Protein can hold off hunger better than simple carbs like those you find in crackers and cookies. But can protein help you actually lose weight or is it all hype?
When a friend hears that you want to lose weight, she might suggest that you start packing more protein onto your plate. It’s what helped her lose 20 pounds, after all. It’s also the ethos your colleague swears by—she lost 5 pounds in a month by eating more protein. But what does it really do? And is weight loss really just a matter of adding more eggs and chicken to your day?
What Is Protein?
First, it’s important to know just what protein’s role in the body is. It’s part of the big three macronutrients—protein, fat and carbohydrate—so it’s clear this is one nutrient we need in abundance. Protein breaks down into amino acids, which “are part of the immune system, neurotransmitters, help build muscle tissue, facilitate cellular repair, and are in your DNA.
When you want to lose weight, protein can play an important role. Protein contributes to hunger and satisfaction, and it does slow the rise in blood sugar. In time, that helps you maintain your energy levels and helps you control your appetite. When your energy levels aren’t crashing and your appetite is satisfied, you’re less likely to feel like you need to reach for those chocolate cookies for a midday pick-me-up.
There may be another X factor in the equation: exercise, and lots of it. When you lose weight, it can come from both fat and muscle. But to be more successful, you want to minimize muscle loss and maximize fat loss. Exercise can help you do that.
In a study that was recently, young men who were on calorie-restricted diets were instructed to eat either a low- or high-protein diet. They all also did resistance and high-intensity interval training six days a week. Those in the higher-protein and exercise group increased their lean body mass and lost more fat compared to the lower-protein eaters. Keep in mind that they looked at men—the study would have to be repeated in women—but the results are promising.
Protein is a big player in weight loss, but not a magic remedy. Not only do protein foods take longer to digest so they keep you full, you get the added bonus that protein burns more calories than other food groups when it’s being digested. If you have trouble with cravings (like that box of chocolates that won’t stop staring at you), make sure you get protein in at meals and snacks. It’s that satisfaction factor that can control your inner sugar monster.
Can You Eat Too Much Protein?
This isn’t free rein to eat all you want. Eat too much of anything—including protein—and you’ll gain weight. Not to mention it will kick out other healthy foods that you need.
In addition to the potential risks (It’s important to talk to your doctor first about any health concerns), remember you can’t survive on protein alone. Protein foods do not have all the nutrients we need for optimum health and wellness.
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
The answer: probably. So you don’t really have to worry that you have a shortfall.
Most of us generally get plenty of protein in their diet. Higher protein diets—eating 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal—may help balance your appetite, and help you stick to a diet better. And consistency is one of the most important factors in making a diet work.
I would recommend choosing a variety of protein foods every week rather than the same old standbys. Each protein has different vitamins and minerals beyond protein. Eating a range gives you the variety of nutrients your body needs to function well and feel good as you lose weight.
Plus, take the opportunity to branch out from the way you think about protein. It’s not just animal meat. In fact, leaning more toward plant-based proteins, like chickpeas, black beans, lentils, edamame, and nuts and seeds. Even grains like pasta or quinoa contain protein. Veggies have a small amount, too.
Breakfast is a great time to focus on getting protein, but with traditional picks like toast and cereal, it may be lacking. Compared to a “normal protein” breakfast (13 grams protein), an equal-calorie high-protein breakfast (35 grams) prompted overweight teens to eat fewer calories over the course of the day, and led to more stable blood sugar levels, a good idea may be to eat eggs in the morning as your protein source, like avocado toast topped with eggs.
Having plenty of protein in your breakfast can prevent a blood sugar crash a couple hours later, Heller says. If you typically eat oatmeal and fruit, add soymilk or stir in almond butter. “This may sustain you better until lunch so you don’t need an extra midmorning snack,” she says.
While getting sufficient protein can help you shed weight, overdoing it won’t. It’s all about that word you hear all the time: balance. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats all fit into a weight-loss diet.
This may take adjusting your plate to meet the right ratios, or a trick would be to have One-quarter of your plate is protein, one-quarter whole grains, and one-half produce (particularly nonstarchy veggies like spinach and cauliflower). Add a bit of fat, too, like avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil or cheese.
It’s a balanced diet and a decent level of protein—low in processed foods, high in whole foods—that will both help with weight loss and boost overall health.