A balanced diet is vital for good health and involves the three main macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and protein. While fat and carbs have a history of getting a bad rap (hello, low-fat eating and the current star of the fad-diet scene, the ketogenic diet!), protein has long had a so-called health halo.
But what makes protein so beloved — and lean protein in particular so salubrious? The answer is far from simple.
“Adequate protein intake is vital to overall health. It’s the body’s building block, as bones, muscles, skin, and blood are all made up of protein,” says Melissa Nieves, RD, who works at Kemtai, a virtual personal trainer company in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. In addition to those functions, protein aids the repair and regeneration of cells in the body, notes MedlinePlus.
For weight loss, protein can be helpful, too, because it helps the brain recognize the hormone leptin, which can keep you full longer and provide your body with energy, explains Rima Kleiner, a registered dietitian who is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, and is the author of Dish on Fish, a seafood recipe blog. Research suggests that consuming protein increases leptin, which promotes a feeling of fullness.
The problem, though, is that some foods high in protein — think common animal sources such as steak and pork — are high in saturated fat, as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health points out. In excess, saturated fat can increase your risk for heart disease, notes the American Heart Association (AHA). “That’s where lean proteins come in,” Nieves says.
In fact, a higher intake of lean protein can possibly lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, whereas a higher intake of red meat is associated with an elevated risk, according to research.
How Much Protein Do You Need? It Depends
Although protein is a vital macronutrient, the AHA warns that most Americans eat far more protein than they need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that 10 to 35 percent of your calories come from protein — that is roughly 46 grams (g) of protein for adult women and 56 g for adult men, per the AHA.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), lean protein sources have less than 10 g of total fat and 4.5 g or less of saturated fat per 100 g, or 3.5 ounces (oz).
Ready to make the switch to leaner sources of protein? Try these 15 foods that are high in the macronutrient.