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The Best Sources of Lean Protein

The Best Sources of Lean Protein

When it comes to protein, those of us who are macro-minded individuals are obviously interested in what foods are the best value – protein-wise as well as literally, because high-quality food is expensive! So what are the best sources of lean protein out there?

Sources of Lean Protein

Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is protein powder, which is one of the best sources of protein, generally ranking alongside lean seafood and egg whites, plus it’s by far the cheapest for the amount, with generic-brand plain canned tuna coming in at a very close second in price (trust me, I considered it – and I did the math!).

However, for the purposes of this article we’re going to run through the best options for other “lean” protein foods – meaning highest percentage protein relative to carbohydrate and fat. This is not because they’re necessarily healthier than less lean proteins (naturally-occurring fats, including animal fats, are very healthy and necessary), but because unless you’re blessed with a huge caloric budget, chances are you want to get to eat as much food as you can for the macros you have. The best way to maximize that is by choosing foods that are as close as possible to being made up of just one macronutrient rather than a hefty combination of all three.

That’s the difference between a Hot Pocket and a huge plate of lean protein, vegetables and fats with exactly the same macros as that tiny Hot Pocket!

healthy protein snacks

The Best Lean Protein Sources

I’ll break down a collection of common protein sources, first by the BEST quality (highest percentage protein per calorie), then some other good choices broken down by food type – each category ordered from highest to lowest protein.

The scoring system I like to use is dividing the food’s caloric value by the grams of protein in that amount, and taking the resulting decimal as its grade. This is NOT its percentage protein, to be clear – multiply the grams of protein by 4 first, to find the caloric contribution from protein specifically, before dividing if you really want to know that.

This is just a quicker equalizer when comparing, since any nutrition label will provide the total calories and the grams of nutrients for you. For reference, MyProtein Impact Whey is generally a .20 (20 grams of protein divided by 100 calories), which indeed places it within the category of the best sources, as a quality protein supplement should.

As a side note: Obviously there isn’t much as far as vegan/vegetarian-friendly fare here, but this is a dedicated list of the “leanest” protein sources – that’s not to say that a vegan/vegetarian diet can’t satisfy protein goals adequately, but the majority of v-friendly protein sources also come with pretty equal proportions of the other macros, unfortunately kicking them off this run-down along with things like nut butter and the fattier meats. An athlete abstaining from animal products would especially benefit from sources such as protein powders for their “lean” protein!

how much protein do you need daily

The Very Best Sources:

Shrimp .22

Tuna (plain, in water): .22

Mahi-Mahi: .22

99% lean ground turkey: .22

98% lean ground chicken: .22

Swai: .21

Lobster: .21

Lean bison: .20

Tilapia: .20

Egg whites: .20

Crab (non-imitation): .20

Fat free natural cheese: .20

Scallops: .19

Chicken/turkey breast: .18

Pork tenderloin: .18

Halibut: .18

Beef jerky: .18


Seafood Protein Sources:

Octopus: .17

Clams: .17

Squid: .16

Bass: .16

Anchovies: .15

Trout: .14

Salmon: .11

Catfish: .11

Oysters: .10

Sardines: .10

Mussels: .10

Eel: .09

Imitation crab: .06



Meat Protein Sources:

Ostrich: .17

Chicken legs: .16

95% lean ground beef: .16

95% lean ground chicken: .16

Sirloin steak: .16

Duck: .15

Lamb: .15

Chicken liver: .14

Canadian bacon: .13

NY strip steak: .13

Veal: .13

90% lean ground beef: .11

Flank steak: .11

Whole eggs: .10

Bacon bits: .10

Turkey pepperoni: .10

Sliced ham: .10

Roast beef: .09

T-bone steak: .09

Chicken thighs: .08

85% lean ground turkey: .08

Ribeye steak: .08

Filet mignon: .08

Ground bison: .08

Turkey bacon: .07

80% lean ground beef: .07

Bacon: .06

Healthy Snack Recipe


0% plain Greek yogurt: .17

0% cottage cheese: .16

2% mozzarella: .10

Skim milk: .10

Swiss cheese: .08

1% milk: .08

what is whey protein


Powdered peanut butter: .11

Gelatin: .40 (despite this score beating everything else on the list, it’s not in the category of best sources because it is devoid of most amino acids needed to make up a complete protein – so feel free to enjoy a bowl a day of protein jello as gelatin is very good for you, but don’t depend on it for a significant portion of your protein)

Take Home Message

It’s completely fine, and encouraged, to supplement your protein intake with a powder, however whole food sources are important too, so incorporate and explore as many as you can depending on your budget!

Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.

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