The Benefits of Lean Protein

The Benefits of Lean Protein

More amino acids, less fat. Find out why leaner cuts of meat, and the protein they deliver, are a mainstay in any healthy diet.

We’ve all heard it before – some of us so many times it’s become somewhat of a healthy diet mantra: choose lean proteins. If you’re health conscious, removing the skin from your chicken and choosing 97% lean ground beef has probably become as natural as waking up to your protein shake every morning. But what exactly is the point? Is a little bit of marbling in our red meat every once in a while really so bad? Sometimes we need to take a step back and remind ourselves why we started going through all this trouble in the first place.

But first, a quick science lesson! There are three energy-producing nutrients in the foods we eat: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. That’s it. Vitamins, minerals, fluids, and phytochemicals are all essential parts of the diet but they will not give us energy. Period. Fats are more energy dense, with 9 calories per gram, versus 4 calories per gram in proteins and carbs.

The major benefit of lean proteins is their composition. The leaner your meat, the higher the percentage of protein and the lower the proportion of fat. Because fat has more than twice as many calories per gram as protein, a meat with less fat is also significantly lower in calories. Lean proteins are also much lower in saturated fat. Ever wonder why bacon grease slightly resembles craft paste if you let it sit in the pan for a few hours? It’s because the fat in meat is mainly saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature.

If you think that’s gross, just imagine what it looks like in your body. Or, take a look at this video to find out:

So it’s about smoking, but you get the idea. Both contribute to atherosclerosis, or the buildup of sticky plaque in the arteries. In small amounts fat is an important part of the diet (contributes to blood clotting, brain development, and absorption of vitamins A,D,E, and K, among many other functions), with most of your fat intake ideally coming from unsaturated fats, found in fish, nuts, seeds, avocadoes, and vegetable oils. Eating too much saturated fat raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol in the body and is a major risk factor for heart disease.

So we know consumption of fatty meats should be a rare occurrence, but eating white meat chicken all the time can get pretty dull. The good news is there are more options for lean proteins than you probably know. Outside of white meat poultry, fish, egg whites, wild game, beef rounds, and pork loins are all lean choices. And there are vegetarian options! Skim and lowfat dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese), as well as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and soy products (like tofu, tempeh, and edamame) are all lean complete proteins, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids. Beans, seeds, whole grains, and nuts are other sources of lean protein that contain all essential amino acids when eaten in combination.

Here is a list of some common cuts of meat organized by saturated fat content. See how your favorite checks out!

Remember, these stats are per 3 ounces. That’s about the size of a deck of cards. Most of us are probably eating far more than that in one sitting!

The bottom line is, a little indulgence is okay once in a while, but don’t make a habit of it! Your arteries and your waistline will thank you.

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About the Author

Alyssa grew up in New Hampshire and is a lover of any activity that involves mountains (especially the Greens and the Whites!). She speaks Mandarin Chinese and Japanese and lived in both countries as an undergrad (which partially explains her love for Beijing eggplant, lychee, and anything green tea flavored). Currently, she lives in New York City and is working on her master’s degree in public health nutrition at NYU. For the past year, she has been working at NYU School of Medicine’s Center for Immigrant Health, and last fall was awarded the Gstalder Memorial Scholarship for her research and service in minority health. Active in the Greater New York Dietetic Association, Alyssa is working with student members to create a low-literacy cookbook and nutrition guide for cancer patients, which she hopes to have translated into Chinese and Spanish. Before getting into nutrition, she spent time working for several environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy in Yunnan, China, the Missouri Botanical Gardens in Madagascar, and the Green Mountain Club on The Long Trail in Vermont. Alyssa was recently accepted to a dietetic internship program at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, where she will begin work in the fall.