Here's how to get enough lean protein + why it matters for weight loss, muscle repair and beyond
We all know lean protein is important, right? Essential for everything from building and repairing tissue post-workout to keeping you satiated, but how do you actually know you're getting enough? The answer to this lies in counting your macros.
Your balance of carbs, lean protein and fat can make a huge difference in helping you achieve your body goals, whether it's fat loss, building or maintaining lean muscle or gaining weight. All your high protein recipes should contain a healthy balance of these three macros.
'Protein is often included in healthy plans as it has a high satiety value, meaning it keeps you fuller for longer,' says nutritionist Jenna Hope.
'It plays a key role in supporting many physiological functions, including hormone production, muscle and nerve function, muscle repair and recovery, bone structure, the structure of the skin, hair and nails, and transporting nutrients around the body — just to name a few of its many roles!'
So, if you’re chasing your chicken salad with a protein cookie, or your protein shake with smoked salmon and eggs – listen up.
Thanks to protein synthesis, you should consume around 25g-35g of protein per meal for optimum muscle build and repair. Anything more than that will essentially be wasted, so gorging on protein doesn’t equate to bigger muscles.
Realistically, nothing beats nutrient-dense foods when it comes to hitting your daily macro targets.
But let's have a refresher on the lean proteins you should be incorporating into your diet because, just like calories, not all protein is equal.
What is the healthiest protein to eat?
Let's be real; there is a tonne of protein sources out there to choose from - whether it's meat, fish, or legumes. Each source has its own strengths and reasons for being a contender when it comes to being the healthiest.
'Alongside protein, meat and fish are a great source of iron and vitamin B12, eggs are a source of choline, fish is also an important source of iodine and their oily counterparts are a great source of omega-3' shares consultant dietician Ro Huntriss.
Ro goes on to explain how 'protein-rich dairy also provides calcium, whereas legumes offer other nutrients such as fibre, iron and folate.'
As for lean protein? According to Ro, 'lean protein sources such as poultry, white fish, legumes and tofu are a good foundation to support general health and weight management.'
What qualifies as lean protein?
'Lean protein is considered to be a protein with a lower fat and therefore lower calorie content, which is useful when managing one's weight', explains Ro.
'Although the UK doesn't have a set definition for lean protein, the US Department of Agriculture of USDA defines lean protein as less than 10g fat, 4.5g or less of saturated fat and less than 95mg cholesterol', Ro explains.
Essentially; lean protein is an ultra-healthy form of protein.
Is lean protein the best type of protein to choose?
Knowing what your body needs and giving it the correct nutrients is also important - so although the concept of choosing lean protein may seem like an obvious choice, there are upsides to sticking with non-lean protein too.
Ro explains that 'Oily fish isn't lean but is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids which have been shown to offer many health benefits, so should be included in the diet.'
And it looks like fish isn't the only exception - as Ro also mentions how 'including some non-lean meat sources still offer essential nutrients such as iron and vitamin b12 so can still be included in the diet albeit less frequently than their leaner counterparts.'
Are eggs considered lean protein?
When it comes to eggs, things can get a little complicated - are they a lean or non-lean source of protein?
According to Ro Huntriss, 'as per the USDA definition of lean protein, whole eggs would not qualify as a lean protein due to the cholesterol found in the yolk.'
This may sound like a bummer for the egg-lovers out there, but the news isn't all bad. Turns out, even though the egg yolk wouldn't be classed as lean protein, the egg white would.
What are the best lean protein examples?
The best lean protein varies, depending on your diet, lifestyle and nutritional goals. Meat-eaters, pescatarians, veggies and vegans, there’s something for everyone...
We explored MyFitnessPal’s verified food database to find out which one is right for you and your diet:
Best lean protein meats for carnivores
Meat = protein, right? It’s commonly assumed that as long as you’re chowing down on a steak occasionally, you’ll be getting enough.
However, some protein-packed foods are also linked to illnesses like heart disease and may increase the risk of certain cancers, so it's important to choose lean and unprocessed meat.
Skinless chicken breast, roasted
Lean, skinless chicken breast will help you hit your protein goals while keeping your saturated fats down. It’s relatively cheap to buy and can be added to almost any meal.
But, unlike the dreaded boiled chicken and broccoli lunches of diet history, it's tasty grilled, roasted or baked, so get creative.
Need some inspiration? Try this Crunchy Chinese Chicken Salad, Harissa Roasted Chicken or Grilled Chicken And Brown Rice Potsu With Ithai Sauce.
Smoked turkey breast
Turkey isn’t just for Christmas. Though the festive bird is mainly associated with December decadence, it’s actually a good low-calorie, high-protein option year-round.
If you’re feeling a bit chickened-ed out, pick up smoked turkey breast for a good helping of lean protein, as well as B vitamins, choline, selenium and zinc.
Steer clear of processed turkey slices, opt for either good quality slices of the whole bird.
Best lean protein fish for pescatarians
Fish lovers, rejoice! There are tonnes of options for anyone who enjoys a seafood dinner.
White fish is great for a B12 and folate boost, as well as a lean protein fix. Organically farmed cod, snapper, line-caught bass and tilapia are also low in calories and fats, making them a quick and healthy option.
But it really doesn’t have to be boring, as this Miso Fish With Spring Onions & Sesame Seeds proves.
Cooked peeled prawns
Don’t be fooled by these tiny bite-sized crustaceans, they’re bursting with protein and the inflammation-reducing antioxidant astaxanthin. Bonus: they work out at about seven calories per prawn.
Whip up these Baked Coconut Prawns or try Joe Wicks’ Lean In 15 Spiced Prawns And Potatoes.
Serving: 1 tin
Not that fussed about food? There’s something for those who don't want to spend much time in the kitchen, too. If you haven’t got time to come up with a culinary masterpiece that also hits your macros targets, then turn to a trusty tin of tuna (just make sure it's dolphin-friendly). It won’t break the bank, you don’t need to cook it and you can simply pop it onto your salad for a protein-packed lunch in minutes.
Opt for tinned, light chunk tuna (which is considered to be low-mercury) and give this Tangy Tuna With Spicy Sauce recipe a go. It’s from the masterminds over at Itsu, so it’s delicious, and — best of all — quick and easy.
Nutrient-boosting, versatile and practically exploding with omega-3 fatty acids, salmon has long been a staple ingredient for anyone with gains on the brain. The lean protein is full of nutrients that fight depression, prevent coronary disease and can even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.
It’s also low in mercury, so read up on the 4 Simple Ways To Eat More Salmon to improve your heart health and boost your metabolism.
Clue up here on more ways to fire up your metabolism.
Best lean protein for vegetarians and vegans
As a veggie or vegan, how many times have you been asked: ‘But where do you get your protein?’ The answer, as people are increasingly getting to grips with, is... ‘Countless’. *Face palm*
Here are the best lean proteins that are also free of animal products, proving that a plant-based diet can be just as protein-packed as a meat-eaters.
Extra firm tofu
Made from dry soybeans, tofu is a great source of protein for anyone enjoying a meat-free diet. Thought to improve cardiovascular health, it can be marinated to replace chicken in almost any dish.
Not sure how to make it taste of anything at all? A Tofu Scramble or a Grilled Tamari Marinated Tofu can turn the pulpy protein into a delicious dinner.
Take a look at the 11 Ways To Upgrade Your Tofu Recipes.
High protein tempeh
Tempeh has grown in popularity over the last decade, with Western veggies and vegans turning to it as an alternative to tofu.
But, known for its high levels of magnesium, copper, protein and fibre, which are easy to digest, the fermented bean cake has been a staple in Asian cuisine for years.
It might be a little harder to find in supermarkets than tofu, but it’s worth sourcing — if only to try this amazing Cucumber And Tempeh Salad.
Serving: 1 cup
Affordable? Check. Low fat? Check. High protein? Double check. You can batch cook them so they’re an easy addition to any salad or soup, plus they’re high fibre. Win.
Don’t just assume they're a bland protein option, there are lots of ways to up your lentil game — just look at this recipe for Keralan Aubergines With Lentils, Cashew And Taramind and these other healthy lentil recipes.
Best lean protein to satisfy your sweet tooth
Lean proteins aren’t always savoury. They're also a tasty way to up your macros after dinner, too...
We’ve all seen the adverts — it’s full of good bacteria and its ability to boost the immune system hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Sadly, the fruity sugary yoghurt options are not going to cut it, so you need to choose a plain, low-fat Greek yoghurt to keep your protein in check.
But teamed with the right fresh fruit, it becomes a game-changer. Try this Metabolism-Firing Pineapple And Yoghurt recipe or whizz it through this Thai Red Curry for a creamy savoury hit.
Now you've got to grips with different sources of lean protein and why it's beneficial for your health, it's time to take a look at the best high protein recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Or why not check out how lean protein sources are used in these weight loss-friendly Pinch of Nom recipes.
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