Top 13 Lean Protein Foods You Should Eat
Written by Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD on July 15, 2018
Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet, but sometimes it’s accompanied by more fat and calories than you want.
Fortunately, there are a variety of lean animal and plant sources of protein that will 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 can benefit from eating much more than that. Your individual calorie and protein needs are 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, it also promotes satiety (fullness) and may help in managing your weight (2, 3).
Here are 13 lean protein foods you should consider.
1. White-Fleshed Fish.
Most white-fleshed fish are super lean and excellent protein sources, providing under 3 grams of fat, around 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, pollock, flounder, halibut, tilapia and orange roughy (6).
These white fish generally have only 10–25% as much omega-3 fat as higher-fat, higher-calorie, darker-fleshed fish like coho or sockeye salmon. Therefore, it’s good to eat both types of fish (6, 7).
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 like cod and halibut are excellent sources of hunger-satisfying protein with little fat and relatively few calories, making them a diet-friendly food.
2. Plain Greek Yogurt.
A 6-ounce (170-gram) serving of Greek yogurt packs 15–20 grams of protein, compared to only 9 grams in a serving of regular yogurt (8).
This is due to how Greek yogurt is made. It’s strained to remove the liquid whey, leaving a more concentrated product with more protein that’s also thicker and creamier (8).
If you’re looking for the least calories and fat, opt for plain, nonfat Greek yogurt, which has 100 calories per 6-ounce (170-gram) serving (9).
Low-fat plain Greek yogurt, which has 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 (9).
Plain nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt contains around twice as much protein per serving as regular yogurt.
3. Beans, Peas and Lentils.
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 also low in fat and high in fiber (10, 11).
Both the high fiber and protein contents in pulses help make them more filling. What’s more, the fiber may lower your blood cholesterol if you eat pulses regularly (11).
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 three weeks resulted in 7 mg/dL lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, compared to control diets — that equaled a 5% reduction in LDL over time (12).
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 or nuts, you’ll fill in those gaps (11, 13, 14).
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.
4. Skinless, White-Meat Poultry.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked chicken or turkey breast has around 30 grams of protein (15, 16).
Skip dark meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs to get the leanest meat. White meat includes the breasts, breast tenderloins (tenders) and wings.
Also, don’t eat the skin — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of roasted chicken breast with the skin has 200 calories and 8 grams of fat, while the same amount of skinless, roasted chicken breast has 165 calories and 3.5 grams of fat (15, 17).
You can remove the skin either before or after cooking, as the fat savings remain virtually the same either way. Note that poultry cooked with the skin intact is moister (18).
White-meat chicken and turkey, particularly the breast, are rich in protein and low in fat if you remove the skin either before or after cooking.
5. Low-Fat Cottage Cheese.
Cottage cheese is a high-protein, low-fuss food.
A 1/2-cup (4-ounce or 113-gram) serving of low-fat (2% milkfat) cottage cheese has 97 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 13 grams of protein (19).
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 recently suggested manufacturers should add vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption, though this is not currently common practice (19, 20).
If there’s one drawback to cottage cheese, it’s that a 1/2-cup has around 15–20% of the daily limit for sodium (salt). If you’re watching your salt intake, one study suggests that rinsing cottage cheese for three minutes could reduce its sodium by around 60% (21).
Low-fat cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein and becoming even more convenient with the increased availability of single-serve containers. It’s also a good source of calcium.
6. Lite Tofu
Tofu is an especially viable protein option if you avoid animal foods. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of lite tofu has 45 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 7 grams of protein, including sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids (22).
Tofu comes in different textures, which you can choose 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 sauté, but soft or silken tofu in creamy soups or desserts.
Many healthy tofu recipes and tips are available online, such as from the Soyfoods Association of America.
Note that about 95% of soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified (GM). If you prefer to avoid GM foods, you can buy organic tofu, as organic foods cannot be genetically modified (23, 24, 25).
Lite tofu is a good source of plant protein that provides adequate amounts of all essential amino acids and is very versatile in recipes.
7. Lean Beef.
Lean cuts of beef are those with less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (26).
If you’re buying fresh beef that doesn’t have a nutrition label, certain words tell you the meat is lean. These include “loin” and “round.” For example, sirloin and tenderloin steaks, as well as eye of round roast and round steak are all lean (27).
Flank steak and the brisket flat-half (the leaner half of the whole brisket) are lean as well (28, 29).
When it comes to ground beef, opt for 95% lean. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked hamburger patty made with this lean ground beef has 171 calories, 6.5 grams of total fat (including 3 grams of saturated fat) and 26 grams of protein (30).
What’s more, a serving of lean beef is an excellent source of several B vitamins, zinc and selenium (27).
Lean beef is generally signaled by the words “loin” or “round.” It’s an excellent source of protein and also packs B vitamins, zinc and selenium.
8. Powdered Peanut Butter
The natural oil in peanut butter is heart-healthy but packs a lot of calories. Just 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of regular peanut butter have about 190 calories and 16 grams of fat, along with 8 grams of protein (31).
A slimmed-down option is unsweetened, powdered peanut butter. Most of its fat is pressed out during processing. A 2-tablespoon serving has just 50 calories and 1.5 grams of fat but 5 grams of protein (9).
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, for a treat. Alternatively, add the dry powder to smoothies, shakes, oatmeal or batter for pancakes and muffins.
Powdered peanut butter is a convenient protein source that has just a fraction of the calories and fat of regular peanut butter.
9. Low-Fat Milk.
Whether you drink it, cook with it or add it to cereal, low-fat milk is an easy way to get protein.
An 8-ounce (240-ml) serving of low-fat milk with 1% milkfat has 8 grams of protein, 2.5 grams of fat and 100 calories. In comparison, a serving of whole milk with 3.25% milkfat has the same amount of protein but 150 calories and 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 (34).
Still, not all whole-milk research is rosy. For example, observational studies have linked frequent intake of whole milk — but not skim or low-fat milk — to a higher risk of prostate cancer (35, 36).
While scientists continue research in this area, most experts still advise drinking low-fat or skim milk, rather than whole (37).
Low-fat milk is a good source of protein and can save you a significant amount of fat and calories compared to whole milk, especially if you consume it often.
10. Pork Loin
There are a handful of pork cuts that meet the USDA’s definition of lean, which means less than 10 grams of fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (38).
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 (39).
Pork tenderloin, the leanest cut, has 143 calories, 26 grams of protein and 3.5 grams of fat per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) cooked serving (40).
Before cooking pork, trim off any fat around the edges and use low-fat cooking methods, such as grilling or broiling, to save on fat and calories (39).
Similar to lean beef, lean pork is also an excellent source of several B vitamins and selenium and a good source of zinc (39).
You can find lean pork by looking for the words “loin” or “chop.” Even so, be sure to cut off excess fat on the meat to avoid unnecessary fat and calories. In addition, pork is rich in B vitamins, selenium and zinc.
11. Frozen Shrimp.
If you’re looking for a lot of protein for few calories, frozen, unbreaded shrimp are a convenient option. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving has 99 calories, 21 grams of protein and 1 gram of fat (41).
Though the same serving also has 195 mg of cholesterol, scientists have found that consuming cholesterol as part of a healthy diet generally has little impact on heart health (42).
However, the high amount of sodium often added to shrimp during processing may be of concern for some people. According to USDA data, the sodium in some brands of plain, cooked shrimp sometimes tops 900 mg per serving (9).
The majority of this sodium comes from additives, including sodium tripolyphosphate, which helps retain moisture, and the preservative sodium bisulfite.
Some frozen shrimp contain only naturally-occurring sodium of around 120–220 mg per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving (9, 41).
Unbreaded, frozen shrimp are a convenient, low-fat and high-protein food. Read nutrition labels when shopping to avoid brands with high sodium counts.
12. Egg Whites.
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, just use the whites (43, 44, 45).
The white from one large egg has 16 calories, which is less than a fourth of the calories in a whole egg. Additionally, one egg white contains less than 0.5 gram of fat but 3 grams of protein, which is about half of the protein in a whole egg (46, 47, 48, 49).
Try an egg white omelet or egg white muffins made with baby spinach and chives or diced peppers and onions. Alternatively, 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 (50).
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 of the protein in eggs comes from the whites, yet they contain only trace amounts of fat and less than a fourth of the calories of whole eggs.
Whether you call it bison or buffalo, it’s a healthy, 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) versus bison, the same cuts of beef had more than twice the fat as bison meat (51).
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 (ALA). Preliminary research suggests that consuming bison may yield health benefits (51).
When healthy men ate 12 ounces of beef or bison (sirloin steak and chuck roast) six times weekly for seven weeks, C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, increased by 72% on the beef-rich diet. However, CRP increased only slightly on the bison-rich diet (51).
That’s not to say you should eat that much red meat of any kind, but it does suggest bison is a beneficial meat to include as part of a healthy diet.
Bison is leaner than beef and has a healthier, less inflammatory fat profile.
The Bottom Line
Lean animal and plant protein sources are plentiful. That’s why you don’t have to exceed your daily fat or calorie limits to meet your protein needs.
White-fleshed fish and skinless white-meat poultry are among the leanest animal proteins. However, you can also find lean red meat if you look for the words “loin” and “round.”
Many dairy products are low in fat and good sources of protein, such as low-fat cottage cheese, yogurt (especially Greek yogurt) and milk.
Plant proteins such as beans, lite tofu and powdered peanut butter also offer ample amounts of protein.
Take a look in your kitchen — most likely you already have a few lean proteins on hand!