The Best Lean Protein Foods and Why They’re Healthy for You – Real Simple

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Everyday protein intake is foundational for so many bodily functions. With this in mind, the type of protein we consume matters, as there are lots of protein sources to choose from, each with its own nutritional impact. Lean protein foods are the healthiest pick—so we caught up with a registered dietitian to list some lean protein options and tips for how to eat more of them. Here’s what to know about this important nutrient source.

Asmita Batajoo, MS, RD. is a San Francisco-based registered dietician with a bachelor of science in nutrition sciences and a master of science in human nutrition science.

What Is Lean Protein?

So, how does lean protein compare to other protein sources? “According to the United States Department of Agriculture, lean protein sources have less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less from saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol or less per 3.5 oz serving,” says Asmita Batajoo, MS, RD. Effectively, these options span across various types of protein sources, including lower-fat animal-based proteins and plant-based proteins.

Beyond being low in saturated fat and cholesterol, Batajoo adds that many lean protein sources are also “great sources of iron, zinc and B12, with other sources offering omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial plant chemicals, vitamins, minerals and fiber.”

Importance of Protein

When it comes to maintaining optimal health, it’s vital to eat the correct amount and kind of protein for you. As one of the three major macronutrients in the diet, alongside carbohydrates and fats, “protein, in general, is a critical nutrient in helping to support many bodily functions including cell maintenance, muscle building and contraction, repairing tissues, and wound healing,” says Batajoo.

Protein also provides us with energy while leading the charge in the formation of effectively every structure in the body, including components of our cells, oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in our blood, organs, hair, skin, nails, and most other tissues you can think of.

Each person needs slightly different amounts of protein depending on a variety of factors. While there are calculations you can turn to, the best way to obtain this individualized information is to seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional, like a registered dietitian.

Is Lean Protein Healthier Than Fatty Protein?

In short, whether lean protein is healthier is complicated. In most cases, lean protein is considered healthier because it is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. These highlighted nutrients are important because saturated fat and cholesterol have historically been pinpointed as nutrients correlated with heart disease due to their negative impact on blood lipid levels, like cholesterol. The research, however, paints a murkier picture.

One meta-analysis supported these theories, finding that a reduction in saturated fat intake over two years resulted in reduced cardiovascular events. While another did not find a correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Other studies, including one published in Lipids in Health and Disease and one systematic review in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases, found the same lack of connection. 

There is a similar discourse surrounding dietary cholesterol. More studies continue to unravel the widely accepted claim that cholesterol is linked to cardiac events, which is not supported by evidence. But then (again) there are others that do show a correlation between dietary cholesterol and heart disease.

These varying results could be due to a number of extenuating circumstances like participants altering their diets in ways unsupportive of heart health from other angles. It’s also important to acknowledge that “saturated fat” is an umbrella term for the dozens of saturated fatty acids that exist, some of which will benefit blood lipid levels and some of which will be detrimental. It’s hard to know the exact makeup of saturated fatty acids you’re consuming in any given food as each will be different based on the environment that food was grown in. 

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

Healthy Lean Protein Sources

Here are some of the best examples of lean protein you can add to your regular meal rotation.

Skinless, White Meat Poultry

Caitlin Bensel

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 leanness, opt for the skinless versions as the skin carries much of the saturated fat content. Even cooking the breast with the skin on and removing it prior to eating will still result in some saturated fat consumption as the fat seeps into the meat during cooking.

Lean Pork (Like Chops and Tenderloin)

Caitlin Bensel

When it comes to pork, the tenderloin and the chop with little visible fat are the best lean cuts available. Steer clear of pork belly (i.e. bacon) and pork shoulder, if lean protein is the aim—these cuts are some of the fattiest meats you can find across all animal-based products.

White Fish

Heami Lee

Flaky white fish like cod, sea bass, halibut, and trout are all fantastic lean protein options. Plus, their mild taste and delicate texture lends perfectly to a variety of global dishes and regional cuisines, from Mexican to Indian, Middle Eastern to Asian.


Victor Protasio

Good news for clam, shrimp, and lobster lovers out there: These healthy seafood options are all low in overall fat content (including saturated fat and cholesterol), qualifying them as ideal lean protein options. Plus, they are a natural source of iodine, a mineral supportive of thyroid health.

Fatty Fish

Greg DuPree

While this may seem counterintuitive, fatty fish like salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines all meet the criteria for lean protein. This is because the fat they do contain is mostly unsaturated fat, which is actually tied to improved heart health, especially the omega-3 fatty acids that all four are incredibly rich in.

Eggs (Especially Egg Whites)


Eggs—whole eggs—are very healthy for you. Egg whites are basically pure, fat-free sources of protein and an excellent choice when aiming for lean protein. If we’re getting technical, egg yolks are a classic example of dietary cholesterol sources—that said, the vitamin D (which is so hard to find in the diet) found in eggs is entirely contained in the yolk.

Given this balancing act, enjoying whole eggs in moderation is a great option. One way to meld these two health objectives is to make a scramble or an omelet with two or three egg whites and one whole egg or opt to have whole eggs only a few times per week (versus, say, every day).

Yogurt and Low-Fat Dairy

Victor Protasio

Low-fat dairy, like cottage cheese, yogurt, and milk, are also great lean protein sources. As a fermented food, yogurt has the added bonus of probiotics, which will help to boost the healthy gut bacteria in your microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome means better digestion, immunity, brain health—the list goes on.

Tofu and Tempeh

Caitlin Bensel

Many people only think of animal-based foods when lean protein comes to mind, but plant-based options absolutely meet the criteria—and with added healthy benefits. In fact, generally, you’ll pretty much only find saturated fat and cholesterol in animal-based sources, though there are always some exceptions. Soy-based tofu and tempeh are complete protein sources (like all animal proteins are, but not all plant proteins are) while offering fiber and plant compounds.


Victor Protasio

Beans, peas, and lentils, otherwise known as legumes, are incredible plant-based lean protein options that will also deliver on fiber, plant compounds, and other vitamins and minerals. Dal, anyone?


Greg DuPree

Edamame might not feel as filling as some of the other lean proteins on this list, but it’s a legume that is packed with protein. In fact, edamame is a complete protein source, which means that it contains all nine essential amino acids—which can be difficult to find in plant-based protein options.


Victor Protasio

Don’t forget that certain grain options are great sources of lean protein. Quinoa is super high in protein and very low in fat. Plus, it’s a complete protein, meaning it provides all nine essential amino acids, which can be tricky to find amongst plant-based protein options. To add extra protein and heartiness to a grain bowl or side dish, opt for quinoa as your grain of choice (or mix some quinoa into rice!).

Lean Red Meat (in Moderation)

Grace Elkus

Similarly to pork, the tenderloin—where filet mignon comes from—will be the leanest beef option. Otherwise, look for steaks with as little visible white fat as possible. However, go easy with red meat, as excessive intake can contribute to inflammation has ties to chronic disease like heart disease and colon cancer.


Gema Alvarez Fernandez/Getty Images

Seitan is also rich in protein. It’s a vegan meat alternative made from vital wheat gluten and water. Because vital wheat gluten is made by removing most of the starch from flour, all that’s left is almost entirely gluten. Because of this process, seitan is extremely high in protein.

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