12 Sources of Lean Protein (Plus, What That Even Means)
What Is Lean Protein?
Protein is an important nutrient for supporting body functions like tissue repair, cell maintenance, hormone function, enzymatic reactions, and muscle building. Protein also helps regulate blood sugar and keeps you feeling full, which is why it's important for weight management.
But there are many different plant and animal protein sources to choose from, so how do you know which are considered "lean protein"?
We hear the term "lean protein" all the time, but what does that actually mean? There are a few different definitions. The 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.
Lean proteins also tend to have fewer calories per serving, because of it's lower fat content. Fat is 9 calories per gram and protein is 4 calories per gram, so it's easy to understand why higher-fat meat like a ribeye steak will have more calories than the same portion size of a leaner cut like filet mignon. So if you're keeping an eye on calories or saturated fat intake, incorporating lean proteins into your diet can help you achieve your goals without going hungry.
Here some great sources of lean protein and how to choose which one is best for you.
White Meat Chicken
White meat chicken is perhaps one of the most popular sources of lean protein. A 100-gram serving (about 3.57 ounces) of boneless, skinless chicken breast is109 calories, 22 grams of protein, and 1.6 grams fat (0.4 grams saturated).
Yes, you can grill your white meat chicken, but you can also bake it (my favorite recipe involves marinating chicken breast in yogurt and spices or hummus) or even preparing it in a slow cooker. Try it with broth or even water and wine with herbs or even a jar of your favorite salsa will help keep the meat moist and tender. Enjoy it served with your favorite veggies and a whole-grain or in soups, salads, sandwiches. (Related: 10 Chicken Breast Recipes That Take Less Than 30 Minutes to Make)
White Meat Turkey
While you may be more accustomed to eating sliced deli turkey unless it's Thanksgiving, white meat turkey cuts or ground turkey makes a great stand-in for chicken or as a substitute for beef. A 3.5-ounce serving provides about 113 calories, 23 grams of protein, and 1.5 grams of fat (0 grams saturated).
Enjoy ground turkey in soup or chili, in a taco or burrito or bowl, or made into burgers, meatballs, or meatloaf. Cuts of turkey can be enjoyed as you would chicken. While deli turkey is still considered lean protein source, opt for it in moderation, as it's still a processed meat and very high in sodium. (Related: High-Protein Ground Turkey Recipes to Make for Dinner Tonight)
Whether you remember those ads calling pork "the other white meat" or not, lean pork also counts as a lean protein. In a 3.5-ounce portion, you'll get about 110 calories, 21 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat (less than 1 gram of saturated fat). Some examples of lean cuts of pork are tenderloin, sirloin pork chop, and New York pork roast.
Enjoy it grilled or baked. It plays equally well with both sweet and savory flavors, so play around with different sauces and marinades. One of my favorite flavor combinations with pork is balsamic and fig preserves. If you're afraid of drying it out too much, you can also make pork in the slow cooker. If you're craving pulled pork, it's really easy to make in the crockpot or pressure cooker with your favorite BBQ sauce. (Related: 20 Delicious Fall Crock Pot Recipes)
A lot of people shy away from beef when trying to keep an eye on calories and 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 3.5-ounce portion of beef tenderloin, for example, contains about 150 calories, 22 grams of protein, and 6.5 grams of fat, with 2.5 grams of saturated fat. In additional to being a lean protein provider, beef is also a good source of iron.
In a restaurant, look for cuts like 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 like vinegar or citrus will help tenderize the meat. Kiwi also 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. Blended burgers are a great way to stretch that meaty flavor but keep your red meat and saturated fat intake in check.
As an alternative lean protein source, try lamb. For comparison, 3.5 ounces of lamb tenderloin provides 115 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fat (1 gram saturated).
Eggs and Egg Whites
Eggs are a super-convenient and versatile protein source (not to mention affordable) that also provides instant portion control. One large egg contains about 70 calories, 6 grams protein, 5 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat). One large egg white provides about 17 calories, 3.6 grams of protein, and 0 grams of fat.
Sometimes people are afraid to eat the yolks because they're put off by the cholesterol and saturated fat content, but keep in mind that the yolk is also where you'll find important nutrients like vitamin D and brain-boosting choline. (Related: Your Guide to Buying The Healthiest Eggs)
If you're keeping an eye on saturated fat or cholesterol intake, you can try mixing whites and yolks in a scramble or omelet or, if having hard-boiled eggs, removing a few yolks. Eggs can be eaten for any meal of the day and work very well with vegetables, and you can also cook eggs or egg whites into oats (yes, way) to add a fluffy texture and extra protein to give your bowl some staying power. For a healthier spin on egg salad, swap mayo for plain Greek yogurt or skyr, hummus, or avocado.
On the fish front, white fish is one of the leanest protein options around. 3.5 ounces of wild Atlantic cod, for example, provides about 80 calories, 18 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat.
This is a great lean protein choice if you don't like the stronger flavors of oilier fish like salmon and sardines. Know that because it's so lean, white fish like cod, fluke, and flounder can easily dry out during cooking. So, bake it until it's just barely opaque or try a moist preparation method like poaching or steaming in the oven or on the grill in foil packets with your favorite herbs and spices.
Even though salmon is considered a "fatty fish", it's still considered a lean protein and is a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. A servings size of 3.5 ounces of wild salmon provides 140 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat (less than 1 gram saturated).
Another good choice is tuna, which provides 100 calories, 22 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat in a 3.5-ounce serving.
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. (Related: How to Meal Prep Mediterranean Diet Lunches In 3 Easy Steps)
They're not just for happy hour—oysters are a delicious and nutritious lean protein option. Just 3.5 ounces (about 6 medium oysters) provides 80 calories, 9 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat (0.5 grams saturated). These mollusks 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. They're also delicious roasted or grilled if you don't like the idea of raw fish or just want a change of pace.
A really versatile lean protein seafood option that's very easy to cook. Three and a half ounces provides 85 calories, 20 grams of protein, and less than 1 gram of fat.
Enjoy shrimp grilled, baked, or sautéed with salads, stir-fries, pasta, or your favorite vegetables. Frozen shrimp is an easy option to keep on hand for busy weeks.
A similar option to try if you enjoy shrimp is lobster. In 3.5 ounces of lobster you'll get 75 calories, 17grams protein, and less than 1 gram of fat.
Greek Yogurt and Icelandic Yogurt
Strained yogurts like 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 7-ounce container of low-fat plain Greek yogurt will provide about 140 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 4 grams fat (2.5 grams saturated). (Related: 12 Yogurt Health Benefits That Show Off Its Nutritional Power)
Yogurt 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. Try 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.
Tofu and Tempeh
Soy in its less-processed forms like 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.
A 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of firm tofu provides about 90 calories, 9 grams of protein, and 4 grams of fat (0 grams saturated). The same amount of tempeh, which is a fermented soy product, provides about 190 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat (1 gram saturated).
Try your tofu and tempeh baked, grilled, or stir-fried and added to sandwiches, salads, and bowls. They tend to take on the flavor of whatever you cook them with so experiment with various seasonings.
Beans, Peas, and Lentils
Perhaps the most affordable sources of lean protein 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 cooked garbanzo beans contains 130 calories, 5 grams protein, 1 gram fat (0 grams saturated). A half-cup serving of cooked lentils will set you back about 115 calories, 9 grams protein, 0.3 grams fat (0 grams saturated).
Though higher in carbohydrates, they are also rich in fiber, so these legumes will digest much more slowly than most grains. Enjoy them in soups, stews, salads, made into burgers or meatless meatballs, or as a base for a veggie bowl. You can also make a dip for veggies or to spread on sandwiches. Crispy chickpeas also make a great crunchy snack. (Related: 6 Healthy Recipes That Will Turn You On to Pulses)