For many years, people believed simply reducing calories and eating a low-fat diet was the key to weight loss. It was generally thought that what you took out of your diet was the most important thing. Now we are starting to understand that what you put on your plate is as important as what you take off of it.
Too many people focus only on simply eating less to lower their overall body weight. It can be easy to look down at the scale and hope the number you see is getting lower, but focusing only on your overall calorie count can be a shortsighted way of achieving a healthier body composition.
In the last few years, carbs have become the enemy. The Atkins diet, keto diets, and other protein-centric ways of eating have cropped up. The question is, are these diets actually better for you? And how do they work?
What is Protein and Why is it Important?
The answer to the question of “what is protein” is … you are! Much of the tissue in your body, as well as the chemicals that help those tissues communicate and interact with each other, are built of proteins. Along with carbs and fat, protein is considered to be a “macronutrient” necessary for healthy living.
These proteins, made up of smaller chemical units called amino acids, are the building blocks of everything from muscles and bones to your hair and even skin. The hormones that regulate the functions of your organs are also made of proteins.
Weight Loss and Body Composition
For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about weight loss is the bottom line number the bathroom scale is giving you on a day-to-day basis. Tracking calories and watching your overall weight is as far as some people get when it comes to weight loss.
Tracking your caloric intake may be the beginning of awareness about your body, but it is hardly the full picture. Understanding your body composition and how it relates to weight loss and metabolism over time can be the basis of longer-term plans to stay healthy.
Body composition, or the relative amounts of fat and muscle your body is made of, is a significant and often overlooked factor in weight loss. Reducing fat mass (FM) is usually the target in a weight loss program, but this can come at the expense of lean body mass (LBM) as well. If your level of LBM, often already low in many adult Americans, falls as a result of lowering your caloric intake, you can put yourself at risk for many kinds of health problems, and even lower your metabolism, which makes losing weight more difficult.
This is where a high protein diet comes into the picture. As we will discuss more in the following section, increasing the level of grams of protein relative to your whole diet, even when you are being careful about how many calories you take in, can help protect the LBM you need to stay healthy, maintain your metabolism, and help your body get rid of fat efficiently.
One of the great benefits of high-protein diets is they tend to work well for nearly everyone regardless of gender, genetic, or health conditions. Individual weight loss results on a high-protein diet obviously depend on many different factors, but increasing the level of protein in your diet will likely cause your body to increase its metabolism.
Protein’s Effects on Weight Loss
Losing weight in a healthy way is somewhat nuanced. Conventional wisdom would say that simply eating less food would help you drop unwanted pounds, but it turns out the answer is more complex. Not only do your need to take into account how many calories you are digesting, but also how quickly your body is making use of them.
Simply lowering your caloric intake can actually lead to your metabolism slowing down. Your metabolic rate is closely related to your overall amount of muscle mass, and muscle mass typically drops during weight loss efforts. If you are losing muscle while eating less food, you may be slowing your metabolism down and making it harder to lose weight.
Increasing the amount of protein in your diet, on the other hand, can help boost your metabolism. Studies have shown increasing dietary protein intake can boost your metabolism in the hours after eating. Additionally, adding protein helps maintain or build muscle mass, which further contributes to increasing your metabolism in the long term.
Eating a high-protein diet also helps you feel full more quickly. This is about more than just the sheer volume of food you have eaten. When you eat protein, your body increases the amount of hormones such as PYY and GLP-1 that are responsible for helping you feel full. High protein foods also help reduce the levels of ghrelin, a hormone responsible for making you feel hungry in the first place. Studies have shown that even when people are allowed to eat as much as they want, increasing the amount of protein will result in people consuming less food overall—sometimes by hundreds of calories per day.
High protein diets have also been shown to help you strengthen bones and preserve muscle mass as you age. As you grow older, maintaining strong bones and lean muscle mass becomes harder and harder. Fighting the effects of aging is hard enough, but simple dietary changes like increasing your protein intake can go a long way in making that fight a little easier.
For these reasons, it is often more effective for people to concentrate more on their level of physical exercise and focus on adding protein and an appropriate amount of healthy fat to their diet when they are trying to lose weight.
What Foods are High in Protein?
Many high-protein foods come from animals, though there are certainly plant-based, protein-rich foods as well. Lean beef, pork products, chicken, fish, and dairy are some of the most common animal-based foods that are rich in protein, as are eggs. For the vegetarians, beans, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, and grains are all great sources of protein.
Most animal-based proteins are considered “complete proteins.” This term refers to the number of amino acids present in a particular protein source. There are 22 different amino acids found in the proteins we eat, and of these, nine are considered “essential.” These nine essential amino acids are important to stay healthy, but cannot actually be produced by our bodies.
By and large, most animal-based protein sources contain all nine of these amino acids, which makes them complete sources for all your dietary protein. Plant-based proteins are generally not complete, but this is not a problem as long as you mix various sources of protein together. By eating a full spectrum of plant-based proteins, you can still get the amino acids you need.
How to Follow a High-Protein Diet
When considering a high-protein diet, it is important to know how long you plan on increasing your protein intake. Even though evidence suggests high-protein diets are good for weight loss in the short term, there could be consequences to maintaining a high level of dietary protein over longer periods of time. Higher acid loads can result in the kidneys, which can eventually endanger proper kidney function. Consuming too much protein over the long-term means you could find yourself at risk of health conditions that arise from consuming large amounts of animal fat.
You will need to do some work to ensure you are taking in protein from healthy sources, and that you are accounting for the increased calories typically found in high-protein foods. This is especially true if weight loss is your goal. You will also want to talk to your doctor or dietitian and plan out how long you anticipate maintaining a higher level of protein. Simply loading up on lean beef or pork will definitely give you a protein boost, but the long-term risk of heart disease associated with consuming large amounts of saturated fats found in red meat is one example of how a lack of careful planning could offset the benefits of increasing your metabolism.
Talk to Your Doctor About High-Protein Diets
Changing what you eat from time to time will not affect most of us, but there are some people for whom significant dietary changes can be very disruptive or even dangerous. If you have had a history of liver or kidney disease, or have experienced other digestive conditions in the past, you should consult your doctor before making any significant changes to your diet.
A high-protein diet can be a great tool for weight loss. Making sure you are managing your protein intake wisely is something we know well at NEW You Weight Loss. Schedule a free consultation today if you are considering switching to a high-protein diet, or if you are looking for other ways to achieve the weight loss results you are looking for.