Eat Empowered, Weight Loss

Lean Protein 101: Why We Need It and the 10 Best Sources for It

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Along with carbohydrates and fat, protein completes the trifecta of macronutrients we rely upon—the calorie-providing nutrients our bodies need in large quantities.

When you think protein, think building. You need it to build muscles, skin and hair; to build hormones and enzymes; even to build antibodies for a healthy immune system. Your body also uses protein for cell maintenance and repair and blood clotting.

Can Lean Protein Help You Lose Weight?

In the world of weight loss, protein provides satiety; It makes you feel satisfied for the longest period of time, longer than both carbs and fat. 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 that control hunger. 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.

What is Considered ‘Lean’?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (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. For a 1-ounce serving, lean meat should contain 2 to 3 grams of fat.

Lean meat provides fewer calories for equal amounts of protein than higher-fat meat. For example, consider different cuts of beef. One ounce of a lower-fat cut, such as a top round, offers 52 calories with only 2 grams of fat (0.75 grams saturated) and 8 grams of protein. That same single ounce of a higher-fat cut—say, ribeye steak—contains 83 calories, a whopping 6 grams of fat (3 grams saturated), and a comparable 7 grams of protein.

Some kinds of fish and certain plant proteins (like salmon and nut butters) have more fat. Still, it’s important to remember that these are heart-healthy fats in good sources of protein. I always recommend including them in your diet.

So, what exactly do I want you to put on your plate to meet those protein needs to help you lose weight and build your biceps?

How Much Protein Do We Actually Need?

How much protein you’re eating is probably not as important as the kind of protein you’re eating. Approximately 50 grams, or about 15% of your calories, is enough for the average adult to meet their basic daily needs. But I say: Consuming as much as a third of your daily calories from protein (about 112 grams) is both safe and beneficial.

Here are some of the very best sources of lean protein.

Best Sources of Lean Protein

Almonds

creative oat recipes

Per 1-ounce serving: 6 grams protein, 2.5 grams carbs, 14 grams fat.

This high-protein nut provides a perfect balance of protein, carbs and healthy fats. Plus, you’ll also get a healthy dose of skin-protecting vitamin E in every satisfying bite. Enjoy them on their own, or use them in recipes like this Baked Cod with Almonds and Herbs or this Quinoa Granola.

Chicken (white meat, skinless)

healthy party foods

Per 4-ounce serving: 30 grams protein, zero carbs, 4 grams fat.

Topped onto salads, layered in sandwiches, mixed into soups, formed into burgers, or enjoyed on its own—this versatile lean protein is a carb-free classic for a reason. For the leanest cuts, skip the dark meat and make sure to remove the skin.

Eggs

Egg Bites

Per egg: 7 grams protein, >1 gram carbs, 5 grams fat.

Whether you like them scrambled, boiled, fried or baked, eggs are an affordable, quality protein. Ideal for vegetarians, they also provide hard-to-find vitamin D and the eye-protecting antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin.

RELATED: Easy Egg Muffins

Hemp Seed

Per 1.5-ounce serving (3 tablespoons): 10 grams protein, 2 grams carbs, 14 grams fat.

Small but mighty, hemp seeds are a powerful plant-based protein 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.

Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional Yeast

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 4 grams protein, 2 grams carbs, zero fat.

Containing all nine essential amino acids, nutritional yeast is a complete protein source. If you choose the fortified variety, you’ll also get plenty of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, B6 and B12. Sprinkle this savory delight—its flavor ranges between nutty and cheesy—on salads or stir into dressings, soups and sauces.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter sandwich on plate with a teaspoonful of peanut butter on the side

Per quarter-cup serving: 9 grams protein, 6 grams carbs, 18 grams fat.

This household staple is far more than simply a key ingredient in your favorite childhood sandwich. Not only is the peanut (technically a legume) packed with protein, it also contains a host of other nutrients, including satisfying healthy fats, immune-boosting zinc and antioxidants. Just be sure to purchase a less-processed variety: All your PB really needs is peanuts, although salt is a common additive. Once you find a brand without added sugar and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, get creative: Add it to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, baked goods, toast or fruit.

Sardines

Sardines

Per 4-ounce serving: 25 grams protein, zero carbs, 11 grams fat.

Don’t be too quick to judge sardines. Part of the herring family, these tasty fish are as underrated as they are tiny. An inexpensive and rich source of protein, sardines are also loaded with other important nutrients like omega-3 essential fatty acids and calcium, phosphorus and vitamins B12 and D. Toss them in salads, add to pastas or pile onto toast.

Soybeans

spring vegetable recipes

Per 4-ounce serving: 17 grams protein, 10 grams carbs, 9 grams fat.

One of the very best sources of plant-based protein, this legume is commonly eaten whole in East Asia, where it’s a native crop. Now also grown widely in North America, soybeans here are commonly processed into a variety of foods, including soy milk and tofu. Beyond protein, soy is a good source of other nutrients, including soluble and insoluble fiber. If you’ve had trouble digesting soy, try tempeh, which is made of fermented soybeans—easier to digest, and also full of probiotics.Try soybeans or tempeh in salads or stir frys.

Tuna

Per 3-ounce serving: 24 grams protein, zero carbs, 1 gram fat.

Seafood is a smart choice when it comes to lean animal protein, and tuna is no exception. Wherever you get it, tuna is packed with protein and important nutrients like anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. Keep in mind that canned tuna will likely have added sodium compared to fresh. Also, tuna packed in oil will have added fat compared to canned tuna in water. Try this Tuna and Chickpea Salad for an easy protein-packed lunch.

Wild Salmon

easy fish recipes

Per 3-ounce serving: 23 grams protein, zero carbs, 6 grams fat.

Beyond being packed with protein, salmon is 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. Enjoy this delicious fish in a variety of ways: as a dinner entree, sliced onto toast, or even in shakshuka.

(Images: Shutterstock)

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