When it comes to weight loss there is one macro the resigns supreme - protein! In fact, outside of calorie control, eating more protein is one of the best dietary approaches to losing body fat. However, the exact amount of protein you need is often hotly debated and can differ from one person to the next.
Here’s the breakdown on this popular diet-friendly macro and expert advice on what your optimal daily protein intake should be.
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Why Do You Need Protein?
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for nearly every cell in your body. For this reason, protein is considered an essential nutrient and if you don’t get enough through food, your body is forced to borrow amino acids from your muscles (your main storage form of protein) which can result in a loss of important lean tissue and strength.
How Much Protein Should I Eat a Day?
Clinical nutrition recommendations suggest a protein intake of 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.27 to 0.36 grams/pound) (1). This would equal out to roughly 40 to 55 grams of protein a day for a 150-pound adult.
Another way to consider protein needs is by looking at macro balance. The US Dietary Guidelines suggest protein intake should make up 10% to 35% of your daily calories. And on a 2,000 calorie diet, this will equal out to 50 to 175 grams of protein a day - quite a large range!
It is important to note that the recommended daily 0.8 g kg typically skews towards the minimum amount you should be eating. And 50 grams of protein a day might not be adequate in maintaining lean mass, building muscle, and promoting better body composition in some - especially active individuals and older adults.
In reality, protein needs are not as directly related to calorie intake or total body weight as they are to the amount of lean mass you have and how much you use your muscles.
The Benefits of Protein for Weight Loss Explained
While the research cannot conclusively determine that dietary protein alone promotes weight loss or that high protein diets are the best approach to losing weight, what we’ve seen so far is fairly compelling.
It is becoming more apparent that higher protein intake has some serious potential benefits for dieters.
There are three main arguments for why you should consider consuming more protein when looking to shed pounds.
What is the thermogenic effect of protein?
It takes energy to digest your food - commonly referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF). And as it turns out, each macro requires a different amount of energy to digest.
Protein is thought to be the most thermogenic of all the macros - causing a small spike in metabolism to digest protein foods compared to fat and carbs (2). And it is commonly believed that eating more protein overall may lead to tiny increases in your daily metabolism and overall energy expenditure.
TEF only accounts for 10% of your total energy expenditure, but because dieting is associated with decreases in metabolism over time - due to prolonged caloric restriction and decreases in mass, this minor effect on metabolism may be worth considering (3,4).
Does protein reduce hunger?
Hunger is an inevitable side effect of cutting calories, but the type of foods you are choosing might help curb your appetite more than others. Protein is thought to have some well documented satiating effects, particularly while on a diet (5,6,7).
In one study, consuming 30% of calories from protein caused participants to eat almost 450 calories less per day - leading to twelve pounds of weight loss in 3 months (8). Some research has even suggested 25% of your calories coming from protein can help curb cravings (9).
It is no wonder popular high protein diets recommend roughly 30% to 40% of calories come from protein, which would equal out to 150 to 200 grams of protein per day on a 2,000 calorie diet (or 1 to 1.5 grams/pound for a 150-pound adult, eating 2,000 calories a day).
Why do you want to protect lean mass?
When cutting calories to shed pounds, you will lose a combination of fat and muscle weight. But your goal should be to lose more fat than muscle.
More lean mass means a better body composition (less body fat %) - helping you look more toned and lean overall. Muscle is also your storage place for carbs (in the form of glycogen), meaning you can process carbs and store them more efficiently, the more muscle you have - leading to less body fat storage. So when it comes to losing weight, maintaining your muscle is going to be a huge benefit.
How Much Protein a Day to Lose Weight?
So how can you tell exactly how much protein do you need to maintain your muscle and lose weight?
When calorie restriction for fat loss is considered, some research suggests between 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein/kg of fat-free body mass or 1.04 to 1.4 grams/pound of muscle is best (10). You can find out your muscle mass by estimating your % body fat or getting a body composition test done.
But again, this amount can vary widely from one person to the next, And of course, you have to have the muscle to begin with. So if you are looking to lose weight and do not participate in any strength training, you might want to consider adding weight lifting or at least bodyweight exercises to your weight loss plan.
Consider increasing your protein intake to 30% of your calories or roughly 1 gram per pound of body weight/day if you are looking to drop some pounds and tone up.
How to Eat More Protein
Knowing your protein goals is only half the battle, you still ended to figure out how that translates into food choices.
Start by learning where the best sources of protein can be found and identify high protein foods you enjoy eating. You can enjoy quality protein sources from a variety of foods including animal-based options like meat, fish, and dairy or plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Here are some resources to help you find the most protein dense foods:
Then learn how to portion your food choices to fit your macros and start tracking your daily intake using a macro-friendly app.
Want to take things up a notch? Get results faster by sticking to your calorie and protein goals with this free meal prep toolkit for fat loss. A registered dietitian’s guide complete with macro meal planner, food lists, and expert advice to help you lose weight quickly.