You probably know that protein is the ‘go to’ nutrient when it comes to building muscle and getting strong. But, did you realize that it is just as vital to anyone who is wanting to strip fat from their body?
Protein is, in fact, the key to winning the weight war. In this article we discover what lies behind protein’s fat fighting power – and find out how you can optimize your diet to fully benefit from this amazing macronutrient.
Protein & Weight Loss
The word protein is derived from the Greek proteios, meaning ‘most important.’ Along with carbohydrates and fats, it is one of the three macronutrients.
There are three ways that protein helps us to lose body fat:
- It helps us to build lean muscle tissue. Once you take away the water, muscle tissue is almost exclusively made of protein.
- Protein has a higher thermic effect than either carbohydrates or fat. During the process of digestion, some 25% of protein calories are used during digestion, compared to just 6-8% for carbs and 2-3% for fat.
- Protein fills you up, which helps you to go longer between meals without feeling hungry again.
There are a large number of studies that have shown that the combination of these three factors are effective factors in fat loss. People who are assigned to eat more protein lose more fat. Retain more muscle tissue, have less hunger, and eat less total food.
In contrast, studies have shown that lower protein intake leads to overeating, fat gain, and muscle loss. Such results have led some researchers to propound the protein leverage hypothesis, which states that humans have the ability to keep track of how much protein we’ve eaten. This tracking system, it is claimed, is the ultimate controller of appetite. We eat more food when we have less protein in our meals,and less when we have more.
According the protein leverage hypothesis, then, hunger is really a quest for protein.
This protein leverage hypothesis seems to gel with what we see in society. Researchers have been scratching their heads for decades at the statistics which show that the wealthiest people in society are also the leanest, while the poorest people are the fattest. Of the three macronutrients, protein is the most expensive. So, if all that you eat is low-quality, mass-produced food, you’ll need a lot more of it to reach your body’s internal protein target.
The bottom line is that if you eat cheap, low protein foods, you will get bigger and fatter.
Not All Proteins Are Created Equal
Protein is a lot like a train, with a whole lot of cars adjoined to it. Each of those cars is an amino acid. You many know that 60% of your body is water. Well, the balance of 40% is mostly taken up with protein. That is because protein is the building mortar of every single part of us. Our skin, hair, toes, muscle cells and organs are all made of protein.
There are twenty amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Of these, nine are unable to be manufactured by the human body. These are considered to be essential amino acids and must come from the foods that we eat. The nine essential amino acids are:
When it comes to building muscle, leucine is the most important. Muscle is crucial to fat loss. That’s because muscle tissue takes a lot more energy just to maintain itself than fat tissue does, by a factor of 5! So, every extra pound of muscle that you have on your body with allow you to burn more calories every second of the day – even when you’re sleeping.
As a result of this a higher amount of muscle mass will give you a higher resting metabolic rate. You will also burn more calories during digestion.
Maximum protein synthesis is believed to happen when you have 1.5 grams of leucine in your muscle tissue. The best foods to get leucine are:
- Chicken breast
- Cottage cheese
- Whey protein
How Much Protein?
Researchers have tried to figure out the ideal protein intake in terms of protein leverage. They believe that 30% of total calories is about right.
In a meta-study, researchers examined 24 weight-loss studies that compared higher protein diets (25 to 35% of total calories) with standard protein calories (12 to 18%); study participants ate the same amount of fat and total calories. Individuals who ate more protein lost one pound more, on average, over a variety of durations, from a month to a year.
Now, you may think that one pound isn’t very much. However, the subjects ate the same amount of food. Those eating more protein not only lost slightly more weight but also improved their body composition by gaining a small amount of muscle and eating more fat than those who are less protein.
So, if you are taking in 2000 calories per day, you need to be consuming 750 protein calories per day. To find out how many grams that is, we need to divide that figure by four (because there are 4 calories in every gram of protein)
600 / 4 = 150 grams
The most effective way to get this protein into your body is to spread it over the course of your day. Researchers have published several studies in which consuming six meals per day have proven to be more effective at fat loss than three larger meals. This generally works out to eating every three hours. In the case above it would have you consuming 25 grams of protein at each of your six meals.
As we mentioned at the start of this article, the most common belief about protein is that it builds muscle. Building muscle gives your body it’s shape. It can mold your body into the look of an athlete. And here’s the kicker for fat loss. . . It takes a lot of calories to maintain muscle mass.
So, every time you add a gram of muscle tissue to your body, you are transforming your system into a fat churning machine.
Key Protein Research
Let’s take a look at some of the exciting research that has ramped up protein’s fat loss profile in recent years.
Another major advantage of protein?
Unlike carbohydrates or fats, taking in high levels of protein does not play havoc with your insulin levels!
A lot of diets promise rapid weight loss. That is never what you want. You should only ever be interested in the loss of body fat. Why? Because, weight loss usually means that you’re getting rid of a tiny bit of fat and a whole lot of muscle.
Your Protein Plan
Your protein fat loss plan has 3 aspects to it:
(1) You are going to be eating a quality protein source at every meal.
(2) You will be eating five or six times per day (every three waking hours).
(3) 30% of your total calories will be protein.
(1) Paddon-Jones, D., and Leidy, H. 2014. Dietary protein and muscle in older persons. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 17(1): 5–11.
(2) Leidy et al. 2011. The effects of consuming frequent, higher-protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring) 19(4): 818–24.”
(3) Leidy et al. 2011. Neural responses to visual food stimuli after a normal vs higher protein breakfast in breakfast-skipping teens: A pilot fMRI study. Obesity (Silver Spring) 19(10): 2019–25.
(4) Bopp et al. 2008. Lean mass loss is associated with low protein intake during dietary-induced weight loss in postmenopausal women. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 108(7): 1216–20.
(5) Parker et al. 2002. Effect of a high-protein, high–monounsaturated fat weight-loss diet on glycemic control and lipid levels in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 25(3): 425–30.