How protein helps dieters

Say the word protein and what do you think about?

  • muscles
  • weight loss
  • meat
  • health
  • energy

When it comes to dieting, protein is supposedly weight loss magic.  Low carb and Paleo diets are all based on worship of protein.  The assumption is that protein causes weight loss through a mysterious metabolic process.  But is that really what happens?

A new study sheds some light on why protein seems to help people on weight loss diets.  It’s not that protein creates some sort of calorie-burning engine.  Instead, high intake of protein suppresses appetite.  And when your appetite is suppressed, you eat less.  When you eat fewer calories, you lose weight.

The study went like this: male and female subjects of normal weight were given diets that varied in protein content: low (5% of calories), normal (15%) and high (30%).  When the subjects were on the high protein diet, hunger was suppressed and they ate significantly less.  In fact, they ate less than the amount of calories required to maintain their weight.  In other words, a high protein diet resulted in a calorie deficit.

So what does this mean for you?  If you’re eating around 1500 calories and trying to lose weight, 30% of calories is 450 or about 50 grams of protein.  Fifty grams is not that much.  The basic requirement for most adults is higher than 50 grams/day.

Let’s say you’re aiming for an intake of 60 grams of protein per day and 1400-1500 calories.  In order to make the protein-appetite-suppressing effect work for you, you need to eat high protein foods at all your meals, especially in the morning.   Some research suggests that you can maximize the effect by dividing your protein intake as evenly as possible throughout the day.  That means about 20 grams at each of three meals.  If you have one or two snacks, you can swap some of that protein to a snack.  Here are some examples of foods that would work for a roughly 1500 calorie diet:

  • Breakfast: 2 eggs or a cup of nonfat yogurt, a protein smoothie or 2/3 cup cottage cheese.
  • Lunch or dinner: 3 – 4  oz meat or poultry or fish (1 oz can be cheese), 1 cup Greek style yogurt or cottage cheese, 4-5 oz tofu, 1-1/2 cups beans, 1/2 to 3/4 cup nuts (note: nuts are especially high calorie).
  • Snacks: yogurt, nuts, nut butter, cottage cheese, yogurt, deli meats, hard boiled eggs

You can also combine these foods in different amounts to achieve the same result, such as a cheese omelet, or beans and cheese or adding nuts and cheese to a side salad and having a small piece of meat.  Keep in mind, on 1500 calories (or less for smaller women), there’s not a lot of room for high calorie junk foods left.  You’ve got approximately 1000 calories for grains, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables.

If you’re dining out, Panera has a solution.   Panera started offering high protein meal options right after New Year.  The choices, such as steak and egg bowl or turkey salad, are high protein but low calorie, and would fit right in the range for the 1500 calorie diet.  Except for the unfortunate use of egg whites, most of the items sound OK.

So, if you’re looking for diet help, look to protein as an appetite suppressant.  You don’t need to go all-out low carb, but you do need to emphasize substantial protein at all meals.  Fill in with plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains, and leave out sugary, fatty junk foods and you’ll be on the road to health and fitness.

In case you need more convincing about this, check out my colleague Katherine Isacks’ post about this study.

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