Fitness Freaks: Know Thy Protein!

Not all protein is created equal. Learn how to sort the lean from the lardy!

Fitness Freaks: Know Thy Protein!

Protein plays an important role in maximizing muscle building and minimizing fat gain. But not every protein is created equal. Take salmon and tilapia: They're both good protein sources, but salmon has more healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Advantage, salmon.

You also need calories for muscle building, and fried foods and fatty cuts of meat have plenty of them. But they've also got trans fats and saturated fats that can increase inflammation and slow you down.

The more you know about what you're getting from each protein source, the smarter you can eat. And when you're looking for good protein sources, look for lean.

Protein Examples
Seafood Salmon, tilapia, mackerel, tuna, shrimp, oysters, clams, mussels
Plant-Based Tofu, beans, peas, legumes, quinoa
Poultry Chicken and turkey breast, chicken and turkey deli meat, ground chicken and turkey breast, eggs
Beef Lean ground beef, steak sirloin, flank steak, filet mignon
Pork Pork tenderloin, Canadian bacon, ham (deli meat)

5 Tips for Choosing Lean Protein

1. Breasts Beats Thighs

White poultry meat, found in the breast, is lean. Dark meat (found in wings and thighs) has plenty of protein but more fat. For lean eating, go with the breast meat.

2. Skip the Skin

Love the oily, greasy, crunchy goodness of cooked poultry skin? That's because it's full of fats—even if they are the monounsaturated kinds of fats that can reduce bad cholesterol and raise the good. But if you're trying to stick to a low-fat diet, bypass the skin and go straight for the white meat.

3. Look for the Loin

If you're in the mood for chicken or beef, but aren't sure which are the leanest cuts, just "look for the loin." Sirloin and tenderloin (beef, chicken, or pork) are among the lowest-fat cuts you can get.

4. Veg Out!

More and more people are choosing to get at least some of their protein straight from the plant world. Common sources of nutrient-rich, low-fat vegetarian protein include tofu, edamame, beans, legumes, the grain quinoa, and plant-based protein powders.

5. The Fewer Legs, the Better

This isn't a perfect rule, but in general, the fewer the legs, the leaner the protein. Think about it: Plant proteins (no legs) are extremely lean; fish (fins but no legs) are very lean; poultry has two legs and is lean; cows and pigs have four legs and are a little less lean.

Okay, shrimp have ten legs and octopuses have eight, and they're both very lean. Those four-legged deer and bison are much leaner than their bovine and porcine cousins. And bugs have six legs and are among the leanest protein sources on the planet. But you get the idea.

One final note: You can restrict yourself to only the leanest chicken breasts and cuts of beef, but if you fry them, you're adding fats, pure and simple. Instead, use low-fat cooking methods like grilling, roasting, broiling, steaming, or sautéing in a sprinkle of olive oil. And don't worry, cooking your meats won't reduce their protein content or quality.