What Are Lean Proteins? Plus, 10 Healthy Options
Cutting out high-fat foods and sticking to low-fat foods like lean proteins is commonly recommended as a way to lose weight and reduce the risk of health conditions like heart disease.
But are low-fat proteins healthier than proteins that are higher in fat? And when did lean proteins become such a thing in the first place?
Here's what you need to know about lean proteins, including what they are, when they're recommended over higher-fat protein sources, and if you should be prioritizing lean protein foods in your diet.
What is lean protein?
While some protein sources are known as lean because they're generally low in fat, the USDA has its own categorization system for labeling lean protein products like meat.
When you see "lean" stamped on a fish or meat product, it means that a 100-gram serving contains less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol.
An "extra lean" label means that the same serving contains less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol.
Other food products, like frozen meals, can be labeled as "lean" and "extra lean" as well, as long as they meet certain fat content criteria.
Healthy lean protein options
While some people need to limit their overall fat intake due to medical reasons, most people don't have to choose their protein sources based on their fat content.
Instead, when shopping for proteins, it's best to focus on variety and nutrient density.
Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D., recommends incorporating both plant and animal-based sources of protein into your diet to cover your protein needs.
"I like to mix it up throughout the week between plant proteins and animal proteins. My favorite protein sources are plant protein foods like pistachios and tofu, plus all kinds of seafood. I also love getting protein from whole grains, all kinds of beans, nuts, seeds, chicken, and lactose-free yogurt," Moon tells mindbodygreen.
Here are a few examples of healthy plant- and animal-based protein sources, including both lean and higher-fat options:
TRY THEM IN: A Fiber-Packed Spiced Black Bean Soup
Fatty fish with skin
TRY IT IN: A Brain-Healthy Salad Bowl
TRY IT IN: A Mint-Chocolate Collagen Smoothie
The yolk is where it's at when it comes to nutrition, providing zinc, B12, choline, selenium, iron, and many other vitamins and minerals. If you can, choose humanely raised eggs, like eggs from pastured hens.
TRY THEM IN: Make-Ahead Masala Egg Bites
Nuts and nut butters
Nuts and seeds are a high-fat protein source that is often recommended by dietitians, like Cannon. "Nuts and seeds are great sources of protein that are higher in fat. It's great when one food source provides both protein and healthy fats because it offers the benefits of both nutrients in a neat package,' Cannon says.
TRY IT IN: No-Bake Nut Butter Cookies
Certain seeds, like hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds, are high in protein. Hemp seeds provide 9.512 grams of protein per ounce, while pumpkin seeds contain 8.513 grams per ounce. Although seeds are tiny, they're nutrient-dense and can be sprinkled on dishes like oatmeal and salads to bump up the protein content.
TRY THEM IN: A Mood-Boosting Nut & Seed Snack Mix
Chicken and turkey
However, when you're choosing animal proteins, quality is important. "For my clients who want to incorporate meat and poultry, I recommend getting the highest quality available and that they can afford. This means prioritizing meat and poultry that are ethically and ecologically raised," says Cannon.
TRY IT IN: Stir-Fried Turmeric Chicken
Some protein powders can contain quite a bit of added sugar, so it's best to opt for unsweetened or naturally sweetened versions with minimal added ingredients.
TRY IT IN: Butterscotch Sea Salt Milkshake Smoothie
mbg- Approved Protein Powders
Plus, it can be paired with sweet or savory ingredients like berries or vegetables. Choose 1% or 2% if you'd like a lower fat version, or go for whole if you'd like a richer taste.
TRY IT IN: Protein-Packed Savory Spinach Pancakes
Most people think of edamame as an appetizer, but it's also a high-protein vegetable that can be used to boost the protein content of plant-based meals.
TRY IT IN: Vegan Watermelon Poke Bowls
History of lean proteins
Low-fat, higher-carb diets started to be seen as healthier than diets that were rich in fat and lower in carbs. Why, you ask? Not only are fats much higher in calories than carbs—9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram—but it was thought that eating saturated fats contributed to health issues like heart attacks and heart disease.
This led health experts to recommend low-fat, high-carb diets focused on foods like lean proteins, butter replacements, skim milk, and low-fat breakfast cereals as a way to manage body weight and lower chronic disease risk.
But, guess what? Rates18 of obesity and health conditions like diabetes—both of which are powerful predictors of future heart disease risk20—continued to climb as intake of added sugar and carb-rich foods replaced higher-calorie foods rich in fat. For example, diabetes prevalence21 increased from 0.93% in 1958 to 7.40% in 2015.
Why it's time to embrace new proteins
Saturated fat and cholesterol, found in foods like chicken skin, egg yolks, and full-fat dairy, are usually categorized as inherently "bad" for you, while unsaturated fats found in plant foods are viewed as "good" fats.
But experts argue18 that this oversimplification of fats—which are a highly complex group of compounds—is not helping anyone. Narrowing in on a single nutrient rather than viewing the diet as a whole has led to a lot of confusion in the nutrition world and has led most people to view any food high in saturated fat as unhealthy.
While it's true that it's probably not great for your health to follow a diet that's super high in saturated fat and cholesterol, recent research24 shows that healthy sources of saturated fat25 aren't strongly linked with increased heart disease risk and that overall dietary intake is what's most important when it comes to reducing heart disease risk and promoting overall health.
This doesn't mean you should make butter, fatty cuts of meat, and cream the focus of your diet, but it's important to choose foods based on their nutritional value rather than their fat, cholesterol, or calorie content.
Abby K. Cannon, J.D., R.D., CDN, agrees. "I'm more concerned with quality than leanness," Cannon tells mindbodygreen. "I usually use the term 'good quality' protein instead of 'lean' when discussing protein with my clients and when creating meal plans," she says.
The bottom line is that lean doesn't translate to healthier. All it means is that a food is low in fat and cholesterol.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are lean proteins for vegetarians?
Most plant-based proteins are low in fat, so vegetarians have plenty of protein sources to choose from. Beans, lentils, edamame, and pea protein powder are just a few examples of lean, plant-based protein. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can also incorporate animal-based sources of lean protein like egg whites and lower-fat dairy into their diets to increase their protein intake.
Are eggs lean protein?
Egg whites contain zero grams of fat, making them a very lean source of protein. Whole eggs do contain fat and cholesterol, but they're a rich source of essential nutrients like choline, B12, and selenium, so you shouldn't shun the yolks unless you have to follow a low-cholesterol diet for medical reasons.
Is peanut butter lean protein?
Although peanut butter does contain protein, it's considered a fat. A 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter provides 9 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat, so it can't be considered a lean protein.
Lean proteins are often thought of as healthier than protein sources that are higher in fat, but this isn't always the case.
There are a number of higher-fat protein sources, like fatty fish, full-fat Greek yogurt, and whole eggs that are packed with important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.
Rather than choosing your protein sources based on their fat content, it's best to pick your proteins—and all other foods in your diet—based on their overall quality and nutrient density.
Jillian Kubala, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian based in Westhampton, NY. She holds a master's degree in nutrition from Stony Brook University School of Medicine as well as an undergraduate degree in nutrition science.
In addition to her private practice where she uses a unique and personalized approach to help her clients achieve optimal wellness, she works as a freelance writer and editor and has written hundreds of articles on nutrition and wellness for top digital health publishers.
Jillian and her husband have a backyard farm where they grow their own food and keep chickens. She runs a small cut flower business specializing in organically grown dahlias.