Top 13 Lean Protein Foods You Should Eat – Nutrition – Healthline
Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet — but what if you’re looking for a high protein meal that’s also lower in fat and calories?
Fortunately, there are a variety of lean animal and plant sources of protein that can help you meet your quota.
The protein Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for an adult who eats 2,000 calories a day is 50 grams, although some people may benefit from eating more than that. Your individual calorie and protein needs are typically based on your age, weight, height, sex, and activity level (1).
Beyond protein’s essential roles in building and maintaining muscle and tissues in your body and helping regulate many body processes, protein also helps promotes satiety (fullness) and may aid in weight management (2, 3).
Here are 13 lean protein foods to consider.
Most white-fleshed fish are quite lean and excellent protein sources, providing less than 3 grams of fat, 20–25 grams of protein, and 85–130 calories per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) plain, cooked serving (4, 5).
Examples of very lean white fish include cod, haddock, grouper, halibut, tilapia, and bass (6).
These white fish generally have only 10–25% as many omega-3 fatty acids as higher fat, higher calorie, darker-fleshed fish such as coho and sockeye salmon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to eat both types of fish (7, 8).
A convenient way to buy plain fish fillets is in the frozen food section of your supermarket. If you move the fillets from your freezer to the refrigerator first thing in the morning, they’ll be thawed and ready to cook for your evening meal.
White-fleshed fish such as cod and halibut are excellent sources of hunger-satisfying protein with little fat and relatively few calories, but other types of fish, such as salmon, have higher amounts of healthy omega-3 fats.
A 6-ounce (170-gram) serving of Greek yogurt packs 15–20 grams of protein, compared with only 9 grams in a serving of regular yogurt (9).
This is because of how Greek yogurt is made. It’s strained to remove the liquid whey, leaving a more concentrated product that has more protein and is thicker and creamier (9).
If you’re looking for the least calories and fat, opt for plain nonfat Greek yogurt, which has less than 2 grams of fat per 156-gram serving (10).
Low fat plain Greek yogurt, which has about 3 grams of fat and 125 calories per 6-ounce serving, is also a good choice. By opting for plain, you skip the unnecessary sweeteners and can add your own fruit (11).
Plain nonfat or low fat Greek yogurt contains about twice as much protein per serving as regular yogurt. It also contains much less sugar.
Dry beans, peas, and lentils, also called pulses, are a subgroup of legumes. They average 8 grams of protein per 1/2-cup (100-gram) cooked serving and are low in fat and high in fiber (12, 13).
The high fiber and protein content in pulses helps make them more filling. What’s more, the fiber may help lower your blood cholesterol if you eat pulses regularly (13).
In a review of 26 studies in 1,037 people, eating an average of 2/3 cup (130 grams) of cooked pulses daily for at least 3 weeksresulted in about a 7 mg/dL reduction in LDL (bad) cholesterol compared with control diets. That equaled an almost 5% reduction in LDL over time (14).
Notably, pulses are low in a few essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein in your body. However, by eating other plant protein sources over the course of a day, such as whole grains and nuts, you can fill in those gaps (13, 15, 16).
Beans, peas, and lentils are good sources of lean protein. They’re also high in fiber and may help lower your cholesterol if you eat them regularly.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked chicken or turkey breast has around 30 grams of protein (17, 18).
Skip dark meat cuts such as drumsticks and thighs to get the leanest meat. White meat includes the breasts, breast tenderloins (tenders), and wings.
If you’re looking to limit calories and fat, try to avoid the skin — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of roasted chicken breast with skin has 200 calories and 8 grams of fat, while the same amount of skinless roasted chicken breast has around 161 calories and 3.5 grams of fat (17, 19).
You can remove the skin either before or after cooking — the fat savings are virtually the same either way. Typically, poultry cooked with the skin intact is moister (20).
White meat chicken and turkey, particularly the breasts, are rich in protein and low in fat if you remove the skin either before or after cooking.
Cottage cheese is a high protein, low fuss food.
A 1-cup (226-gram) serving of low fat (2% milk fat) cottage cheese has 163 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and 28 grams of protein (21).
The newest trends in cottage cheese include single-serve containers, flavored options, and the addition of live and active probiotic cultures.
Besides protein, you get around 10–15% of the RDI for calcium in 1/2 cup of cottage cheese. Some food scientists have recently suggested that manufacturers add vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption, though this is not currently common practice (21, 22).
Low fat cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein and is becoming even more convenient with the increased availability of single-serving containers. It’s also a good source of calcium.
Tofu is an especially viable protein option if you are trying to avoid animal foods. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of tofu has 71 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, and 9 grams of protein, including sufficient amounts of all the essential amino acids (23).
Tofu comes in different textures, which you can choose from based on how you plan to use it. For example, use firm or extra-firm tofu in place of meat that you’d bake, grill, or saute and soft or silken tofu in creamy soups or desserts.
If you’re not 100% sold on tofu, edamame and tempeh are two other whole food sources of soy that are high in protein and relatively low in calories and fat.
Note that about 95% of soybeans produced in the United States are genetically modified (GM). If you prefer to avoid GM foods, you can buy organic tofu — organic foods cannot be genetically modified (24, 25, 26).
Tofu is a good source of plant protein that provides adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids and is very versatile in recipes.
Lean cuts of beef are those with less than 10 grams of total fat and no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (27).
If you’re buying fresh beef that doesn’t have a nutrition label, certain words, such as “loin” and “round,” tell you the meat is lean. For example, sirloin and tenderloin steaks, eye of round roast, and round steak are all lean (28).
When it comes to ground beef, opt for something that’s at least 90% lean. A 4-ounce (113-gram) cooked hamburger patty made with 95% ground beef has 155 calories, 5.6 grams of total fat (including 2.4 grams of saturated fat), and 24 grams of protein (28, 29).
What’s more, a serving of lean beef is an excellent source of several B vitamins, zinc, and selenium (29).
Lean beef is generally signaled by the word “loin” or “round.” If buying ground beef, try to find something that’s at least 90% lean. Lean beef is an excellent source of protein and also packs B vitamins, zinc, and selenium.
The natural oil in peanut butter is heart-healthy but can pack a lot of calories. Just 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of regular peanut butter have about 200 calories and 16 grams of fat, along with 7 grams of protein (30).
A lower calorie option is unsweetened powdered peanut butter. Most of its fat is pressed out during processing. A 2-tablespoon serving has just 45 calories and 1 gram of fat but 4 grams of protein (31).
To use the powder like peanut butter, mix it with a little water at a time until it reaches a similar consistency to regular peanut butter. Keep in mind that it won’t be quite as creamy.
Reconstituted powdered peanut butter works especially well for dipping apples, bananas, or even dark chocolate. Alternatively, you can mix the dry powder into smoothies, shakes, oatmeal, or pancake or muffin batter to add a punch of flavor and protein.
Powdered peanut butter is a convenient protein source that has just a fraction of the calories and fat of regular peanut butter.
Whether you drink it, cook with it, or add it to cereal, low fat milk is an easy way to get protein.
A 1-cup serving of low fat milk with 1% milk fat has 8 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, and 105 calories. In comparison, a serving of whole milk with 3.25% milk fat has the same amount of protein but 146 calories and about 8 grams of fat (32, 33).
Clearly, opting for low fat milk will save you calories and fat. However, some recent studies suggest that drinking whole milk may not increase heart disease risk, as was once thought, and may even help with weight management (34, 35).
However, more studies need to be done in both areas before any conclusions can be made. If you aren’t sure which dairy milk option is best for you, especially if you’re already living with high cholesterol or heart disease, talk it over with a doctor or a registered dietitian.
Low fat milk is a good source of protein and can save you a significant amount of fat and calories compared with whole milk, especially if you consume it often.
A handful of pork cuts meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of “lean,” which means less than 10 grams of fat and no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (27).
The keywords that indicate lean pork are “loin” and “chop.” Therefore, lean cuts include pork tenderloin, pork (loin) chops, and pork top loin or sirloin roasts (28).
Pork tenderloin, the leanest cut, has 123 calories, 23 grams of protein, and about 2 grams of fat per 4-ounce (113-gram) cooked serving (36).
Before cooking pork, trim off any fat around the edges. You can use low fat cooking methods, such as grilling or broiling, if you’re looking to cut back on fat and calories.
Like lean beef, lean pork is an excellent source of several B vitamins and selenium and a good source of zinc (36).
You can find lean pork by looking for the word “loin” or “chop.” Even so, be sure to cut off excess fat on the meat if you’re trying to limit fat and calories. Pork is also rich in B vitamins, selenium, and zinc.
If you’re looking for a lot of protein for fewer calories, frozen unbreaded shrimp are a convenient option. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving has 110 calories, 22 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fat (37).
Though the same serving also has 150 mg of cholesterol, scientists have found that consuming cholesterol as part of a nutritious diet generally has little impact on the heart health of people who are not currently living with heart disease or high cholesterol (38).
However, the high amount of sodium often added to shrimp during processing may be of concern for some people. Most of this sodium comes from additives, including sodium tripolyphosphate, which helps retain moisture, and the preservative sodium bisulfite (39).
If salt is a concern for you, look for frozen shrimp that contain only naturally occurring sodium.
Unbreaded frozen shrimp are a convenient, low fat, high protein food. Read nutrition labels when shopping to avoid products with high sodium content.
You can eat whole eggs (cholesterol and all) as part of a heart-healthy diet, but if you’re looking for something a little lighter, you can use just the whites (40, 41, 42).
One egg white contains less than 0.5 grams of fat but 3.5 grams of protein, which is about half of the protein in a whole egg (43, 44, 45).
You may want to try an egg white omelet or egg white muffins made with baby spinach and chives or diced peppers and onions. Alternatively, you can scramble egg whites with veggies to make a filling or topping for wraps, tostadas, or toast.
You can also buy powdered egg whites and egg white protein powders with minimal or no additives. These products are pasteurized, so you don’t have to cook them to ensure food safety (46).
You can mix powdered egg whites with water and use them like fresh egg whites. You can also add powdered egg whites to smoothies, shakes, or homemade protein bars.
Half the protein in eggs comes from the whites, but the whites contain only trace amounts of fat and less than a quarter of the calories of whole eggs.
Whether you call it bison or buffalo, it’s a nutritious, lean protein source that may have an edge over conventionally raised beef.
First, bison is leaner than beef. When scientists compared sirloin steak and chuck roast from grain-fed cattle (beef) to bison, the beef had more than twice as much fat as the bison meat (47).
Additionally, bison is more likely to be grass-fed rather than raised in a feedlot like cattle, which are primarily fed grains.
That gives bison a healthier fat profile, including 3–4 times more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, particularly alpha-linolenic acid. Preliminary research suggests that consuming bison may yield health benefits (47).
In a 2013 study, when healthy men ate 12 ounces of beef or bison (sirloin steak and chuck roast) 6 times weekly for 7 weeks, their levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, increased by 72% on the beef-rich diet but only slightly on the bison-rich diet (47).
Like most other foods, red meat should be consumed in moderate amounts. But if you enjoy red meat and want to keep your health in check, bison may be a good option.
Bison is leaner than beef and has a healthier, less inflammatory fat profile.
A balanced, nutritious diet will always include some fats along with protein and fiber. But if you’re specifically looking to limit your fat and calorie intake for dietary reasons, lean animal and plant protein sources are plentiful.
White-fleshed fish and skinless white meat poultry are among the leanest animal proteins. However, you can also find lean red meat by looking for the words “loin” and “round.”
Many dairy products, such as low fat cottage cheese, yogurt (especially Greek yogurt), and low fat milk, are also low in fat and are good sources of protein.
Plant proteins such as beans, tofu, and powdered peanut butter offer ample amounts of protein as well.
Because everyone’s health histories and nutritional needs are different, it’s important to consult a doctor or registered dietitian before making big changes to your diet.
Try this today: If you’re looking for more plant-powered protein ideas, don’t forget quinoa, which has around 8 grams of protein and only 2.5 grams of fat in 1 cooked cup (48)!