Does Protein Help You Lose Weight?

We know that protein is important in a healthy diet, but we may not understand why, or in what ways protein functions within the body. And let’s face it, it is much easier to just grab whatever is handy for a quick meal or snack from your favorite restaurant than it is to follow a healthy eating plan. But what effect can protein have on your weight?

What is Protein?

To answer the question of whether protein can help or harm with weight control efforts, it is helpful to first understand what protein is and how it impacts the body.

Protein is comprised of organic chemical elements, called amino acids, and is critical to the proper functioning of our bodies. The body requires 20 different amino acids in total, yet it can only make 11. The Amino acids that our bodies can make are called non-essential and the nine we must get from food because our body cannot make them are called essential amino acids.

Protein is responsible for building and repairing cells and tissue such as skin and muscle. It also oxygenates red blood cells which transport nutrients throughout the body, aids in digestion, regulates hormones, and speeds up the body’s recovery from exercise and injury.

Now that we know what protein is and how it functions within our body, we can address how it affects our appetites and weight.

Calories and Energy

If you feel full, you are less likely to grab that sweet or salty snack that is just begging you to pick it up. When you eat enough protein, you feel satiated for longer periods which can help your resolve as it relates to eating healthier. If you are seeking to reduce your overall calorie intake while also maintaining enough energy to be active, protein just might be your ally.

One study centered on the hormonal effects of a single high-protein breakfast (51% protein) compared to a high-calorie breakfast (containing only 10% protein). It found that at 120 minutes post high protein meal the levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone PYY were significantly higher than they were among the high calorie eaters. Satiety scores were also higher while after meal cravings were less.

Metabolic Processes

The thermic effect of protein refers to the increase in energy expenditure that occurs during its digestion, absorption, and metabolism. This process requires more energy compared to the digestion of fats and carbohydrates, leading to greater caloric expenditure.

We have all experienced the addictive effects of high carbohydrate or high sugar. They never satiate us, making it easy to grab handful after handful. Besides being low in nutrients, such foods metabolize easily using little energy. In comparison, up to 30% of the calories from protein are burned in the metabolization process before one even considers exercising. This can help affect calorie deficit, an essential element in weight loss. It is important to consider individual factors such as activity level, body composition goals, and overall dietary preferences.

Focusing on high-quality protein sources that are also nutrient-dense can provide essential vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients while supporting metabolic processes.

Recommended high-quality protein sources include:

  • Eggs of all types or egg whites
  • Dairy and dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Fish and seafood (wild-caught salmon, sardines, trout)
  • Legumes (chickpeas, green peas, kidney beans or lentils)
  • Lean Meats (chicken, lean beef, turkey or pork)
  • Nuts, grains, seeds (also nut butter)
  • Soy (including edamame and tofu)

Protein and Muscles

As the body loses weight, it breaks down both fat and muscle tissues. Reducing one’s body mass results in a reduction of muscle strength because less strength is needed due to a lower mass. Some believe that protein intake must increase to preserve muscle mass through muscle protein synthesis, however, studies have shown that this is usually not an issue as the average American diet does not lack sufficient protein. The key is to be sure that the protein you eat is a high-quality lean protein. Animal protein has better bioavailability than plant protein because it contains all the essential amino acids our body needs but which it cannot produce. Studies did find, however, that there are key times for eating protein to enhance muscle-protein synthesis: Immediately after strength training and within two hours of bedtime.

How much Protein Should I eat?

The amount of protein one should consume and when is a topic with many opinions, but one thing that should not be overlooked is that a high-protein diet can cause stress to those suffering from kidney disease. The body can only absorb 1-1.3 oz of protein at one time and is unable to store extra protein for later use. Unabsorbed protein is converted into fat which leads to increased lipids in the blood, increased stress on your kidneys, and an increased risk of heart disease. A general rule of thumb is to only eat enough protein per meal that equals the size of a deck of playing cards.