Is Lean Protein Really Better For You?

We're often told to choose lean protein. But is lean protein actually healthier? Or is it long past time to retire this phrase? Nutrition Diva busts another food myth.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #513
Lean protein options

What’s a good diet made up of? Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, healthy fats. You’ve probably heard this litany so many times that the words fail to register.

But today I want to zoom in on this term “lean protein.” What does this actually mean?

The definition of a lean protein is one that has no more than 3 grams of fat per ounce. That would include skinless chicken, ham, and pork tenderloin. Salmon or peanut butter, on the other hand, would not be considered lean proteins.

But does the idea of lean protein really make any sense? Is leaner protein necessarily better for you?

(I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard experts extol the merits of lean protein and then list salmon as an example. It just goes to show how mindlessly we’ve come to use this term.)

What Does Lean Have to Do With Health?

But does the idea of lean protein really make any sense? Is leaner protein necessarily better for you?

Part of this may be a holdover from the days when we considered fat to be the enemy. Most of us have now realized that, although we do need to ensure that our calorie intake is appropriate to our needs, we don’t need to strictly limit the amount of fat we eat.

In fact, replacing some of the refined carbohydrates in our diets with healthy sources of fat can actually be a nutritional upgrade. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is quite a bit higher in fat than the diet recommended by the American Heart Association but is actually linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

See also: Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

Protein Is More Than Just Meat

The emphasis on lean protein is also probably a throwback to a time when dietary protein was largely synonymous with meat. Leaner cuts of meat were thought to be better not just because they are lower in fat but also because they are lower in saturated fat. If fat was the enemy, saturated fat was the devil incarnate. 

Today, we also have a more balanced view of saturated fat. A moderate amount of saturated diet is absolutely fineperhaps even preferableto diet that contains no saturated fat at all.

See also: How Saturated Fat Helps your Heart

I’d also like to point out that not all the fat in meat is saturated. About half of the fat in red meat is actually heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying meat that’s a bit higher in fat, as long as it fits into your total fat, saturated fat, and calorie budget for the day.  If you had eggs and bacon for breakfast, maybe you’d go with a leaner source of protein for dinner. But if you started the day with steel cut oats, a less lean choice might be just fine.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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