How Protein Helps Weight Loss
Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
The amount of quality protein in your diet is the single most important calorie that influences your metabolic rate, favorably influencing weight loss. Quality protein also helps you sustain muscle during weight loss, improve muscle fitness, immunity, and antioxidant function, build HDL cholesterol, and enhance insulin and leptin function – all of which contribute toward optimal weight management efforts over time.
How Much Protein Do I Need for Weight Loss?
A significant body of scientific evidence indicates that protein levels far higher than our government’s suggested levels of intake are optimal for weight loss1, as long as you simultaneously decrease carbohydrate intake. A minimal target amount is three-fourths of your ideal body weight in grams of protein per day, ranging up to three-fourths of your actual weight in grams of protein per day.
For example, if you should weigh 160 pounds but you currently weigh 200 pounds, then your goal for protein intake is in the range of 120 to 150 grams of protein per day. Since each gram of protein is four calories, this means 480 to 600 calories per day from protein. This is around 30 percent of your calories from protein (based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
The FDA says you need 50 grams of protein per day (200 calories), based on a 2,000 calorie diet, or 10 percent of your calories from protein. The FDA bases its guidelines on only one aspect of protein need, nitrogen balance. Nitrogen, found only in protein, is a fundamental molecule required for building body structure and DNA synthesis.
The FDA’s goal is to make sure you have enough dietary protein so you don’t wither away. That’s nice, but nitrogen balance as the only criteria for protein intake ignores the role of protein as a signaling molecule2 in metabolism, especially in regard to how your muscles function. It ignores the amount of protein needed to preserve muscle during weight loss and facilitate fat burning. In fact, the FDA gives no guidelines to explain how much quality protein you need for exercise, stress, blood sugar3 support, or to help stabilize muscle and blood sugar as you age4.
The simple fact of the matter is: when you increase quality protein intake over the basic amount needed for nitrogen balance, then the branch chain amino acids like leucine, which are metabolized in your muscles (not in your liver as are other amino acids), directly and favorably benefit muscle function and health – including enhanced calorie burning by muscle that clearly supports healthy weight loss5.
The FDA also thinks you should have only 65 grams of fat (585 calories or 29 percent of your calories). Of this fat, the FDA wants to make sure you eat very little satisfying and energy producing saturated fat (20 grams, 180 calories), preferring that you get most of your fat from cholesterol-free, inflammation generating vegetable oils. You are supposed to round out this diet with 300 grams in carbohydrates (1200 calories), 60 percent of your calories.
Attempting to follow FDA guidelines is a fast track to obesity, as you end up eating more food because this ratio of calories causes you to feel unsatisfied, thus you eat more trying to feel full. Not only that, but new research also shows that eating this way damages your leptin controlled, appetite regulation center in your subconscious brain, literally killing important brain cells, so that you no longer properly get a full signal.
My recommendations for weight loss, based on helping thousands of people lose weight, is to consume 30 percent protein (600 calories), 30 percent carbohydrates (600 calories), and 40 percent fat (800 calories). Do not snack and do not eat after dinner at night. Eat either two or three meals a day.
The idea of a 2,000 calorie diet is for food labeling purposes. Women may need 500 fewer calories and men may need slightly more, but the ratios should stay the same. The heavier your ideal weight and the more active you are, the more calories you can consume. Many Americans are eating 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, often twice what they actually need. On top of that, a lot of the calories consumed are poor quality junk, adding insult to injury.
When you reach an ideal weight you can gradually increase carbohydrates to 40 percent – even 50 percent if you are very active. If you are quite active then leave protein at 30 percent, and cut back on fat, if desired. If you are not highly active, yet are at an ideal weight, then eat 25 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrates, and 35 percent fat.
On any diet, eat half your fat grams in saturated fat or you will not feel satisfied and you will have trouble sustaining energy between meals, which will cause you to be tired and eat more carbohydrates. Get two to six grams of omega-3 essential fatty acids per day (higher amounts for weight loss and cardio health), and try to consume most of the rest of your fat as omega-9 monounsaturated fat (like olive oil).
These are the calorie basics for weight loss and weight maintenance. The following information explains why this works.
High Quality Protein for Weight Loss
Protein is made up of various amino acids. In terms of weight loss, scientists are finding that the most important amino acids are the branch chain amino acids, especially leucine. If you get your protein intake high enough, especially in proteins that are rich in leucine, a number of very interesting things happen that can activate a sluggish metabolism and result in weight loss.
One easy way to get a lot of leucine, without any fat, is to use high quality whey protein. Casein, a common dairy protein allergen, is not part of whey protein. The finest whey proteins use advanced filtration technology to leave all the protein molecules intact. In this process saturated fat, cholesterol, and lactose are removed, yielding a very useful leucine rich food for metabolic enhancement.
The highest sources of leucine containing foods are animal and dairy. Cottage cheese and red meat top the list; other sources include milk, cheese, eggs, pork, fish, chicken, legumes, peanuts, nuts, and seeds. If you avoid red meat and dairy products, it is harder to get leucine containing foods in higher amounts, though not impossible. Using whey protein makes it easy. I always recommend individuals stay away from processed soy protein (like soy protein drinks), as it is anti-thyroid in higher amounts.
Eating two eggs for breakfast has been shown to boost weight loss by 65 percent, compared to the same amount of calories from carbohydrates, like a bagel.
How Protein Increases Metabolism
One of the key researchers in this area, Donald Layman, Ph.D.6, from the University of Illinois, has published many papers on the subject. He has found that the high protein, leucine rich diet, in combination with lower carbohydrates (150 grams or 600 calories per day) is effective to support weight loss, blood sugar metabolism, and a variety of factors that have an impact on cardiovascular health.
His research points out that during weight loss our bodies can easily lose muscle mass (and bone for that matter). Leucine has a direct signaling effect on muscle that prevents muscle loss during weight loss. This means that on a high protein diet, the weight that is lost is mostly fat, not muscle. Whereas on a high carbohydrate weight loss diet, much more muscle is lost.
Leucine directly communicates to insulin, instructing it to work efficiently in muscle. This not only helps preserve muscle mass, but also helps muscles use glucose as fuel, in turn supporting healthy insulin function.
This high protein, leucine rich diet invariably lowers blood levels of triglycerides, which helps leptin7 get into your brain easier so that you feel full on fewer calories. Once leptin gets into your brain correctly, leptin resistance8 is reduced, and your metabolism gets a go signal. Whey protein is especially helpful in improving your brain’s feeling of food satisfaction9. Many bioactive peptides in whey regulate appetite, a benefit attainable only from consuming whey protein10 in higher amounts.
The important HDL cholesterol needs adequate dietary protein in order to form its structure. We now know that HDL proteins get “spent” as HDL works to help clear LDL cholesterol. If you don’t have adequate protein you can’t make quality HDL at an optimal rate. A higher protein diet supports HDL formation while lowering triglycerides, a two-pronged benefit that not only helps weight management but also supports a healthier lipid profile for cardiovascular well-being.
Layman points out that having a high protein breakfast11 is needed to maximize these benefits of protein, which is consistent with rule #4 of the Leptin Diet: Eat a breakfast containing protein.
In order to benefit from high protein for weight loss, the amount of carbohydrates must be reduced, which is rule #5 of the Leptin Diet®: Reduce the amount of carbohydrates eaten. This is because carbohydrates are easy-to-use fuels. When you eat less, you encourage your body to break down stored fat. You prevent your body from converting muscle protein to fuel (blood sugar) by eating higher protein, thus preserving muscle mass.
Another great reason to eat a high protein breakfast is that it wakes up your liver and gives it something to do. Your liver is the metabolic factory of your body. A high protein breakfast can increase your metabolic rate by 30 percent for as long as 12 hours, the calorie burning equivalent of a three to five mile jog. Fats and carbohydrates are easy for your liver to use, increasing liver metabolism by only four percent, whereas protein must be taken apart and reassembled for use elsewhere in your body. This dynamic effect of protein has recently been shown to be the key in supporting your natural ability to burn fat at a faster rate12 when consuming a diet higher in protein.
All your body structures, many hormones, a lot of enzymes, and neurotransmitters all require special proteins that your liver must help make. Protein showing up at your liver is like 2-by-4-inch lumber and plywood showing up at a home construction job site. If it isn’t there, not much will get done.
A higher protein diet also has a natural diuretic effect. Individuals with extra weight are often sluggish, and hold extra water. This not only makes their blood pressure go up, as their heart tries to push harder to move the stagnation, but the extra water in connective tissues also gets directly in the way of fat burning. When you eat a higher protein diet then an important blood protein called albumin will increase. As albumin increases, through osmotic force, it draws water back out of your connective tissues, thus helping you get rid of fluid retention. If you have too much inflammation13, then your kidneys may leak albumin into your urine, provoking fluid retention, weight problems, and significant cardiovascular risk.
A major problem of lower protein diets is just the opposite – the more carbohydrates overweight people eat, the more fluids they retain. Further, higher carbohydrate meals stimulate too much leptin production, in turn provoking leptin resistance and inappropriate desire for more carbohydrates. Too many carbohydrates cause your willpower to be in a constant wrestling match with out-of-balance leptin. It is rather obvious from the amount of yo-yo dieting in our society that misguided leptin usually wins. The best way to win the wrestling match is to not have it in the first place, meaning eat fewer carbohydrates.
When weight is lost on a higher carbohydrate diet it is much more likely that people will hit a plateau in a few months that they cannot get past, long before the goal weight is reached. Successful ongoing weight loss is much easier, and much less prone to stubborn plateaus, when your basic diet is higher in quality protein.
More Whey Protein Facts
One reason unrelated to weight loss that I really like whey protein is that it helps your body make its most important antioxidant and immune support compound, glutathione. Forty-five grams of whey protein per day has been shown to boost glutathione levels14 in immune cells by 24 percent over a two week period of intake, whereas 15 grams per day was not effective. Further, many molecular weights of the proteins are in the immunoglobulin range15, meaning that your body can easily use them, if needed, to mount a more effective immune response. Leucine, as a key signal for DNA protein synthesis, is important to the rate at which your body can manufacture immune cells16 in a time of need.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a female insulin-resistance and leptin driven endocrine problem that results in obesity, facial hair growth, and acne. Researchers compared a lower calorie diet fortified with 60 grams of whey protein19 compared to 60 grams of carbohydrates. After a two month program the whey protein group lost on average six more pounds of fat, while dropping total cholesterol by 33 more points, compared to the carbohydrate group.
Another study of 95 men and 32 women used a 15 gram whey protein meal replacement for two meals a day for six months, and then switched to one meal replacement per day for six more months. While this amount of whey protein is significantly below what I would recommend to assist weight loss, the results of the trial were still quite good. During the first six months participants lost 20 pounds20 on average. In the next six months, on only 15 grams of whey protein per day, they kept their weight off and lost another two pounds. Further, many key parameters of cardiovascular health and leptin fitness were improved during the study, including decreases in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, insulin, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure, while HDL cholesterol increased.
Many people involved alternative health are under the false impression that a high protein diet is acid forming, and thus bad for bones. Whey protein is actually good for bones21. Forty grams of whey protein per day for six months increased bone mineral density in young women22 by a statistically significant 1.57 percent, and in postmenopausal women by a statistically significant 1.21 percent. Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a higher protein diet, is never bad for bones. In fact, research shows that low protein24 leads to bone loss. Fruits and vegetables provide the alkaline mineral buffers so that protein can work in a healthy way, including the support of bone growth. Protecting against bone loss during weight loss is very important; whey protein is an excellent food to have in your corner.
It is true that some people have lost muscle mass, are inactive, and may have significantly compromised health to the point they have some difficulty metabolizing higher amounts of protein (they tend to have difficulty eating almost anything). If you fall into this category, the way to metabolize more protein is to gradually increase your intake while you simultaneously improve your fitness. As you build strength, you will be far healthier, your pH will be better, and you will be able to get the benefits of eating a higher protein diet; for most people, it is simply a matter of increasing protein and reducing carbohydrates.
Higher amounts of high quality, leucine rich protein are needed for fitness, healthy weight loss, and to maintain weight following a weight loss program. This is one of many important strategies to improve the function of leptin in your metabolism, which is the key to successful weight loss and keeping the weight off once you have lost it.
Originally published 12/15/08.
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