In this era of new “miracle” diets being promoted every day, protein is now being touted as the magic bullet for weight loss. But is it really? Protein is one of three macronutrients that can be consumed in various ratios, the others being carbohydrate and fat. And since protein needs vary according to your age, gender and activity level, it gets confusing.
To shed some light on how dietary protein can help you in your weight loss efforts, we’ll first look at some basics. The official RDA for protein for the average healthy adult in the general population ranges from 46 grams/day for women to 56 grams/day for men. Keep in mind that this is average and is considered the minimum to keep your body functioning. It isn’t necessarily the amount you personally need, but it’s a good place to start. To calculate your own needs, check out the USDA website for the formulas.
Dieters turn to a higher protein regimen for several reasons. It takes more calories for the body to metabolize the same amount of protein as it does fat or carbohydrates. For example, if someone eats 100 calories of protein, it takes up to 30 calories to digest it, whereas 100 calories of fat takes around 3. Carbohydrates fall somewhere in between with complex carbs taking more calories to burn than simple. This is called the thermic effect of food.
Increasing protein seems to help the dieter control hunger. Protein empties from the stomach a little more slowly, increasing satiety. If you replace some of your carbohydrates with lean protein, you will find that your insulin levels remain more stable and your blood sugar won’t spike. This helps prevent cravings. Another benefit is that protein will help your body maintain lean mass while losing fat.
Studies have been done on protein as it relates to weight loss, both as an absolute amount and as a percentage of the total calories. Some studies suggest that dieters should consume up to 120 grams of protein a day. Looking at percentages of total calories, other studies have shown that a diet containing 30% protein helped dieters lose and maintain weight. Diets of 30% protein with moderate carbohydrates and lower fat are now considered by many experts a “reasonable” diet.
On the surface this sounds simple, but it’s good to take a closer look. The thermic effect of food is responsible for only about 10% of your total daily calorie expenditure. So increasing your protein alone won’t have a huge effect on your waist line. Studies have shown that if you just increase your protein, without reducing other macronutrients, you will gain weight.
There is no magic bullet, and there are no short cuts. Increasing your protein intake has many benefits. But all the macronutrients have a place in any healthy diet, especially one aimed for weight loss. While a change in the ratios can assist your weight loss efforts, ultimately it comes down to total calorie intake and expenditure. It’s simple really. If you eat more total calories than you burn, you will gain weight. And it isn’t a secret that if you decrease your intake and increase your physical activity, you will lose weight. Sustaining your weight loss is also more likely as you now have learned to eat properly in the first place.
To get started with changing your diet, a visit to your doctor or registered dietitian can help determine the correct ratio of nutrients for you. A qualified professional will also determine if there are any contraindications to you following a higher protein regimen.