The Benefits of a High-Protein Diet

Dr. Christopher McGowan
November 7, 2020

For so many Americans, being “on a diet” is the only way they know to lose body weight. Even if paired with a rigorous exercise plan, weight loss diets are the go-to solution they hope will bring them freedom from overweight or obesity. Over the last several decades, a stunning variety of diet plans have been proffered as the best, the most efficient, or the least onerous way to keep off the pounds, but few of them have proven very effective for most people. One general dieting idea that has support from both doctors and fitness experts, though, is the high-protein diet. While not really a specific “plan,” a diet that emphasizes protein can potentially make a significant difference in physical fitness, bone strength, balance, metabolism, and weight loss. 

Why Be Concerned About Protein?

Most other diets tend to focus on reducing elements (low carb, Atkins diet, low fat, etc.) rather than increasing them, so why is high protein so beneficial? Of course all parts of the food we eat are beneficial; our bodies need carbohydrates, healthy fats, proteins, fiber, and vitamins to keep our systems functioning properly, yet our modern American diet tends to be much higher in fats and carbohydrates than other components. The debate still rages about why that is, but some have pointed to the increase in quick service and prepared foods over the decades that have caused people to value speed and taste over nutrition. 

It’s definitely a good idea to limit fats and sugars in one’s diet, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of protein. In addition to being a macronutrient and one of the building blocks of various tissues and organs in the body, protein is also important as a fuel source, a repair agent, and a key component in enzymes and blood cells. The essential amino acids in protein are also critically important in building and maintaining muscles throughout the body. In fact, skipping out on sufficient protein can lead to a number of negative outcomes such as loss of muscle mass, a slower metabolism, and anemia (a condition where cells can’t get enough oxygen from red blood cells). 

Indeed, protein deficiency is a very real problem in many places around the world. In the United States, it’s generally less of a concern, but there is still a well-documented gap among adults in terms of recommended daily protein intake. This problem is even worse for the elderly; as we age, muscle and other tissues tend to degrade or weaken, and the need for a diet rich in protein is especially important for longevity and quality of life. 

How Does a High-Protein Diet Help With Weight Loss?

However true it might be, the argument for the biological and overall health benefits of dietary protein isn’t necessarily the most convincing one for people who are just trying to lose weight. The good news, though, is that a high-protein diet can actually be a major part of a weight-loss-oriented diet for several different reasons: 

  • Fewer calories consumed: Protein intrinsically has a lower energy density than fat at 4kcal per gram of food. What this means is that a similar volume of food can be eaten, but it will have fewer calories. So in other words, replacing fatty foods (like deep-fat-fried food) with a higher protein content can reduce your daily calories without even altering the amount of food eaten. 
  • Feeling of fullness: In addition to fewer calories compared to fat (protein has roughly the same energy density as carbohydrates), a high-protein diet is also associated with higher levels of satiety. This means that protein-dense foods can give you a feeling of fullness sooner, so you’ll be less likely to overeat. Higher satiety is in part because of how protein lowers the amount of ghrelin, a hormone responsible for creating the feeling of hunger.  
  • Improved metabolism: Numerous studies have demonstrated that a high-protein diet can actually improve metabolism because of protein’s high diet-induced thermogenesis; in layman’s terms, this means that digesting protein itself leads to a higher energy expenditure. When combined with strength training, this effect can be multiplied and can lead to significant fat loss over time. 
  • Better sleep: Though the mechanisms aren’t entirely clear to scientists yet, more and more research points to a lack of sleep as a contributing factor in overweight and the ability to lose weight. It is thought that insufficient protein (and higher intake of unhealthy fats and carbohydrates) can reduce sleep length and quality; conversely, high-protein diets have been associated with better sleep, and, by contrast, improved weight loss. 
  • Maintain lower weight: Something often overlooked by fad diets is how to maintain weight loss after it has occurred. A high-protein diet can indeed help you lose weight for all the reasons noted above, but it can also help you keep the weight off long after. One of the reasons for this is thought to be the impact of protein on lowering food cravings due to an increase of peptide YY, another hormone that is linked to the feeling of fullness.   

Can You Eat Too Much Protein?

A major caveat to understand before choosing a high-protein diet is that the type of protein matters a great deal. For example, though it is loaded with protein, the large quantities of saturated fat in red meat can lead to a risk of heart disease and a number of other negative health outcomes. Additionally, some high-protein diets focus on cutting carbohydrates so much that it can begin to create nutritional deficiencies like too little fiber. Also, too much protein (an amount far beyond what most people are likely to consume) can potentially cause problems with kidney function like kidney stones or kidney disease. 

What Kinds of Protein Should I Eat?  

According to most doctors, scientists, and nutritionists, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 46 grams of protein for the average woman and 56 grams for the average man. These amounts are averages based on a sedentary lifestyle, so they would be higher for someone who is more active and/or trying to lose weight. The amount of protein isn’t the only consideration, however, and the source of protein is an important consideration when making dietary decisions. Below are some examples of high-protein foods that would be excellent components of a healthy diet: 

  • Eggs
  • Lean meats (chicken breast, turkey, lean beef) 
  • Nuts (almonds, pistachios, cashews
  • Legumes (lentils, beans)
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Fish
  • Peanut butter 

There are also a wide variety of ways to add protein to already healthy dishes or foods. One example is to add whey protein powder to a fruit smoothie. Even whole grains like steel cut oats, which are primarily made of carbohydrates, have higher protein content than typical white bread. You can also replace some traditional grains like white rice with more protein-rich grains like quinoa. The important thing is to be more mindful of dietary choices and make substitutions when possible. 

Diet Changes Are Just a First Step

Science tells us that replacing fat with protein in our diets can make a big difference in our overall health as well as our weight loss goals, but making those changes can sometimes be easier said than done. At True You Weight Loss, we understand how challenging it can be to make strides toward weight loss through dieting changes alone. To help you finally achieve those goals and enjoy the freedom you’ve been waiting for, we offer several non-surgical weight loss procedures that can help you permanently take off those pounds. If you’d like to learn more about these innovative solutions, contact us to request a consultation

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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