Q: Why does lean protein help me lose weight?
A: Just like you need carbohydrates and fat, you also need protein in order to live. When you think protein, think building—you need it to build muscles (and skin and hair), build hormones and enzymes, and even build antibodies for a healthy immune system.
Protein is used in many bodily functions including cell maintenance and repair and blood clotting.
Ever wonder why your belly rages in hunger shortly after that morning muffin but stays calm and quiet after a hearty omelet? You guessed it: protein.
Protein aids in satiety by affecting the hormones which control hunger and how fast food empties from our stomachs. It also has the highest thermal effect of food (TEF), meaning it burns the most calories during digestion, compared to carbohydrates and fats.
And, we all know that protein helps build muscle and muscle burns more calories (yes, even while you sleep) than fat.
The USDA defines lean meat as having less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol in a 3.5-ounce portion.
It’s also defined as a 1-ounce serving having 2 to 3 grams of fat.
Lean meat provides less calories for equal amounts of protein than higher fat meat. An example of this would be different cuts of beef.
One ounce of a lower fat cut like a top round offers 52 calories, only 2 grams of fat (.75 grams saturated), and 8 grams of protein.
The same one ounce of a higher fat cut such as a ribeye steak contains a much higher 83 calories, a whopping 6 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), and a comparable 7 grams of protein.
Note that fish such as salmon and certain plant protein like nut butters will have more fat than this but it’s important to remember that these are heart healthy fats and good sources of protein. I always recommend including them in the diet.
So, what exactly do I want you to put on your plate to meet those protein needs to help lose weight and build your biceps?
Best Sources of Lean Protein
1 ounce has 6 grams
This high-protein nut provides a perfect balance of protein, healthy fats and carbs for the ultimate satisfying protein-packed snack. Plus, you’ll also be getting a healthy dose of skin-protecting vitamin E in every bite. Enjoy them on their own or use them in recipes like this Baked Cod with Almonds and Herbs or this Quinoa Granola.
½ cup has 8 grams
Don’t limit black beans to your burritos. These nutritious legumes are loaded with plant-based protein and filling fiber, so you’ll stay full long after your last bite. Plus, they provide minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc for good bone health. Try them in salads, tacos, soups, and even brownies.
White Meat Skinless Chicken
4 ounces has 20 grams
Topped onto salads, layered in sandwiches, mixed into soups, formed into burgers, or enjoyed on its own—this versatile lean protein source is a health food classic for a reason. A single 4 ounce serving packs in 20 grams of protein with less than 3 grams of fat. For the leanest cuts, skip the dark meat and make sure to remove the skin.
1 ounce has 10 grams
Small but mighty, hemp seeds are a powerful plant-based protein that’s loaded with nutrients like anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Enjoy their mild nutty flavor blended into smoothies, sprinkled onto salads or mixed into granola.
1 large egg has 6 grams
Whether you like them scrambled, boiled, fried or baked, eggs are an affordable, quality protein you’ll always want to keep stocked in your fridge. Not only are they an ideal meatless protein source for vegetarians, but they also provide hard-to-find vitamin D and the eye-protecting antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.
4 ounces has 28 grams
Salmon not only provides protein, but it’s also an excellent source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, which have a number of health benefits including lowering risk of heart disease and improving cognitive function. It’s also super delicious and can be cooked and enjoyed in a variety of ways. Enjoy it as a dinner entree, sliced onto toast, or even in shakshuka.
1 tablespoon has 4 grams
This household staple is more than simply a key ingredient in your favorite childhood sandwich. Just one tablespoon contains 4 grams of protein, the most of any nut (yes, it’s actually a legume), as well as a host of other nutrients such as satisfying healthy fats, immune-boosting zinc, and even antioxidants. Not to mention, the ways you can enjoy peanut butter are pretty much, endless. Add it to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, baked goods, toast, fruit and so much more.
2 tablespoons has 8 grams
Containing all nine essential amino acids, nutritional yeast is a complete protein source ideal for those following vegan or vegetarian diets. If you choose the fortified variety, you’ll also get B vitamins like B12, which can otherwise be hard to find in vegan diets. Sprinkle on to salads or stir into dressings and sauces.
4 ounces has 20 grams
If you opt for a lean cut, then pork can be a delicious protein-packed meat to incorporate into your lunch and dinner. Pork is an excellent source of B vitamins and selenium, an essential mineral needed for proper thyroid function that has powerful antioxidant benefits. Look out for the key words “loin” and “chop” to make sure you’re getting a lean cut.
3 sardines have 24 grams
Don’t be so quick to judge sardines. These underrated small fish are a convenient, inexpensive rich source of protein that you can stock up on and have on hand whenever you’re in a pinch. Plus, they’re also loaded with other important nutrients like omega-3 essential fatty acids and calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D. Toss them in salads, add to pastas or pile onto toast.
½ cup has 15 grams
Soybeans are one of the best sources of plant-based protein with a ½ cup serving packing in 15 grams of protein and less than 150 calories. They also contain a host of other nutrients including iron, vitamin K, and health-promoting polyphenols. Try them in salads, stir frys, or on their own as an easy protein snack.
Grass Fed Steak
4 ounces has 30 grams
Red meat gets a bad rap, but grass-fed lean cuts like tenderloin steak can be an excellent source of protein. To find a lean cut, look for beef with less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 3.5 ounce serving. Enjoy topped onto salads or paired with a plate piled high with veggies.
Tuna Fresh or Canned
4 ounces has 28 grams
Seafood is a smart choice when it comes to lean animal protein and tuna is no exception. Whether fresh or canned, you’re going to get protein and important nutrients like anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Try this Tuna and Chickpea Salad for an easy protein-packed lunch.
Skinless Turkey Breast
4 ounces has 20 grams
This popular protein source is almost famous for being lean. A single 4 ounce serving contains 20 grams of protein and less than one gram of fat. It’s also super versatile. Give almost any dish—salads, soups, sandwiches, burgers and more—a protein boost with turkey breast.