If you are trying to lose weight or even maintain, protein can be your BFF—or at least a valuable companion to bring along on your journey. That’s because it helps you feel fuller more quickly while you’re eating (it appears to activate gut hormones that signal satiety), and that fullness may last for hours after you finish. “You may even consume less at your next meal,” says Maria Kinirons, RDN, director of science and nutrition for WW International. Because protein is harder to break down than carbohydrates or fats, your body burns some of the calories from protein while processing it (20–30 percent, compared with 5–10 percent for carbs and 0–3 percent for fats).
All these features may translate into potential weight loss. In numerous studies, dieters who followed higher-protein plans have lost more weight—and more body fat—than those assigned to other regimens. “If you follow a higher-protein diet, you’re likely to do better,” says George Bray, MD, a prominent weight researcher and founder of The Obesity Society. There’s even evidence—at least in the lab—that if our bodies don’t get enough protein, we may overeat as a way to compensate for its lack, says Christopher Morrison, PhD, a professor of neurosignaling at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Most promising of all, once dieters reach their goal weights, those who continue to follow a higher-protein plan do better maintaining their new weight than people on lower-protein programs. The trick is eating the right kinds of protein in the right way. Here’s what the experts had to say about some pressing protein questions:
1. Just how much protein do I need every day?
Experts offer a variety of formulas— most requiring tricky math. According to the Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes, the acceptable range for protein is 10–35 percent of daily calories. People trying to lose weight should aim for the middle of that range, Kinirons suggests—or about 20–25 percent of their calories. That would equal about 60–75 grams of protein on a 1,200-calorie diet.
2. Don’t most people get enough protein, or even too much?
That’s what we’ve all often heard, but nearly half of us are not meeting the goal. In the most recent national survey, the average intake for women was just 15.6 percent of calories from protein, with men doing only slightly better at 16.1 percent.
3. How to I translate those percentages into foods?
You can find easy-to-use charts at the government’s Choose My Plate website. For starters, half of one small chicken breast equals about 22 grams of protein, half a cup of tofu has about 10 grams.
If you’re a typical WW Member, here’s what you might eat in a day to get your protein:
Breakfast: Pepper and Egg Pocket, made with two eggs and ½ large whole wheat pita pocket (15 grams protein)
Lunch: Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup and Whole Wheat Pizza (17 grams)
Dinner: Beef and Vegetable Stir-Fry (33 grams)
Snack: Greek Yogurt Ranch Dip with Bell Pepper Strips (12.5 grams)
Dessert: Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae(4.5 grams)
Total calories: approximately 1,220
Total protein for the day: 82 grams (27 percent of calories)
See recipes here.
4. Is it okay to get most of my protein at dinner?
If you’re looking at protein strictly as a way to meet your body’s needs, then yes, you can save it for your evening meal. But to get that “I feel full” payoff, it may be smarter to start your day with protein, then make sure that your lunch, dinner, and snacks also feature the nutrient. In a small 2014 study at the University of Missouri, researchers’ findings suggested that women who consumed an afternoon snack of a high-protein yogurt were significantly less hungry and ate approximately 100 fewer calories at dinner than participants who’d snacked on high-fat crackers or chocolate.
5. I keep hearing about lean meats. I get why I don’t need the saturated fat, but just how lean is “lean”?
Technically, for beef and pork, a “lean” label signals less than 10 grams of overall fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat per serving of 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces); “extralean” is about half that. But you can leave the calculator at home. “I tell people simply to look for the word ‘loin’ on the label,” says Cathy Carmichael, MS, RD, a research dietitian and project manager at Pennington. “Beef or pork tenderloin, sirloin tip—these are all good lean beef choices,” she says. Add to the list skinless chicken (white meat is slightly less fatty than dark), fish, shellfish, eggs, and low- or fat-free versions of cheese and other dairy and you’ve got a shopping cart full of lean animal proteins.
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6. What if I’m a vegetarian? Can I still eat a protein-rich diet?
Nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, plus all the legumes (lentils, beans, peas) provide a plentiful supply of many different amino acids, the building blocks of protein. “Just be sure to eat a good variety, so you get complete protein,” Kinirons says.
7. Everyone seems to be sprinkling whey powder on yogurt or adding protein powder to smoothies. Is this an acceptable way to get my daily quota?
“If you’re not eating enough other protein-rich foods, it could be a good option,” Carmichael says. Some people can’t imagine a breakfast other than cereal, or have time for only a smoothie on the go. Just remember that protein powder shouldn’t be your go-to. Unlike powdered protein, lean protein food sources contain a variety of other nutrients, specifically iron, a nutrient many women should get more of. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends a food-based approach to meeting your nutrient needs in order to prevent getting too much or not enough of specific nutrients.
8. Does bone broth really offer special benefits?
Thanks to the paleo trend, dieters are downing cups of these meat-based broths. Bone broth isn’t bad for you (“Just check sodium levels,” Carmichael advises), and if you like to sip warm soup on a cool day, go for it. But claims that bone broth boosts immunity, builds bones, or heals or restores special skin-smoothing collagen don’t hold up. What research has shown is that our bodies don’t recognize liquids the same way they do more solid food—so you may be adding calories without really filling up.
9. What’s the word on protein and exercise? Before? After? Does it matter?
When it’s combined with resistance training, protein does help build muscle and strength—another reason you want plenty in your meal plan. But unless you’re doing serious weight-training, you don’t need to worry about adding any extra beyond what you’re consuming to help with weight loss, says Kim D. Larson, RDN, CHC, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who specializes in sports nutrition. Some trainers recommend a high-protein snack before bed for recovery.
RELATED: Can Exercise Make You Hungry?
10. Sounds like I should eat only protein! But can you eat too much?
Although the government hasn’t set an official upper limit, you don’t want to overdo it. For one thing, you need the variety of minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients you get from non-protein foods, like fruits, vegetables, and oils. And by-products of protein breakdown are excreted via the kidneys; while an imbalanced diet won’t cause kidney disease, too much protein can make them work harder. Using protein supplements might make it easier to exceed recommended levels without realizing it. But an occasional overindulgence—extra turkey at Thanksgiving, say—won’t hurt.
RELATED: Your Go-To Protein Meal Plan