May 19, 2023

Choose Lean Proteins: What are the Options?

Choose Lean Proteins: What are the Options?

By Lisbeth Irish, RDN, CDN, CDCE

Protein is an important part of our diet and people of all ages should focus on choosing “lean” sources. Many sources of protein are not necessarily lean and can be significant sources of saturated fat. Saturated fat is linked to heart disease, some forms of cancer, fatty liver, and generalized inflammation.

How do you know if a protein source is lean?

Nutrition labels are helpful but not all protein sources have those labels. Minimally processed beef, pork, lamb, chicken and fish generally do not have nutrition labels and the saturated fat content can vary greatly. When choosing these foods, the “cut” of the meat and the percentage of fat noted on the item can provide clues. Loin and tenderloin as well as “90%” lean and higher are good choices. Chicken is fairly lean once the skin is removed. The fat content of fish is not saturated so even high fat fish are healthy choices. (Some high fat fish can be sources of mercury, so it’s best to limit tuna to twice a week and avoid swordfish. Most other high-mercury fish are not commonly found in most grocery stores).

Other sources of protein

Milk products provide high-quality protein. Low-fat or no-fat milk, cheese and yogurt  limit the saturated fat content and many lactose-free products are now available. Be aware that milk alternatives other than soy milk often contribute very little protein and may be expensive.

Eggs are an excellent source of protein and can be used in a variety of meals.

Keep in mind the amount of lean protein we eat is also important. If you eat a large quantity of chicken, the amount of saturated fat may equal that found in a small 85% lean (15% fat) hamburger.

Plant sources

Plant sources of protein generally do have labels, and most are low in saturated fat.

They are often less expensive too. Good plant sources of protein are beans, lentils, tofu, edamame, peas, pulses, quinoa and peanuts. Peanuts are a legume and have more protein that other “nuts.” There are many different ways to prepare plant sources of protein. has many recipes for these highly nutritious lean sources of protein.

As we age, plant sources may be easier to eat as well. Bean and legume-based dishes generally require less chewing than some types of meats and often can be easily reheated in the microwave.

Changing Tastes

Over the years we may find that our usual protein “go-tos” aren’t our favorites any longer. Our tastes can change as we age and this may influence the amount of protein in our diets. Eating too little protein leads to less muscle mass which decreases muscle strength. When we lose muscle mass, we are at increased risk for pressure ulcers at the locations where our bodies have contact with chairs, beds, etc.

How do you ensure you are eating adequate lean protein? Try to eat some at each meal/and snack. An egg at breakfast, a cup of low-fat yogurt as a snack, a bowl of bean soup for lunch, some hummus (chickpea dip) for an afternoon snack, and a 4 ounce piece of fish baked in the oven. Add fruit, vegetables, and whole grains to these meals/snacks and you have balanced meals that meet the average older adult’s protein needs and much more.

More information on lean protein sources and how to Save Money, Save Time and Eat Healthy can be found at and

Lisbeth Irish RDN, CDN, CDCES is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist with the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA). She has over 25 years of experience working as a Registered Dietitian in a variety of settings and currently oversees the NYSOFA SNAP-Ed Nutrition Education program for older adults in New York State. Lisbeth is also a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. She attended NY Medical College and has a degree in Nutrition from SUNY Oneonta. Lisbeth enjoys reading, nature, and traveling. Lisbeth says she feels very fortunate to be working with such a dedicated group of professionals at NYSOFA.

For more great tips, watch Lisbeth’s monthly Facebook livestream “Ask The Experts: Nutrition Edition” at 1 p.m. on the second Friday of every month. You can tune in to the program on NYSOFA’s Facebook page.