If you have been researching diet options for weight loss, it’s likely that you’ve heard about high protein diets. So, what makes protein so important in a balanced diet? What is its role in the body and how can it help with weight loss? Is all protein created equal?
Protein is one of three primary macronutrients that provide our body with nutrients and energy. The other macronutrients are carbohydrates and fat. All three macronutrients play vital roles to help our bodies function properly, but protein plays an especially important role in weight loss.
This article will explain how protein helps with weight loss, specific examples of high protein foods for weight loss, and practical tips for incorporating more protein into your diet.
How Does Protein Help Weight Loss?
Protein is part of every single cell in our body. It supports growth, maintenance and repair of red blood cells, is involved in hormone production and immune function, and repairs muscle tissue, skin, nails, and hair. Protein intake also influences satiety, muscle mass, and metabolism which all are involved in weight loss.
Protein lends greater satiety, or feelings of fullness, by slowing digestion and regulating hunger hormones. It has been shown that a high protein diet induces the satiating hormones, glucagon-like peptide- 1 (GLP-1), cholecystokinin (CCK), and peptide tyrosine-tyrosine (PPY) and reduces the hunger hormone (ghrelin). As a result, eating more protein helps us feel full more quickly, and for longer periods of time. With greater satiety, we are less likely to snack in between meals and go back for seconds at meals.
Protein may also help decrease cravings by slowing down the absorption of sugar from your stomach into your bloodstream, which can help keep your blood sugar from spiking and ward off future cravings.
Boosted Metabolism and Muscle Mass
Protein also helps preserve lean muscle mass, as it assists in repairing, growing, and building muscle. As we lose weight, our body loses both muscle and fat. Ideally, we want to minimize the loss of muscle because large amounts of muscle loss can result in a decreased metabolism, making it more difficult to lose additional weight. Loss of lean muscle is common during periods of caloric restriction and dieting, as many popular diets do not place an emphasis on prioritizing protein intake. However, with increased protein intake, there is the potential to actually boost metabolism, which allows us to burn more calories at rest.
Metabolism and the Thermic Effect
The ‘thermic effect’ of digesting protein can also boost metabolism. Daily energy expenditure is composed of three main components – 1) The resting metabolic rate (RMR), 2) The thermic effect of activity (TAE) , and 3) The thermic effect of feeding/food (TEF). ) The RMR refers to the amount of calories we burn at rest, and the thermic effect of activity refers to the calories burned from all physical activity. When we digest and metabolize our food, the calories burned through this process is referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF). It has been shown that protein has a higher thermic effect, compared to both fat and carbohydrates. In simpler terms, more calories are needed to break down protein, compared to the calories needed to break down carbohydrates and fats. As a result, higher protein diets may increase energy expenditure, resulting in more calories being burned at rest and boosting metabolism.
Does this mean that we should all be limiting our consumption of carbohydrates and fats? As important as protein intake is for weight loss, all three macronutrients play vital roles in the functioning of our bodies. For sustainable weight loss, it is important to focus on a balance of all three macronutrients. A Registered Dietitian can help you determine the appropriate balance of macronutrients, based on your individualized health concerns and personal goals.
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The Best High-Protein Foods
Protein is made up of smaller units called amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks of protein. There are 22 different amino acids, and 9 of these are considered essential, meaning the body cannot produce them on its own and they must be obtained from food. Different proteins have varying amounts of these amino acids. Some protein food sources contain all 9 of these essential amino acids, and other protein sources do not. Proteins can be made up of both animal and plant-based sources.
Animal-based protein sources
High quality animal protein sources include the following:
- Lean meats (such as white meat chicken, turkey, venison, pork loin, beef sirloin)
- Low-fat dairy products (such as low-fat greek yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, and cheese)
- Whey protein (commonly added to protein supplements such as shakes and bars)
Plant-based protein sources
High quality plant based protein sources include:
- Nuts and seeds (chia, hemp, flax, pumpkin)
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas)
- Soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh)
- Grains (such as quinoa, millet, couscous, and oats)
- Pea protein
It is recommended to eat a variety of both animal and plant-based protein sources for optimal health and weight loss. This is because they have varying amounts of the 22 amino acids. The more variety of protein, the increased likelihood that we are getting everything we need to function properly and feel our best.
How to Start Eating More Protein
Here at FORM, our best advice for adding more protein into your daily diet is to start by prioritizing protein at all meals and snacks. When meal planning for the week, we recommend starting by asking yourself which protein sources you would like to include. From there, you can determine the produce and high fiber carbs you will add. The FORM plating method recommends we fill our plates with ¼ high quality lean protein, ¼ high fiber carb, and ½ plate produce.
The FORM plating method also recommends we pair protein and produce together at snacks.
A good rule of thumb is to include anywhere between 20-40 grams of protein per meal, and 10+ grams of protein per snack.
A few examples of easy, high protein meals with a variety of protein sources:
Tofu scramble made with 6 oz extra firm tofu (16 g protein), ½ cup black beans (8 g protein), vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. and seasonings to taste (such as garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, etc.)
- Approximately 24 g protein → plant based only
- High quality protein → tofu
- Produce → various vegetables (spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes)
- High fiber carb → ½ cup black beans (also provided protein)
- Turkey taco bowl made with 3 oz ground turkey (23 g protein) + 1 cup non starchy veggies of choice + salsa + ½ cup quinoa (4 g protein) + 1-2 tbsp low-fat shredded mexican cheese (3-5 g protein)
- Approximately 30-32 g protein → protein sources: both animal and plant based
- High quality protein → ground turkey
- Produce → 1 cup non starchy veggies of choice (peppers, onions, mushrooms, etc.)
- High fiber carb → ½ cup quinoa
A few examples of easy, high protein snacks with a variety of protein sources:
- ½ cup 2% low fat cottage cheese (protein) + ½ cup blueberries (produce)
= 14 g protein
- 1 oz roasted chickpeas + 1 oz roasted edamame (both chickpeas + edamame have protein) + raw sliced cucumbers (produce)
= 12 g protein
Protein supplements (such as protein shakes, powders and bars) can be a great way to increase the protein within your diet, as they are convenient options. They can be used as meal replacements or snacks. A dietitian can help you determine if you should replace any of your meals with protein supplements. When selecting protein supplements, we recommend protein shakes or powders with at least 20-30 g protein and protein bars with at least 15 g protein.
How much protein is recommended per day? This depends on your age, gender, and level of physical activity, and can be determined from working with medical professionals, such as the weight loss experts at FORM. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has established an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), which contains dietary recommendations for all three macronutrients.) The IOM recommends anywhere between 10-35% of calories from protein. There is no clear definition of a “high-protein diet”, however many practitioners use 35% as an upper limit recommendation, per the AMDR guidelines. For a 2000 calorie diet, this would be anywhere between 50-175 g protein per day. This is quite a large range.
The IOM also has set a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) to prevent protein deficiency for an average sedentary adult. This RDA is 0.8 g per kg of body weight. By this recommendation, an 150 pound (68.2 kg) sedentary adult needs approximately 55 g protein per day. However, this is a modest amount of protein and considered a minimum by many medical professionals. As we know, increased protein intake can be beneficial for weight loss for a variety of reasons. Therefore, we do not recommend basing protein needs from this minimum RDA when starting a weight loss program.
For most people, aiming for 20-40 g protein per meal and 10+ g protein per snack helps to ensure minimum protein needs are met to fuel a healthy metabolism, induce satiety in between meals, and aid in weight loss. Protein needs are highly individualized. A FORM Registered Dietitian can help you determine an appropriate daily protein goal for your specific needs.
Protein: Your Ultimate Ally for Shedding Pounds
While all three macronutrients have vital roles in our bodies, protein may be the most important for weight loss. Protein increases satiety by slowing down digestion and regulating hunger hormones, helps preserve lean muscle mass, and can boost metabolism. If you have tried to lose weight in the past and have felt discouraged by lack of progress or increased hunger, it could be highly beneficial to prioritize protein at all meals and snacks. While protein is vital for sustainable weight loss, increased protein consumption isn’t often enough for weight loss on its own.
If you are struggling to lose weight on your own, health professionals can help you ensure you have an appropriate balance of varied protein sources within your diet. A diet that works for one person may not work for the next, and here at FORM, you will work with a Registered Dietitian that will get to know your needs and create a personalized plan. If you are interested in losing weight in a healthy and sustainable way, we encourage you to schedule a call or send a message to FORM. You can also take our quiz to find out if you are eligible for the FORM medical weight loss program.