Top 13 Lean Protein Foods You Should Eat (P1)
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Protein is an essential part of a balanced diet, but sometimes it’s accompanied by more fat and calories than you want.
Fortunately, there are a variety of lean animal and plant sources of protein that will help you meet your quota.
The protein Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for an adult who eats 2,000 calories a day is 50 grams, although some people can benefit from eating much more than that. Your individual calorie and protein needs are based on your age, weight, height, sex and activity level.
Beyond protein’s essential roles in building and maintaining muscle and tissues in your body and helping regulate many body processes, it also promotes satiety (fullness) and may help in managing your weight.
Here are 13 lean protein foods you should consider.
1. White-Fleshed Fish
Most white-fleshed fish are super lean and excellent protein sources, providing under 3 grams of fat, around 20–25 grams of protein and 85–130 calories per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) plain, cooked serving.
Examples of very lean white fish include cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, halibut, tilapia and orange roughy.
These white fish generally have only 10–25% as much omega-3 fat as higher-fat, higher-calorie, darker-fleshed fish like coho or sockeye salmon. Therefore, it’s good to eat both types of fish.
A convenient way to buy plain fish fillets is in the frozen food section of your supermarket. If you move the fillets from your freezer to the refrigerator first thing in the morning, they’ll be thawed and ready to cook for your evening meal.
White-fleshed fish like cod and halibut are excellent sources of hunger-satisfying protein with little fat and relatively few calories, making them a diet-friendly food.
2. Plain Greek Yogurt
A 6-ounce (170-gram) serving of Greek yogurt packs 15–20 grams of protein, compared to only 9 grams in a serving of regular yogurt.
This is due to how Greek yogurt is made. It’s strained to remove the liquid whey, leaving a more concentrated product with more protein that’s also thicker and creamier.
If you’re looking for the least calories and fat, opt for plain, nonfat Greek yogurt, which has 100 calories per 6-ounce (170-gram) serving.
Low-fat plain Greek yogurt, which has 3 grams of fat and 125 calories per 6-ounce serving, is also a good choice. By opting for plain, you skip the unnecessary sweeteners and can add your own fruit.
Plain nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt contains around twice as much protein per serving as regular yogurt.
3. Beans, Peas and Lentils
Dry beans, peas and lentils, also called pulses, are a subgroup of legumes. They average 8 grams of protein per 1/2-cup (100-gram) cooked serving and are also low in fat and high in fiber.
Both the high fiber and protein contents in pulses help make them more filling. What’s more, the fiber may lower your blood cholesterol if you eat pulses regularly.
In a review of 26 studies in 1,037 people, eating an average of 2/3 cup (130 grams) of cooked pulses daily for at least three weeks resulted in 7 mg/dL lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, compared to control diets — that equaled a 5% reduction in LDL over time.
Notably, pulses are low in a few essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein in your body. However, by eating other plant protein sources over the course of a day, such as whole grains or nuts, you’ll fill in those gaps.
Beans, peas and lentils are good sources of lean protein. They’re also high in fiber and may help lower your cholesterol if you eat them regularly.
4. Skinless, White-Meat Poultry
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked chicken or turkey breast has around 30 grams of protein.
Skip dark meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs to get the leanest meat. White meat includes the breasts, breast tenderloins (tenders) and wings.
Also, don’t eat the skin — 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of roasted chicken breast with the skin has 200 calories and 8 grams of fat, while the same amount of skinless, roasted chicken breast has 165 calories and 3.5 grams of fat.
You can remove the skin either before or after cooking, as the fat savings remain virtually the same either way. Note that poultry cooked with the skin intact is moister.
White-meat chicken and turkey, particularly the breast, are rich in protein and low in fat if you remove the skin either before or after cooking.
5. Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese is a high-protein, low-fuss food.
A 1/2-cup (4-ounce or 113-gram) serving of low-fat (2% milkfat) cottage cheese has 97 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 13 grams of protein.
The newest trends in cottage cheese include single-serve containers, flavored options and the addition of live and active probiotic cultures.
Besides protein, you get around 10–15% of the RDI for calcium in 1/2 cup of cottage cheese. Some food scientists recently suggested manufacturers should add vitamin D, which aids calcium absorption, though this is not currently common practice.
If there’s one drawback to cottage cheese, it’s that a 1/2-cup has around 15–20% of the daily limit for sodium (salt). If you’re watching your salt intake, one study suggests that rinsing cottage cheese for three minutes could reduce its sodium by around 60%.
Low-fat cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein and becoming even more convenient with the increased availability of single-serve containers. It’s also a good source of calcium.
6. Lite Tofu
Tofu is an especially viable protein option if you avoid animal foods. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of lite tofu has 45 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 7 grams of protein, including sufficient amounts of all essential amino acids.
Tofu comes in different textures, which you can choose based on how you plan to use it. For example, use firm or extra-firm tofu in place of meat that you’d bake, grill or sauté, but soft or silken tofu in creamy soups or desserts.
Many healthy tofu recipes and tips are available online, such as from the Soyfoods Association of America.
Note that about 95% of soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified (GM). If you prefer to avoid GM foods, you can buy organic tofu, as organic foods cannot be genetically modified.
Lite tofu is a good source of plant protein that provides adequate amounts of all essential amino acids and is very versatile in recipes.
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