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protein

What is lean protein? Benefits & sources

05 Oct 2021 • 5 min read

There’s protein and there’s lean protein. But do you know the difference?

Maybe you think you do and you just want to check you’ve got it right.

Or perhaps this is the first you’ve heard of lean protein and you want to learn all there is to know about it.

Regardless of how you may have ended up here reading this article, we know you’re going to find it useful.

Here, Isabel Tarrant, one of our nutritionists, guides you through the ins and outs of lean protein, which includes answering some of your most commonly asked questions about this important food source.

What is lean protein?

Lean protein is a source of protein that it low in saturated fat. Because of this, it’s also low in calories, hence it being called ‘lean.’

Lean protein is widely recognised as being healthier for our bodies than non-lean protein because it happens to be much lower in saturated fat that can impact our heart health.

Consistently consuming high amounts of saturated fats has been linked to increased bad cholesterol levels, known as Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL).

And having high LDL levels can result in fatty deposits building up within our blood vessels.

Over time, these fatty deposits grow and cause obstructions within our blood vessels.

As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for blood to flow effectively through our arteries, causing a condition called atherosclerosis.

People who have this condition are more at risk of developing heart issues, such as heart disease and blood clots. They are also at greater risk of having a heart attack.

Why is lean protein good for you?

Being mindful of how much saturated fat you consume on a daily basis, especially from meat, is essential for good heart health.

Healthier food options, such as lean protein, are the ideal choice because they enable you to meet your protein intake requirements, as well as help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels and look after your heart.

Summary

  • Lean protein is protein that’s low in saturated (bad) fat and calories
  • Eating unsaturated fat is essential for good heart health
  • Lean protein sources help you meet your protein intake requirements without raising your cholesterol levels

What’s the difference between lean protein and non-lean protein?

As we’ve mentioned up above, lean protein refers to protein that has a low fat content, particularly saturated fat content. In comparison, non-lean protein is recognised as being high in fat.

For example – a 100g portion of sirloin steak contains approximately 27g of protein, 11.4g of fat and 213 calories.

Now in comparison, the same amount of skinless chicken contains the same amount of protein (around 31g), but only 1.6g fat. What’s more, calorie-wise, it contains just 137 calories.

Due to the fact that fat is a calorie-dense macronutrient, lean protein happens to also be naturally lower in calories than normal protein because of the lower fat content.

So, while we’ve already mentioned that lean protein is good for heart health, gives you your quota of protein and is useful for maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, there’s another health benefit connected to it too.

It can also be useful to incorporate into your diet if you want to lose weight and are keeping a close eye on your calorie intake.

The table below shows you how the fat, protein and calorie make-up of lean protein compares to the fat, protein and calorie content in non-lean protein food sources.

  Protein source (per 100g) Protein Total fat Saturated fat Calories
Lean protein Skinless chicken breast 30g 1.6g 0.5g 137
Skinless turkey breast 33g 2.2g 0.5g 155
Cod fillet 21.5g 1.3g 0.3g 98
Haddock fillet 26.6g 1.1g 0.3g 116
Lean beef mince 31g 4.7g 2.1g 168
Tofu 13g 1.9g 1g 123
Green lentils 8g 1.8g 0.5g 83
Chickpeas 8g 1.4g 0.2g 122
Low-fat Greek yoghurt 7.5g 0.5g 0.1g 59
Venison 23.6g 0.8g 0.4g 103
Trimmed lean pork filled 32g 3g 1g 162
Non-lean protein Pork sausages 18g 24.6g 8.7g 299
Sirloin steak 27g 11.4g 4.9g 213
Rump steak 22g 11.9g 5g 196
Duck leg 24.3g 14.9g 4.8g 244
Lamb leg 17.6g 18.7g 9.5g 239

 

Are eggs considered a lean protein?

You may have noticed that eggs didn’t feature in the table above and are now wondering how valuable/invaluable a protein source they are.

Generally speaking, eggs are recognised as being a convenient, versatile and healthy source of protein, but they do tend to contain quite a bit of saturated fat.

Egg whites are the leanest part of eggs and contain around 4g of protein, 17 calories and 0g of saturated fat per egg.

But when it comes to the egg yolks, they do contain saturated fat, around 1.6g per egg.

However, this doesn’t mean you should avoid eating eggs.

If you’re looking to lower your saturated fat intake, simply stick to eating just the whites, which are a good source of lean protein. You can still eat the yolks, but it’s best you do so in moderation.

Handpicked content: 5 healthy ways to cook eggs

Summary

  • Non-lean protein meat is high in fat

  • Lean protein can help you reduce your saturated fat consumption and calorie intake

  • Egg whites are the leanest part of eggs, which are a good source of protein

What are the top 5 leanest meats?

As you now probably realise, not all meat is created equal. As a result of this, not all meat is lean however, certain types of meat are leaner than others. The top 5 leanest meats are:

  1. Skinless chicken breast
  2. Skinless turkey breast
  3. Lean beef mince
  4. Venison
  5. Trimmed lean pork fillets

What are the best lean protein foods?

Meat aside, there are lots of different lean protein sources out there.

To help you identify what they are, we’ve listed the main food sources of lean protein below.

6 best lean protein sources

  1. Beans & legumes

For plant-based sources of lean protein, beans and legumes are a top choice.

This is because beans and legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas are naturally very low in saturated fat and rich in plant-based protein.

For instance, a 100g serving of green lentils contains 8g of protein and less than 0.2g of saturated fat.

Furthermore, chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans are packed with vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, iron, b vitamins and fibre.

The benefits of eating beans and legumes – at a glance

  • Plant-based so suitable for vegans and vegetarians
  • Low in saturated fat
  • Full of plant-based protein
  • Certain beans and legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils and kidneys, are packed full of vitamins and minerals, including zinc, iron, B vitamins and fibre
  1. Low fat plain Greek yogurt

Plain Greek yogurt is much richer in protein than regular yogurt.

There’s approximately 7.5g of protein in every 100g serving, compared to 3g in regular yogurt.

What’s more, low fat Greek yogurt, contains minimal saturated fat and is recognised as being a good source of lean protein.

To add to all this, live Greek yogurt contains friendly bacteria, which help to support a healthy gut microbiome.

The benefits of eating plain Greek yoghurt – at a glance:

  • Higher in protein than regular yoghurt
  • Contains minimal saturated
  • Full of lean protein
  • Contains friendly bacteria for good gut 
  1. Skinless turkey breast

Turkey is one of the best sources of lean protein, but it does depend on the cut.

The dark meat that’s found around the legs and thighs contains much more fat than the white meat on the turkey breast.

What’s more, turkey skin is extremely high in fat, so if you are looking for a lean protein food source, it’s essential you select skinless turkey. This type of turkey contains 33g of protein and only 0.5g of saturated fat per 100g.

In addition, turkey is rich in b vitamins, particularly vitamin b12, b3 and b6, which help to support energy levels, brain health and the production of red blood cells.

Furthermore, turkey is also a rich source of zinc, which supports immune system functioning, and selenium, which is vital for thyroid health.

The benefits of eating skinless turkey breast – at a glance:

  • One of the best sources of lean protein
  • White, skinless turkey meat is the leanest
  • Rich in B vitamins – B12, B3 and B6
  • Full of zinc and selenium
  1. Skinless chicken breast

Just like turkey, skinless chicken breast is recognised as being a great lean protein source.

It’s high in protein, and contains approximately 31g of protein per 100g, but only 0.5g saturated fat.

Chicken breast is also the ideal choice for people who are watching their calories and want to lose weight because it contains 137 calories per 100g.

As well as being a lean source of protein, chicken is rich in vitamin B12, which helps to support energy levels and reduce fatigue.

Furthermore, chicken contains tryptophan, zinc, choline and selenium to support heart, brain, and immune health.

The benefits of eating skinless chicken breast – at a glance:

  • Excellent lean protein source
  • Low in calories
  • Full of vitamin B12
  • Contains tryptophan, zinc, choline and selenium
  1. White-fleshed fish

White-fleshed fish, such as cod, haddock and halibut, are all fantastic sources of protein that are low in fat too.

White fish is also low in calories and is therefore ideal if you’re on a diet and want to lose weight.

For instance, 100g of cod fillet contains 21.5g of protein, 0.5g of saturated fat and just 89 calories.

Make sure you choose fresh fish fillets over fillets that have been covered in batter or breadcrumbs to avoid eating any excess calories or fat.

However, when you compare white fish to oily fish, such as salmon, white fish contains much less Omega 3 content - only approximately 20% of the Omega 3 that’s present in salmon.

Therefore, it’s recommended you eat a mix of lean white and oily fish to make sure you are getting all of the Omega 3 you need.

The benefits of eating white-fleshed fish – at a glance:

  • Great source of protein
  • Low in fat
  • Low in calories
  1. Tofu

Tofu is another lean protein source that’s perfect for people following a plant-based diet.

It’s made from soybeans, which are naturally rich in protein and low in fat, with 100g of tofu containing approximately 13g of protein and only 1g of saturated fat.

To add to the benefits, tofu contains the full range of 9 essential amino acids.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are vital for making sure every organ in our bodies operates properly.

Essential amino acids refer can’t be produced by our bodies, which means it’s really important we source them from our diet. Therefore, tofu is a great option for making sure you are getting a good quality protein source with the full range of essential amino acids.

Additionally, tofu is rich in iron, which is ideal for vegans, who aren’t getting their iron intake from animal sources, such as meat. Iron is crucial for helping support energy levels and reducing fatigue.

Tofu also contains calcium, which is important for bone and muscle health.

The benefits of eating tofu – at a glance:

  • Plant-based so suitable for vegans and vegetarians
  • Contains the full range of 9 essential amino acids
  • Rich in iron
  • Contains calcium

Handpicked content: A guide to tofu: types, nutrition, cooking tips, benefits & more

Summary

  • Skinless chicken and turkey breast and lean beef meat are among the best lean protein foods
  • Plant-based protein food sources include beans and legumes and tofu
  • Other lean protein food sources include white-fleshed fish and plain Greek yoghurt

When should you take lean protein supplements?

Most people can get all the protein they need by eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet.

But in some cases, not everybody eats all of the protein they need every single day, especially if they are following a restricted diet, e.g. are eating a vegan diet, have allergies or are lactose intolerant.

Handpicked content: 21 best sources of vegan protein

As a result, this means that while there may be several different protein (and lean protein) sources out there, not all of them are suitable for everybody.

This is where protein supplements come in because they are an easy and convenient way of increasing your protein levels, if you need to.

The daily recommended guidance states that we should be consuming approximately 1g of protein per kg of our body weight.

Therefore if you weigh 60kg, then you need to consume approximately 60kg of protein a day.

And if you’re following a bodybuilding programme, you need to increase your protein intake by approximately 1.5g of protein per kg of your overall bodyweight.

Handpicked content: How much protein do you really need?

If you think about how much protein you need to consume on a daily basis, and are struggling to reach the required amount, it may be a good idea to supplement with a protein powder to make sure you meet your requirements.

Similarly, if you have started a new weightlifting or fitness routine and are focused on building muscle, you may wish to add a protein powder to your diet to help you reach your goals.

Protein powders are extremely versatile and can be used in many ways to suit your lifestyle. They can be mixed with milk to create a delicious milk shake to take on the go.

Alternatively, you can also blend protein powders into a smoothie with your favourite fruits and vegetables.

Or you may want to add some to your porridge or other cereal in the morning or mix it with Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries.

Lean protein powder vs. protein powder – what’s the difference?

Lean protein powders differ from normal protein powders because they have a lower fat content, particularly saturated fat, and higher protein content than regular protein powders.

Just like protein food sources, lean protein powders also tend to be lower in calories when compared to regular protein powders. This means they’re ideal if you want to lose fat, build muscle and maintain a lean and toned physique.

One of the main types of lean protein powder is whey isolate.

Whey isolate is different to regular whey concentrate because it has been specially processed so that it contains less fat and lactose. In turn, this means it has a higher, more ‘pure’ protein content.

Whey isolate contains more than 90% protein and approximately 0.1g of fat compared to regular whey, which contains around 70% protein and 3g of fat per serving.

And because the lactose is removed from whey protein isolate, it’s also an ideal option for people who have a lactose intolerance (but not a milk allergy).

When shopping around for the best whey protein isolate supplement, look for products that have been sourced from grass-fed cows because the milk produced by grass-fed cows tends to be lower in saturated fat than milk produced by cows that have been fed chemically-treated grains. 

Summary

  • Protein supplements are good to take if you aren’t getting enough protein from your diet alone, can’t eat certain food sources due to allergies or are following a specific diet (e.g. vegan)

  • The recommended daily protein guidance is approximately 1g of protein per kg of your body weight

  • Lean protein powders have a lower fat content, particularly saturated fat, and higher protein content than regular protein powders

Best lean protein powders

Not sure which protein powder to start with or switch to? These 2 lean protein powders have been highly recommended by Isabel.

  1. Applied Nutrition ISO-XP Chocolate Bueno 1kg

Product highlights: Contains less than 0.1g saturated fat, is sourced from grass-fed cows and is Halal-certified.

About the product: ISO-XP is a high protein supplement with sweetener and by far the cleanest and highest quality whey protein isolate available, with only 0.1g lactose and 22.5g protein per 25g serving.

Ingredients: 100% Whey Protein Isolate (Milk) (Emulsified with Sunflower Lecithin), Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Flavouring, Sweetener (Sucralose).

How to take it: Mix 1 scoop (approximately 25g) with 200ml of water or skimmed milk. Use 1 to 3 servings daily, depending on your protein requirements.

  1. Pulsin Pea Protein 250g Powder

Product highlights: Plant-based protein source, contains virtually zero saturated fat and is hypoallergenic, making it a great option for people who are allergic to whey or soya protein.

About the product: Pulsin Pea Protein Isolate contains a balanced supply of amino acids, good digestive quality and a protein level of 80%. It is also gluten and GM-free.

Ingredients: 100% pea protein isolate.

How to take it: A 10g serving (1 heaped dessert spoon) provides 8g of protein. Use 1 to 3 servings a day.

Takeaway

If you’re new to the concept of lean protein, then hopefully this article has made you realise that it’s an everyday food source.

You just need to know where to find it (which you do now), and recognise that certain food naturally contains less saturated fat and more protein, which is the ideal.

Obviously, if you are struggling to eat enough lean protein on a daily basis or just simply prefer upping your levels by using supplements, there are plenty of options for you to choose from, starting with the two top product picks hand-selected by Isabel above.

If you’re wondering if you should be taking protein supplements, take a look at this video - personal trainer, Samantha Rea, explains why we could all benefit from a little extra protein.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 5 October 2021

isabel-tarrant

Isabel Tarrant

Author

Nutritionist

Joined Holland & Barrett: September 2020

MSc in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition

Registered Nutritionist with an MSc in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition from University College London.

Isabel has expertise in gut health and the role of the gut microbiome in digestive health, immunity and brain health.

Isabel is passionate about improving the wellbeing of customers through evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle advice and keeps up with the latest nutritional science to continually enhance her practice.

Isabel believes a well-balanced holistic approach of evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle practices are key to improving wellbeing and happiness.

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