Whether you’re trying to lose those last few kilos in the lead up to your wedding day, hoping to get in better shape for a summer getaway or working to boost your overall health by reducing your waistline, an increase in protein intake is a key factor in successful weight loss. Often overlooked in favour of low calorie or fad diets, a simple increase in dietary protein can positively effect weight-regulating hormones, boost your metabolism and minimise appetite.
But how exactly does an increase in protein achieve this?
- Digesting Protein Burns Calories: Whenever we eat something, a portion of the calories consumed will be used as energy for digestion. This process (referred to as the “thermic effect of food”, or TEF) uses varying calorie percentages dependent on what it is we have eaten. When fats are consumed, the TEF is minimal (0-3%), but when you are digesting protein this amount increases to an average of 20-30%. In simple terms, this means that 20-30 calories will be automatically burned off for every 100 calories of protein eaten.
- Eating Protein Can Boost Your Metabolism: Whenever you eat something, enzymes in your body get to work converting the food into energy, which is then used to power all the vital functions of your body. The faster this process occurs, the more a person can eat without gaining weight. As a result of several factors (including the above mentioned high thermic effect), a person’s metabolism will often increase when protein intake is boosted. In fact, studies have shown that eating higher levels of protein can burn an average of 80-100 extra calories per day.
- Protein Has a Positive Effect on Hormones That Regulate Weight: Within our brain, there is an area known as the hypothalamus, which, unbeknownst to many, plays a huge part in regulating our weight. This is because the hypothalamus is the part of the brain that tells us whether or not we are still hungry. When we eat higher levels of protein, our body starts to alter production on a number of hormones that send messages back to the hypothalamus. In particular, we will produce lower levels of the “hunger” (ghrelin) hormone, and higher amounts of the “satiety” hormones (specifically, cholecystokinin, peptide YY, and GLP-1), so we will be more likely to feel full and stop eating.
- Because You Feel Full, You Naturally Reduce Calorie Intake: Since eating more protein helps to reduce hunger and increase satiety, the end result is that you will naturally start to consume less. Even without consciously counting calories, an increase of protein at every meal has been shown to automatically lead to reduced portion sizes, without leaving you hungry. One study found that by consuming 30% of their daily calories as protein, participants routinely reduced their daily intake by an average of 441 calories. So, unlike many low-calorie diets that leave you feeling like you’re starving, a high protein diet feels less restrictive which, in turn, makes it easier to maintain in the long-term.
- Protein Helps Maintain Muscle Mass and Prevent Metabolic Slowdown: A reduction in the numbers on the scales doesn’t translate to much if all you’ve lost is necessary muscle instead of unwanted fat. Unfortunately, many calorie-controlled diets lead to a loss of both fat and muscle, which can then trigger a metabolic slowdown. Once this survival reflex kicks in, your body will start burning fewer calories in an attempt to prevent weight loss. Boosting the amount of protein that you eat works to counteract this process, minimising muscle loss and maintaining a steady metabolic rate. Adding some weight training into your exercise routine will also assist in building or maintaining muscle, while simultaneously burning fat.
- Protein Can Minimise Cravings: Numerous studies have shown that a boost in protein can minimise the persistent cravings that interfere with weight loss. Eating 25% of calories as protein was found to diminish cravings by 60% in a study of overweight men, while another study that focused on teenage girls showed that a high-protein breakfast resulted in a reduction of cravings. Since cravings were significantly reduced, this translated into a decrease in late-night snacking, which often leads to a calorie overload that is counterproductive to weight loss.
Obviously, protein plays a crucial role in any successful weight-loss plan. But just how much should you be eating for optimal results? Based on the majority of studies that examine the role protein plays in weight loss, a calorie intake of approximately 30% protein has been found to produce the best outcomes. This should be spread out across all meals consumed throughout the day.
Increasing the percentage of protein that you eat is surprisingly simple. Great sources of protein include meats, fish, legumes (think lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans), dairy and eggs. If you’re struggling to incorporate enough protein into your diet, then protein supplements are another great option.
While every person is different, and every weight loss journey will vary, the science shows that increasing your protein is one of the very best ways to successfully reduce weight.