturated fat (which can raise LDL cholesterol levels when consumed in excess), incorporating lean protein foods into your diet can help you achieve your goals without going hungry.

Here, some great sources of lean protein, plus tips on how to choose which one is best for you.

01 of 12

White Chicken Meat

Grilled Chicken
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White meat chicken is perhaps one of the most popular sources of lean protein, and for good reason: A 3-ounce serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast comes in at 122 calories, nearly 24 grams of protein, and 3 grams fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat), according to the USDA.

Along with grilling your white meat chicken, you can also bake the lean protein food (my favorite recipe involves marinating chicken breast in yogurt and spices or hummus) or prepare it in a slow cooker. Try it with broth, water with wine ad herbs, or even a jar of your favorite salsa, all of which will help keep the meat moist and tender. Enjoy it served with your favorite veggies and a whole grain or in soups, salads, and sandwiches. 

02 of 12

White Turkey Meat

Turkey Burger
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While you may be more accustomed to eating sliced deli turkey unless it's Thanksgiving, white meat turkey cuts or ground turkey make a great stand-in for chicken or beef. Bonus: It's also a lean protein food. A 4-ounce serving of ground turkey breast provides 120 calories, 26 grams of protein, and 1.5 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat), according to the USDA.

To get your fill, enjoy white turkey meat in soup or chili; in a taco, burrito, or bowl; or made into burgers, meatballs, or meatloaf. Cuts of turkey can be also enjoyed as you would chicken. While deli turkey is still considered lean protein source, you may want to eat it in moderation, since it can be high in sodium which can raise blood pressure in some individuals. (Related: High-Protein Ground Turkey Recipes to Make for Dinner Tonight)

03 of 12

Lean Pork

Pork Chop DIsh
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Pork may not be your go-to source of lean protein, but it's worth adding to your rotation. In a 4-ounce portion, you'll get about 86 calories, 24 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat), according to the USDA.

In the grocery store, look for lean cuts such as pork tenderloin, sirloin pork chop, and New York pork roast. Then, enjoy the lean protein food grilled or baked. It works equally well with both sweet and savory flavors, so play around with different sauces and marinades, such as a mix of balsamic vinegar and fig preserves. If you're afraid of drying the meat out too much, you can also make pork in the slow cooker (which you can also use to make pulled pork).

04 of 12

Lean Beef

Steak Dish
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You might shy away from beef if you're trying to keep an eye on calories and your saturated fat intake, but there are actually some lean cuts of beef that fit in well to an overall healthy diet, as long as you're mindful of portion size and practice moderation. A 4-ounce portion of beef tenderloin, for example, contains 172 calories, 23 grams of protein, and 8.5 grams of fat, with 4 grams of saturated fat, according to the USDA. In addition to being a lean protein food, beef is also a good source of iron.

In a restaurant, look for cuts such as filet mignon, tenderloin, tri-tip roast and steak, and top sirloin roast. Just keep in mind that many places give much larger portions. At home, give stew meat or beef chuck the slow-cooker treatment. Marinating a leaner cut in a marinade that contains acid, such as vinegar or citrus, will help tenderize the meat. You can also use kiwi juice, which contains enzymes that help act as a meat tenderizer. If you're making burgers, purchase the leanest meat you can find and consider going halfsies with roasted mushrooms to bump up the micronutrients the meal provides. Blended burgers are a great way to stretch that meaty flavor but keep your saturated fat intake in check.

05 of 12


Egg Omelette
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Eggs are a super-convenient and versatile lean protein source that is also more affordable than other options. Whip yourself up an egg, and you'll score about 72 calories, 6 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat (less than 2 grams of saturated fat), according to the USDA.

Though they're traditionally a breakfast food, this lean protein food can be eaten for any meal of the day and work very well with vegetables. You can also cook eggs or egg whites into oats to add a fluffy texture and extra protein that gives your bowl some staying power. For a healthier spin on egg salad, swap mayo for plain Greek yogurt or skyr, hummus, or avocado.

06 of 12

White Fish

Cod Dish
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On the fish front, white fish is one of the leanest protein options around. In fact, 5 ounces of wild Atlantic cod, for example, provides about 109 calories, 25 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat total, according to the USDA.

This is a great lean protein choice if you don't like the stronger flavors of oilier fish, such as salmon and sardines. Know that because it's so lean, white fish such as cod, fluke, and flounder can easily dry out during cooking. To keep the lean protein food moist, bake it until it's just barely opaque, or try a preparation method such as poaching or steaming in the oven or on the grill in foil packets with your favorite herbs and spices.

07 of 12

Salmon and Tuna

Salmon Dish
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Even though salmon is considered a "fatty fish", it's still a lean protein and is a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. A 3-ounce serving of wild salmon provides 121 calories, nearly 17 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat), according to the USDA. Another good choice is tuna, which provides 122 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat) in a 3-ounce serving, according to the USDA.

No matter which lean protein food you choose, enjoy your fish grilled, baked, steamed, or as sushi and served with your favorite veggies or a salad. Try different sauces and preparation methods if you're just starting to experiment with fish. If you need a good on-the-go option or just don't feel like cooking, pouches of salmon or tuna are super-convenient.

08 of 12


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They're not just for happy hour — oysters are a delicious and nutritious lean protein food. Just 3 ounces provides 69 calories, 8 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat), according to the USDA. These mollusks are also a good source of zinc, an important nutrient to support healthy immune system function.

Enjoy raw oysters as an appetizer or as a protein pairing alongside a salad or vegetable dish. Squeeze lemon over the oysters and enjoy with vinegar-based mignonette sauce or cocktail sauce or horseradish instead of a creamy tartar sauce. The lean protein food is also delicious roasted or grilled if you don't like the idea of raw fish or just want a change of pace.

09 of 12

Shrimp and Lobster

Shrimp Pasta
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Shellfish lovers, there's good news: Shrimp and lobster are both versatile lean protein foods that are easy to cook. Specifically, a 3-ounce serving of shrimp provides 72 calories, 17 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat total, according to the USDA. Similarly, the same size portion of lobster offers 65 calories, 14 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat, according to the USDA.

Enjoy either seafood grilled, baked, or sautéed with salads, stir-fries, pasta, or your favorite vegetables. Frozen shrimp is also an easy option to keep on hand for busy weeks.

10 of 12

Greek and Icelandic Yogurt

Bowl of Yogurt
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Strained yogurts such as Greek and Icelandic varieties are an easy way to add lean protein to your day. While there is some variation from one brand to the next, generally speaking, a 6-ounce container of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt will provide about 110 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 0 grams fat, according to the USDA.

The lean protein food makes a great base for a healthy meal or snack: Add fiber with chia seeds or ground flax, or top your bowl with berries, another high-fiber food that also provides disease-fighting antioxidants. Going for plain yogurt over flavored allows you to keep added sugar in check, and you can take the flavor up a notch by adding flavor with cinnamon or a small drizzle of honey or maple syrup. In the mood for something savory? A dollop of plain yogurt makes a great sub for sour cream.

11 of 12

Tofu and Tempeh

Tofu Dish
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Soy products such as tofu and tempeh are easy, vegetarian-friendly ways to add lean protein to your diet. Soy is one of the few plant sources of proteins that provides all nine essential amino acids and is therefore considered a complete protein.

Here's the nutritional breakdown: A 3-ounce serving of firm tofu provides about 71 calories, 9 grams of protein, and less than 4 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat), according to the USDA. The same amount of, which is a fermented soy product, offers about 161 calories, 17 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fat (2 grams of saturated fat), according to the USDA.

To add the lean protein foods to your meal rotation, bake, grill, or stir-fry the plant-based eats and incorporate them into sandwiches, salads, and bowls. They tend to take on the flavor of whatever you cook them with, so experiment with various seasonings.

12 of 12

Beans, Peas, and Lentils

Bean Chili
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Perhaps the most affordable lean protein foods are beans, peas, and lentils, which can be purchased dried or cooked. While there may be slight variations in micronutrient content, their nutrient profile is very similar across the board. As a reference, a half-cup serving of canned garbanzo beans contains 120 calories, 7 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat (0 grams saturated), according to the USDA. Likewise, a quarter-cup serving of dried lentils provides about 80 calories, 10 grams protein, and 0 grams of saturated fat, according to the USDA.

Though higher in carbohydrates, this lean protein food is also rich in fiber, so legumes will digest much more slowly than most grains. Enjoy them in soups, stews, and salads; made into burgers or meatless meatballs; or as a base for a veggie bowl. You can also make a dip for veggies or a spread for sandwiches. Crispy chickpeas also make a great crunchy snack. 

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