There are three essential components of a healthy diet including carbs, fat, and protein. Each of these elements play a crucial role in different processes of the body.
Protein, in particular, plays a variety of key roles within the body as they are what’s known as the building blocks of muscles, tissue, blood, and hormones. This is why protein is the primary focus of many types of diets, especially those that are designed for weight loss.
When it comes to eating for weight loss and healthy eating in general, there is no doubt how important it is to consume adequate protein.
Protein has a reputation as the gold standard of foods for weight loss. However, not all proteins are created equal. Different proteins offer different nutrition profiles, calorie amounts, and fat content. The USDA recommends choosing lean protein foods for weight loss.
But, what are lean proteins and why does it matter while trying to lose weight?
In this article, we will answer questions about what lean proteins are, why lean protein helps with weight loss, and how lean protein works with weight loss strategies like intermittent fasting. We’ve also rounded up a list of 15 rich lean protein foods for weight loss that are both satisfying and delicious! Let’s get started.
What are Lean Proteins?
Lean protein refers to foods that are high in protein with a lower fat content. For example, chicken breasts are a leaner choice versus a chicken thigh. Factors such as the cut of meat, skin, and cooking methods can affect the fat content of the protein.
When the full fat is removed from dairy products (like milk or yogurt), then they are considered lean protein. Lean protein foods are excellent choices for weight loss since these foods are both nutritious and typically lower in calories.
The foods to include in a lean protein diet will depend on several factors including dietary restrictions, accessibility, and personal preference. If you aren’t able to cook at home, it may be best to buy ready-made lean proteins such as pre-cooked chicken, deli turkey, and nuts or seeds. Focus on adding at least one lean protein at mealtimes. This can curb hunger and reduce cravings for less nutritious foods.
The best sources of lean protein include a variety of both plant-based and animal-based whole foods. Variety is key as different proteins offer varying amounts of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, fiber, zinc, and B vitamins. There are other options for lean protein sources aside from whole foods such as protein powders and shakes which you can read more about here.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
Proteins play an essential role in your overall health. There are several functions that depend on protein in the body:
- Cellular repair
- Precursors of hormones
- Provide structure
- Foundation for muscle and tissue growth
- Transports chemical messages
Proteins are broken down in the body as amino acids. There are two types of amino acids; essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids must be taken in through our diet, as our bodies can’t make these types of amino acids by itself.
How much protein you need can depend on things like age, sex, health conditions, and physical activity. About 10-35% of your total calories should come from protein sources, which is about 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men.
According to the USDA, most Americans meet their protein requirements, but could choose more lean protein options. If you aim for protein at each meal, it shouldn’t be hard to reach your protein goals.
When it comes to weight loss, research shows that protein can actually help with satiety (feeling fuller for a longer period of time) and changes in body composition to include more fat-free mass.
Particularly when combined with other weight loss strategies, like Intermittent Fasting, increasing protein can help you reach your weight loss goals. It’s especially important to eat enough protein while intermittent fasting which can help you to keep your fasting window and prevent hunger.
15 Rich Lean Protein Foods for Weight Loss
Below is a lean proteins list that includes a mix of plant-based and animal-based proteins. These are the A-listers of lean protein that include higher amounts of protein and a variety of other nutrients to eat as part of a healthy, lean protein diet.
Salmon can be considered one of the best sources of lean animal protein. It’s loaded with omega-3’s, protein, and also contains less saturated fat and cholesterol when compared to other animal-based proteins.
Salmon is also a natural source of vitamin D, which many people do not get enough of through diet alone. A 3 oz portion of salmon contains roughly 17 grams of protein.
Beans & Lentils
Beans and lentils are protein powerhouses of plant-based foods. Eating beans has been linked to lowering the risks for heart disease, stroke, and type diabetes. Not only do they contain plenty of protein, but they are also fiber-rich.
This means that the fiber will also keep you fuller for a longer period of time. They can be easily added to soups and salads to boost your protein intake. One cup of lentils has around 18 grams of protein.
Cottage cheese is one of the more underrated protein foods. One cup of low-fat cottage cheese contains around 24 grams of protein and 180 calories without any added sugar. Cottage cheese is like a blank slate when it comes to flavor combinations.
Top with fresh fruit for a sweeter snack, or spread over whole wheat toast for a savory and filling breakfast.
You’ve probably heard that chicken is a good source of protein. However, it’s easy to get “stuck in a rut” when it comes to the way that you eat chicken. You can easily dress chicken breasts up through herbs and spices, hot sauces, marinades, and even different cooking methods such as air frying, grilling, and roasting.
Trying different recipes with bold flavors can help avoid burnout. Some of my favorites include sesame ginger chicken lettuce wraps and buffalo cauliflower-coated chicken tenders.
Among the highest protein content for fish, tuna is easily accessible and budget-friendly. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 8 oz of seafood each week for adults on a 2,000 calorie diet.
For many, eating enough seafood to meet recommendations can be difficult. While tuna is a great lean protein option, it also makes an easy on-the-go option and can be added to salads, pastas, or rice bowls.
Low-fat and nonfat yogurt is a good lean protein food. Greek yogurt contains more protein than regular yogurt at 9 grams for a 3.5 ounce serving.
Opt for plain or low sugar Greek yogurt to avoid calories from added sugar. If plain Greek yogurt is too sour for your taste, try adding a dash of cinnamon or honey and top with berries.
Peas are surprisingly high in protein for a plant-based source. They contain about 8 grams of protein per 1 cup.
Peas are also a good addition for weight loss due to their high fiber content, which is why they will keep you fuller for longer periods of time.
Some people don’t think of eating turkey beyond the holiday season, but turkey is a great lean protein source.
Turkey breasts are a great addition to your lean protein diet as 3 oz has 26 grams of protein. Sliced deli turkey also makes for an easy on-the-go lean protein option.
As a soy-based product, tofu is a good protein source for those wanting to consume more plant-based protein.
Tofu is often used as a substitute in entrees where a meat product is used. It’s low in fat making it a great choice for a lean protein diet.
One egg contains about 6 grams of protein. Eggs are a versatile protein source that can be baked, boiled, scrambled, or poached.
They are naturally high in cholesterol, which has caused debate as to their health benefits. Many opt for egg whites which do not contain cholesterol and provide about half of the protein of a whole egg.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are not only a good source of lean protein, but they also are full of healthy fats. Walnuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, and pecans all offer varying nutrients along with protein.
Nut butters are also a good source of protein, but remember to keep serving sizes in check since they do contain higher amounts of calories. Nuts and seeds are a great snack option to add in more protein to your diet.
You may have heard of quinoa as a superfood, but did you know that it’s also a good lean protein source? Certain brands of quinoa offer up to 5 grams of protein per ¼ cup serving.
With plenty of fiber, zinc, folate, and even some antioxidants, quinoa lives up to its name as a superfood. Try quinoa as a substitute for rice for all of the nutritional benefits it has to offer.
Red meat has received a bad reputation over the years, but certain types of beef are considered lean protein and can be part of a healthy diet for weight loss.
Leaner cuts of meat such as sirloin and ground beef that is at least 90 percent lean are good options. Beef is also high in other nutrients like vitamin B12 and iron which aid in the formation of red blood cells and prevent anemia.
Many people wouldn’t think of milk as a lean protein source, but low-fat milk contains about 8 grams of protein and only 2 grams of total fat per glass. If you can include dairy in your diet, it’s a good lean protein source that also includes other nutrients like calcium.
It’s easy to sub low-fat milk for full fat milk whether in a dish, smoothie, or coffee drink. I like to substitute 1 percent milk in my lattes which decreases calories while keeping up some protein.
Bison has been rising in popularity as a leaner alternative to beef. A 100 gram portion of ground bison contains 25 grams of protein and less saturated fat than beef.
It also contains higher levels of omega-3’s compared to beef which has anti-inflammatory effects.
In summary, there are plenty of options to add rich lean protein foods to your diet. Adding these foods can help you reach your weight loss goals and avoid junk food cravings.
Eating a mix of both these animal-based and plant-based proteins will not only provide lean protein but also a variety of other nutrients like fiber, iron, magnesium, and folate. It’s important to keep up adequate protein on your weight loss journey.
If you are unsure of your protein requirements, talk to your doctor or consult a registered dietitian.