The topic of protein—whether in the context of high-protein foods, products, or lifestyles—has been ubiquitous for over a decade at this point. But in addition to being a long-standing health-conscious dietary trend, daily protein intake is actually very important, as it’s central to so many different functions in everyone’s body.

With this in mind, the type of protein we consume matters, as there are plenty of protein sources to choose from, each with its own nutritional impact. This is where the concept of lean protein comes into play. You’ve likely heard that it’s best to eat “lean protein” — but what exactly does that mean, and is lean protein the best, most nutritious type of protein? Here’s what you should know about this important nutrient source.

Why is protein important?

When it comes to maintaining optimal health, eating the right amount and type of protein is essential for you. As one of the three macronutrients in the diet, along with carbohydrates and fats, “protein in general is an important nutrient to help support many bodily functions including maintaining cells, building muscle contraction and contraction, tissue repair and wound healing,” says Asmita Batajoo, MS, RD. Protein also provides us with energy while driving the charge in effectively creating every structure in the body including the components of our cells, the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in our blood, our organs, our hair, skin, nails and most other tissues you can think of. .

Everyone needs slightly different amounts of protein depending on a variety of factors. While there are accounts you can refer to, the best way to get this individual information is to seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian. (Head here for more information on how much protein to eat each day).

What is lean protein?

So, what exactly is lean protein, and how does it compare to other protein sources? “According to the USDA, lean protein sources contain less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol or less per 3.5-ounce serving,” says Batjo. Effectively, these options span across different types of protein sources, including low-fat animal proteins and plant proteins.

Are lean protein foods healthier than other fatty sources of protein? It is complicated.

These nutrients highlighted are very important because saturated fat and cholesterol have historically been identified as nutrients associated with heart disease due to their negative effect on blood lipid levels, such as cholesterol. However, the research paints a murkier picture. One meta-analysis supported these theories, finding that reducing saturated fat intake over two years led to fewer cardiovascular events. While another did not find a relationship between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Other studies, including this one published in Lipids in Health and Disease, And this systematic review in nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular disease, found the same lack of connection.

There is a similar conversation about dietary cholesterol. More studies continue to debunk the widely accepted claim that cholesterol is associated with cardiac events, which is not supported by evidence. But then (again) there are others that show an association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease.

These mixed results may be due to a number of mitigating circumstances, such as participants changing their diet in ways that do not otherwise support heart health. It’s also important to recognize that “saturated fat” is an umbrella term for the dozens of saturated fatty acids out there, some of which will benefit your blood lipid levels, and some of which will be harmful. It is difficult to know the exact composition of the saturated fatty acids that you eat in any food because each will be different based on the environment in which the food was grown.

bottom line:

So what’s the takeaway here? Despite some conflicting evidence, enough research indicates a negative association between heart health and both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, and it’s best to prioritize lean protein options as possible, whenever possible.

In addition to being low in saturated fat and cholesterol, Batajoo adds that many sources of lean protein are also “great sources of iron, zinc, and B12, with other sources offering omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.” Here are some of the best examples of lean proteins that you can add to your regular diet.

Sources of healthy protein

White poultry without skin

Caitlin Pencil

Whether it’s chicken, turkey, or another type of poultry, the leanest part of the bird will always be the white meat, or the breasts. In terms of the thinnest, choose the skinless variety because the skin carries a lot of the saturated fat content. Even cooking breasts with the skin on and removing them before eating will result in some saturated fat being consumed as the fat seeps into the meat during cooking.

Lean pork (such as beef steak)

Caitlin Pencil

When it comes to pork, tenderloins and chops with little visible fat are the best lean cuts available. Steer clear of pork belly (such as bacon) and pork shoulder, if lean protein is the goal—these are some of the fattest cuts of meat you can find in all of the animal products.


Hime Lee

White, flaky fish like cod, sea bass, halibut, and trout are great choices for lean protein. Plus, its mild taste and delicate texture lends itself perfectly to a variety of international dishes and regional cuisines, from Mexican to Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian.


Victor Protasius

Good news for the clam, shrimp, and lobster lovers out there: These healthy seafood options are low in total fat content (including saturated fat and cholesterol), which qualifies them as ideal lean protein choices. In addition, they are a natural source of iodine, a mineral that supports thyroid health.

fat fish

Greg Dupree

Although this may seem counterintuitive, fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines all meet the criteria for lean protein. This is because the fats they contain are mostly unsaturated fats, which are actually bound to improve Heart health, especially the four incredibly rich omega-3 fatty acids.

eggs (especially egg whites)

Jennifer Causey

Eggs – whole eggs – are very healthy for you. Egg whites are a pure, lean protein source and an excellent choice when it comes to lean protein. If we start with the technical, egg yolks are a classic example of sources of dietary cholesterol – however, the vitamin D (which is hard to find in the diet) found in eggs is entirely in the yolk.

Given this balance, enjoying whole eggs in moderation is a great choice. One way to mix these two health goals is to make a dough or omelet with two or three whole egg whites or choose to eat whole eggs only a few times a week (versus, say, every day).

Yogurt and low-fat dairy products

Victor Protasius

Low-fat dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt and milk, are also good sources of lean protein. As a fermented food, yogurt has the added benefit of probiotics, which will help promote healthy gut bacteria in your microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome means better digestion, immunity, brain health — the list goes on.

tofu and tempeh

Caitlin Pencil

Many people only think of animal foods when lean protein comes to mind, but plant-based options absolutely meet the criteria — and with added health benefits. In fact, in general, you’ll only find saturated fat and cholesterol in animal sources, though there will always be some exceptions. However, soy-based tempeh and tofu are complete protein sources (as are all animal proteins, but not all plant proteins) while providing fiber and plant compounds.


Victor Protasius

Beans, peas, and lentils, also known as legumes, are incredible lean protein vegan options that will also provide fiber, plant compounds, and other vitamins and minerals. D, anyone?


Victor Protasius

Don’t forget that some grain options are great sources of lean protein. Quinoa is rich in protein and low in fat. Plus, it’s a complete protein, which means it provides all nine essential amino acids, which can be hard to find among plant-based protein options. To add even more protein and heart to your grain bowl or side dish, choose quinoa as your grain of choice (or mix some quinoa into your rice!).

Lean red meat (in moderation)

Grace Alkos

Similar to pork, tenderloin — that’s where filet mignon comes from — would be the leaner beef option. Otherwise, look for steaks with as little white fat as possible. However, don’t eat red meat, as too much can contribute to inflammation, which has been linked to chronic diseases like heart disease and colon cancer.

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