Protein is a nutrient that plays an essential role in building and maintaining the health of your body, including your muscles, skin and bones. It’s also an important part of your diet when it comes to achieving or maintaining a healthy weight.
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“Protein is invaluable when it comes to increased fullness and satisfaction after a meal,” says registered dietitian Annalise Pratt, RD. “Knowing how to use this key nutrient as part of a balanced diet puts the odds of losing weight on your side.”
How much protein should I eat to lose weight?
Protein needs vary from person to person. The amount you need depends on several factors, including your age, how much lean muscle you have, your overall health and your activity level.
Only a certain amount of protein (25 to 35 grams) can be absorbed and used at once. It’s a good idea to eat smaller amounts of protein throughout the day, rather than a lot at one meal.
The recommended percentage of daily calories from proteins is typically 10% to 35% protein. Protein contains 4 calories per gram. This means, if you eat about 2,000 calories per day, you’d want to aim for 50 to 175 grams of protein in your daily diet.
Losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you consume. Experts say you should strive to burn 500 calories more than what you eat each day. As far as how much protein to eat, Pratt says it’s best to check with a registered dietitian or other healthcare provider first if you have a medical diagnosis, such as kidney disease, that could impact your protein needs.
“Protein needs vary greatly based on your age, gender, activity level and medical history,” she says. “In general, you should make sure 10% to 35% of your daily calories come from protein and you should burn 500 calories more than what you eat each day if you want to lose weight.”
Calculating how much protein you need
Use the USDA DRI Calculator to determine how much protein you need. It’s a well-established way of determining your nutrient needs, including protein recommendations.
The online calculator uses your height, weight, age, sex and activity level to show your:
- Daily calorie needs estimate.
- Recommended macronutrient intake (carbs, fat, protein and fiber).
- Recommended micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) and water intake.
Do I need more protein if I’m very active or an athlete?
Yes. Highly active people need more calories in general. These extra calories should come from protein, as well as carbohydrates and fat.
For weight loss, athletes and heavy exercisers should consume 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of their goal weight. That recommendation may vary, depending on the type and intensity of activity. It also depends on the type of protein you’re eating and when it’s consumed throughout the day.
It’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to get personalized nutrition recommendations based on your health, activity level and goals.
How does protein help weight loss?
Protein can boost weight loss as part of a balanced diet. Adding more protein to your diet may help you:
1. Feel full longer
Protein takes longer to digest than other types of nutrients, so it can keep you satisfied for longer. This can potentially help you stave off snacking and cut some calories.
In research, eating a higher protein diet over longer periods of time has been linked to eating less and weighing less. In one study, people who ate high-protein diets went longer between meals and ate less at meals.
If you don’t eat enough protein, Pratt notes, you’re more likely to eat larger amounts of other foods to fill up. “That can lead to a higher calorie intake overall,” she says.
2. Preserve lean body mass
Increasing the amount of protein you eat can help reduce the buildup of harmful fats in your body, especially around your belly (abdomen). Protein is used to build muscle, so it can also help prevent muscle loss as you shed pounds.
3. Use more calories to digest foods
When you eat, your body burns calories as it breaks down food, absorbs nutrients and turns food into energy for your body. This is called the thermic effect of food (TEF).
Your body burns more calories digesting protein than carbohydrates, so protein has a higher TEF. Just by eating protein, you’re already burning more calories. That’s good news if you’re trying to burn an extra 500 calories each day in order to lose weight.
4. Store less body fat
You may have times when you consume more calories than you burn. To lose weight, it’s important to minimize how many of those calories are stored as fat.
Your body processes the three main macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) in different ways. Protein is much harder to store as body fat than carbohydrates or fats, so even if you have too much protein, you store less fat.
Healthy sources of protein
You can find many widely available and affordable sources of protein. Animal-based foods, such as meats and eggs, provide protein that can be more easily absorbed and used by your body than plant-based proteins.
Recommended sources include:
- Eggs (all types) or egg whites.
- Dairy, including milk, cheese or yogurt.
- Fish and seafood, like trout, salmon or sardines.
- Legumes, such as chickpeas, green peas, kidney beans or lentils.
- Meats, like chicken, lean beef, turkey or pork.
- Nuts, grains and seeds, including nut butter.
When to use protein supplements
You can use supplements when you need a quick, convenient protein option. But remember: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate ingredients used in supplements. And supplements often lack other nutrients such as fiber, so they shouldn’t be consumed routinely as a substitute for protein-rich foods.
“For example, if you plan to exercise after work and before dinner, and haven’t eaten since lunchtime, a protein bar or powder could be an easy way to fuel your workout before you can get to that full meal,” Pratt says. “Or if you struggle with eating breakfast in the morning, these things could be good options for an occasional quick meal on the go.”
If you drink your calories, you likely won’t feel as full as if you ate them, she adds. Pair protein supplements with something else (like a high-fiber fruit, such as an apple) if you use it as a meal replacement from time to time. This way, you won’t miss out on other nutrients.
When choosing a protein powder, bar or drink, look for products that (per serving) have:
- At least 10 to15 grams of protein.
- Fewer than 15 grams of total carbohydrates.
- Less than 200 to 250 calories.
- Less than 5 grams of added sugar.
Who shouldn’t be on a high-protein diet?
A high-protein diet isn’t recommended for people with kidney disease or for those who are on dialysis. Too much protein may make it harder for your kidneys to work and do their important job of filtering waste, acids and extra water from your body. This can lead to more toxins in your body, making kidney disease worse.
Maintaining the weight you lose
Getting the right amount of protein as part of a balanced diet is only part of the goal when it comes to achieving a healthy weight. The rest involves changing unhealthy lifestyle habits and exercising regularly to stay healthy.
“No matter what kind of diet you’re on, it’s almost always going to be more successful with that exercise component,” Pratt states. “You also have to maintain that calorie deficit to maintain your weight loss over time. Adding protein to your diet can help you meet your nutrient needs and your health goals, day by day.”