While it seems like all diets come and go—frequently earning them “fad” notoriety—there’s one nutritional strategy that’s highly effective, held strong, and only gained momentum and scientific backing over the last 20-plus years: Higher-protein diets. What are the benefits of higher-protein diets? Why is protein important for weight loss? How do higher-protein diets flex their fat-burning muscle? What exactly qualifies as a higher-protein diet?
Let’s dive into these questions and more!
What are the benefits of higher-protein diets?
Research has shown that consuming diets higher in protein is not only safe for otherwise healthy individuals, these diets may provide a host of health benefits. Higher-protein diets can help:1,2
- Enhance weight loss
- Accelerate fat loss
- Reduce belly fat
- Protect (and even build) calorie-burning muscle
- Preserve metabolic rate after weight loss
- Prevent weight regain
- Promote long-term weight maintenance
- Boost metabolic rate
- Increase satiety and improve appetite control
- Improve markers of heart health
- Support glycemic control
- And more!
While there are many benefits associated with higher-protein diets, one of the most highly touted, of course, is weight loss—more specifically, quality weight loss. I make this distinction because, ideally, the goal of a weight-loss program should be to:
- Preserve (if not build) as much calorie-burning lean muscle as possible, while
- Shedding as much body fat as possible.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at why is protein important for burning belly fat.
Why is protein important for weight loss?
There are at least three ways higher-protein diets can be “metabolically advantageous” for folks whose goal is quality weight loss:
- Boost metabolic rate and energy expenditure
- Increase satiety and reduce caloric intake
- Preserve and build calorie-burning lean muscle
Starting at the top, higher-protein diets can help boost metabolic rate. All foods we eat require calories to be burned to digest, absorb, and assimilate their nutrients. This is the thermic effect of feeding (TEF)—or what we like to call the thermogenic burn. Protein-rich foods have the greatest thermogenic burn of all, boosting the metabolism THREE to SIX TIMES more than carbs or fats.3 This means you burn more calories each day when you consume a higher-protein diet. It also means protein-rich foods provide less metabolizable energy (than carbs or fats)—meaning your body is less likely to store calories from protein as fat.4
Another major metabolic advantage is that higher-protein diets increase satiety and improve appetite control. In other words, they can help control caloric intake, reduce cravings, and improve diet quality. Similar to its thermogenic burn effect, high-protein meals/foods have a much more pronounced effect on satiety and appetite control compared to carbs or fats.5,6
In other words, protein-rich foods are much more likely to make you feel full and satisfied.3 In a recent study published in the Nutrition Journal, researchers from the University of Missouri found that consuming higher-protein snacks improved satiety, appetite control, and limited subsequent food intake when compared to higher fat and higher carbohydrate-based snacks.7
Why is protein important for appetite control? There are a couple of interesting explanations. On one hand, there’s the protein leverage hypothesis, which essentially says our appetites are wired to “seek” protein, and we’re programmed to eat toward a protein target.8 On the other hand, protein-rich foods have been shown to beneficially impact hunger hormones:
- ↑ appetite-suppressing hormones:
- ↓ hunger hormones:
The final, and perhaps most important, piece of the puzzle is that higher-protein diets are essential for protecting and preserving lean muscle when dieting. This is crucial because losing muscle mass—which is a common, expected side effect of normal-protein reduced-calorie diets—leads to: 1. Reduced metabolic rate; 2. Increased appetite; 3. Greater likelihood of weight regain; and 4. A host of potential negative health consequences.
Now that we’ve answered the question why is protein important for weight loss, you may be wondering how much protein you might need to reap the super awesome rewards of a higher-protein diet.
How much protein is
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has established a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein intake of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (or, about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight).
However, if you’re interested in reaping the metabolic advantages of higher-protein diets, you’re going to have to shift your thinking from surviving (i.e., the minimum) to thriving (i.e., optimizing).
Along those lines, research indicates you may need up to TWICE the RDA (or even more). Generally speaking, higher-protein diets provide somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram per day (or, about 0.55 – 0.73 grams per pound per day). Practically speaking, that means making sure that individual meals contain at least 25 – 30 grams of protein.
Some of the top protein-containing foods include:
- Chicken breast: 31 grams per breast at 165 calories
- Tuna: 25 grams per 3 ounces at 157 calories
- Cottage cheese: 25 grams per cup at 222 calories
- Whey protein (such as BioTrust Low Carb): 24 grams per 2-scoop serving at 150 calories
- Lean beef: 22 grams per 3-ounce serving at 213 calories
- Lentils: 18 grams per cup at 230 calories
- Greek yogurt: 18 grams per 7 ounces at 190 calories
- Oats: 13 grams per half cup at 303 calories
- Quinoa: 8 grams per cup with 222 calories
- Eggs: 6 grams of protein and just 78 calories per egg
- Almonds: 6 grams per ounce at 163 calories
So, you can enjoy a large variety of delicious foods to reach your optimal protein intake.