What is Lean Protein? Healthy Strong Muscles and Weight Loss

What is Lean Protein? Healthy Strong Muscles and Weight Loss
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You’ve probably heard the term “lean protein” thrown around quite a bit, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or build muscle. But what exactly is lean protein, why is it so important, and how can you incorporate more of it into your diet? This comprehensive guide will answer all your questions and more.

What is Lean Protein?

Lean protein refers to protein-rich foods that are low in fat and calories compared to fattier cuts of meat or other high-fat protein sources. The word “lean” essentially means there is a low amount of fat.

Not all proteins are considered lean. Some examples of lean protein sources include:

  • Lean cuts of beef like sirloin, tenderloin, and 93% lean ground beef
  • Skinless chicken and turkey breast
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Fish like cod, tuna, salmon, and halibut
  • Eggs and egg whites
  • Lean vegetarian protein like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame
  • Low-fat dairy like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese
  • Protein powders like whey, casein, soy, pea, etc.

On the other hand, proteins that are not considered lean include fattier cuts of meat like ribeye steak, chicken thighs and legs with the skin on, bacon, sausages, and fried meats or proteins. While these can certainly have a place in a balanced diet, they are higher in fat and calories.

Why is Lean Protein Important?

There are many important reasons to include adequate amounts of lean protein in your diet:

1. Builds and Maintains Muscle Mass

Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. When you eat protein, it gets broken down into amino acids that are then used to build and repair muscle tissue. This is especially important if you strength train or do any kind of resistance exercise.

Eating enough lean protein, combined with strength training, provides your body with the nutrients it needs to build lean muscle mass.

2. Keeps You Feeling Full for Longer

Compared to carbohydrates and fats, protein is the most satiating macronutrient. In other words, protein-rich foods help keep you feeling fuller for longer after eating. This can prevent overeating and unnecessary snacking between meals. The increase in satiety from lean protein may also aid in weight loss.

3. Boosts Metabolism and Fat Burning

Protein has a higher thermic effect than carbs and fat, meaning your body burns more calories just digesting and metabolizing it. Some research shows that a protein-rich diet can boost metabolism by up to 100 calories per day compared to lower protein diets.

Lean protein can help your body burn a few extra calories each day.

4. Supports Healthy Aging

As we get older, we start to lose muscle mass, strength and function, a process known as sarcopenia. Eating enough high-quality lean protein, combined with strength training, can help minimize muscle loss as you age and maintain strength and mobility.

5. Provides Essential Nutrients

In addition to its protein content, lean protein foods provide a variety of important vitamins and minerals. Meats provide nutrients like B vitamins, iron, zinc and creatine.

Fish is an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Plant proteins like beans contain fiber, folate, magnesium and antioxidants.

How Much Lean Protein Do You Need?

The amount of lean protein you need depends on factors like your age, sex, activity level and goals. However, most health professionals recommend getting between 10-35% of your total daily calories from protein.

For someone eating 2,000 calories per day, that equates to:

  • 10% of calories: 50 grams of protein
  • 20% of calories: 100 grams of protein
  • 35% of calories: 175 grams of protein

If you are very active, trying to build muscle, or are older, you may need to aim for the higher end of that range. For fat loss and weight maintenance, studies show higher protein intakes of 0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight (1.2-1.6 g/kg) can be beneficial.

For a sedentary 150 lb (68 kg) woman trying to lose weight, that equates to 75-120 grams of lean protein per day. A very muscular 200 lb (90 kg) man who trains may need 100-160 grams or more per day.

Getting enough lean protein helps preserve lean muscle mass while dieting. It’s a common mistake for people to cut too many proteins when trying to lose weight.

Easy Ways to Eat More Lean Protein

If you struggle to get enough lean protein in your diet, try some of these simple tips and swaps:

  • Start your day with eggs or a protein shake made with protein powder.
  • Choose Greek yogurt or cottage cheese for snacks.
  • Make sure each meal contains a lean protein source like grilled chicken, fish, lean beef or plant proteins.
  • Sprinkle protein powder into oatmeal, smoothies or yogurt.
  • Nibble on jerky, edamame, protein bars or roasted chickpeas for snacks.
  • Choose leaner cuts of meat and remove skin from poultry.
  • Have a protein shake or lean meat after strength training.

Top Sources of Lean Protein

There are many excellent lean protein options to choose from to meet your needs. Here are some of the top sources of lean protein to incorporate into your diet:

Chicken Breast

One of the leanest and most popular protein sources, skinless chicken breast contains around 27 grams of protein per 3.5 oz (100 gram) portion with very little fat or calories. Chicken is versatile, affordable and easy to prepare in endless ways.


Most varieties of fish are considered lean protein sources, especially white fish like cod, halibut, tilapia and haddock. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel are technically not “lean” but still high in healthy protein and omega-3 fats. A 3 oz (85 gram) portion of grilled salmon provides about 17 grams of protein.

Lean Beef

Look for leaner cuts of beef like sirloin, tenderloin, 93% lean ground beef and flank steak. A 3 oz (85 gram) serving of grilled lean beef provides around 22 grams of protein and is packed with nutrients like iron, zinc and B vitamins.

Turkey Breast

Similar to chicken breast, roasted turkey breast is a lean, low-fat source of quality protein. A 3 oz (85 gram) portion has about 25 grams of protein.

Eggs and Egg Whites

Whole eggs are an inexpensive, nutrient-dense source of protein with about 6 grams per large egg. Egg whites are even leaner, with 3.6 grams of protein per 1/4 cup (62 grams) with almost no fat or calories.

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is strained, giving it a thick, creamy texture and nearly double the protein as regular yogurt. One 7 oz (200 gram) container provides around 20 grams of protein along with beneficial nutrients like calcium, B vitamins and probiotics.


Lentils are one of the leanest vegetarian proteins, with 9 grams of protein per 1/2 cup (99 gram) cooked serving. They are also an excellent source of fiber, folate, iron and other nutrients.

Tofu and Tempeh

These minimally processed soy foods are high in lean, plant-based protein. A 3.5 oz (100 gram) portion of firm tofu provides around 10 grams of protein while tempeh has 19 grams per 3.5 oz.

Protein Powders

Protein powders are one of the leanest and most convenient sources of protein. Popular varieties like whey, casein, pea, soy and others contain around 20-30 grams of protein per single scoop with minimal fat, carbs or calories.

No matter your dietary preferences or lifestyle, there are plenty of excellent lean protein options to choose from to meet your daily protein needs. Include a few servings from this list for optimum health and fitness.

What are The Differences Between Lean Protein and Fatty Protein?

While all protein sources provide amino acids that are essential for many functions in the body, there are distinct differences between lean proteins and fattier protein options. Understanding these differences can help you make more informed choices to meet your health and nutrition goals.

Calorie and Fat Content

The primary difference between lean and fatty proteins lies in their calorie and fat content. Lean proteins are low in calories and contain minimal amounts of fat, especially saturated fat. In contrast, fatty proteins are much higher in calories and total fat, including higher levels of saturated fat.

For example, a 3.5 oz (100 gram) serving of grilled skinless chicken breast contains about 165 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. However, the same portion of fried chicken breast contains over 400 calories and a whopping 25 grams of fat, with a good portion being saturated fat from the frying oil.

Effects on Health

Due to their lower calorie and fat content, lean proteins are generally considered more healthful options. They are less likely to contribute to weight gain, high cholesterol, heart disease and other chronic illnesses often linked to eating too many high-fat, high-calorie foods.

That said, not all fats are inherently “bad” for you. Fatty fish like salmon are higher in fat but provide beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that support heart health. In moderation, fattier proteins can have a place in an overall balanced diet.

Role in Weight Management

For those watching their weight, lean proteins are the smarter choice as they provide a protein boost with far fewer accompanying calories and fat. This makes it easier to create a calorie deficit for weight loss or maintenance without skimping on vital nutrients.

Fattier proteins pack a lot more calories into relatively small portions. For example, you could eat two 3.5 oz (100 gram) grilled chicken breasts for around 330 calories or just 3-4 small fried chicken wings for the same 330 calories.

Impact on Satiety

Protein is the most filling of all the macronutrients, but some research shows that leaner proteins may increase satiety even more than fattier versions. So opting for lean proteins at meals and snacks can help you feel fuller for longer on fewer calories.

Nutrient Density

Many lean proteins like skinless poultry, fish, eggs, and low-fat dairy are considered nutrient-dense foods – they provide a decent amount of beneficial vitamins and minerals relative to their calorie load

Fattier proteins may also provide nutrients but are often accompanied by higher amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol.

There’s certainly room for both lean and fattier protein sources in a healthy, balanced diet. But if your goals are weight loss, appetite control or overall wellness, emphasizing lean proteins is generally the smartest approach for optimizing nutrition and managing calories.

The Bottom Line

Lean protein should be a staple in any balanced, healthy diet. It provides essential nutrients to build and maintain lean muscle, helps keep you feeling fuller for longer, boosts metabolism and supports overall health.

Whether you are looking to build muscle, lose weight or just stay healthy and strong as you age, get plenty of delicious lean proteins from foods like chicken, fish, lean beef, eggs, low-fat dairy and plant-based sources. Your body will thank you!

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