Although there are many different programs, trainers, and fitness brands that will claim to have a unique formula, the key to weight loss has always been the same – burning more calories than you take in. As long as your daily calorie burn is high enough to offset the calorie intake from what you eat and drink, you’ll be able to lose weight.
However, the specific way you lose weight depends on a few factors, including your activity level and the amount of protein you consume each day. A recommendation by the National Academy of Medicine suggests 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. This guideline is a great place to start, but you may need to adjust your protein levels depending on needs and goals.
In this article, we’ll go over why protein matters for weight loss, how to determine the amount of protein you should eat each day, and the role a registered dietitian (RD) can play in helping you meet your protein consumption and weight loss goals.
A well-balanced diet is typically needed to achieve any kind of fitness goal, whether you want to lose body fat, add muscle mass or simply maintain great condition all year.
In mainstream culture and a large part of the fitness world, much of the discussion of weight loss from a nutritional perspective relates back to carbohydrate intake. The advent and widespread popularity of eating styles like the keto and warrior diets has helped to influence some to associate carbohydrates with weight gain.
Unfortunately, losing weight isn’t as simple as cutting out carbohydrates, or soda, or any other singular type of food or beverage. Weight loss is more about developing sustainable, healthy eating habits that work for your specific goals and preferences. And while protein is often associated with bodybuilders and athletes, it actually may be the most important macronutrient for weight loss for one critical reason: it helps you feel full.
A 2017 study showed that protein was the most effective macronutrient for helping people feel full, in part due to hormones released in the body upon consumption of a high-protein meal. Most sources of protein (more on these below) are relatively low in calories when compared to refined and simple carbohydrates.
That’s why protein’s positive correlation with satiety is so effective for weight loss. Research published in 2012 by Cambridge University suggests that the success of many popular low-carb diets today may actually come from the resulting increase in protein, not necessarily a lower consumption of carbohydrates.
Beyond its role in helping you feel full, protein also contributes to muscle retention when you are in a negative energy balance, the scientific term for what’s also known as a caloric deficit: burning more calories than you consume. For those who are losing weight while maintaining a regimen of strength training and want to prevent as much muscle loss as possible, protein is an important nutrient.
Knowing protein is such an important nutrient for those looking to lose weight while maintaining or even building muscle, you may wonder exactly how much protein you should be consuming each day. The previously mentioned 0.8 grams per kilograms of bodyweight per day, which translates to about 0.36 grams of protein per pound, is a decent starting point.
However, most people who are looking to lose weight and are focused on a high protein diet will likely want to increase that ratio. An article published by Harvard Medical School last year called the 0.8 grams of protein per kilograms of bodyweight ratio “modest,” pointing out that following the RDA would result in only about 10% of daily calories coming from protein sources. It further suggests that consuming between 15% and 25% of your daily calories from protein sources can be beneficial to help you with muscle growth and retention.
A ratio of anywhere from 0.4 grams of protein per pound to as high as 0.7 grams per pound is typically used by professional athletes or others who engage in lots of exercise. Experiment with different ranges to see what kind of protein intake your body needs to help you feel full enough to achieve your weight loss goals.
For weight loss, feeling full is important. As most people who have attempted any kind of caloric restriction through dieting know, maintaining a negative energy deficit can sometimes lead to hunger.
To maximize satiety when you are attempting to lose weight, it’s best to consume protein through healthy eating, which generally means whole foods. Some of the best sources of protein are lean meats, including:
But there are plenty of other options for vegans, vegetarians and others who don't eat meat, including greek yogurt, cottage cheese and most varieties of nuts, lentils and beans – though many of the latter group contain high levels of fat, so intake may need to be monitored for those looking to shed pounds or need to follow a low-fat diet for health reasons. Red meats also tend to be high in protein, but they can also cause health problems such as elevated blood pressure.
As mentioned, from a scientific perspective, consuming fewer calories than you burn is the only requirement for losing weight. Functionally speaking, an adequate level of protein is important for weight loss because it can help you stay in that caloric deficit. Other practical things that can help you shed pounds include:
Regular exercise. Adults are recommended to get between 150 and 300 minutes of exercise per week, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. That’s in addition to strength training at least two days out of the week.
Hydration. Drinking water is important for a multitude of reasons, but it’s well-known to impact how full you feel. In fact, research shows that inadequate hydration is correlated with a higher body mass, even after controlling for other factors.
Supplementation. While whole foods are always ideal, sometimes it’s difficult to find the time to meal prep or whip up an entire meal – especially if you are cooking for multiple people. Protein supplements like whey protein powder or snack bars are a great option when you are on-the-go and need a quick fix to help keep you full.
You can seek out your own protein intake guidelines and experiment with different amounts to determine your protein needs, but a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) can help you find the right amount much more quickly. They'll work with you to build a meal plan that includes all the right amounts of the right food groups without you having to independently research the proper quantity.
Whether you decide to seek help from a professional dietitian or not, the only requirement for weight loss is burning more calories than you consume. By choosing whole foods that are minimally processed and consuming enough protein to maintain lean mass while keeping you full throughout the day, you'll be able to accelerate weight loss to achieve your fitness goals sooner than you might have thought possible.