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How Much Protein Should You Eat?

Can eating more protein help you eat less, lose weight, and build more muscle?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
October 28, 2009
Episode #067

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A lot of you have been writing with questions about protein. Will eating more protein help you lose weight, burn fat, and build muscle? How much protein should you eat? Should you be adding protein powders and shakes to your daily routine? I’ll give you the skinny on protein.

For more up-to-date information on healthy eating, check out my new guidebook, Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet. Read a free chapter here.

Why Should You Eat Protein?

The news about protein is pretty good. Most of the things you’ve heard are actually true—although there is a fair amount of fine print that gets overlooked. Fine print, as you know, is my specialty. So let’s get out the opera glasses and take a closer look at the claims about protein.

Claim #1: Protein Speeds Up Your Metabolism and Burns Fat and Calories

This one’s true. Protein has a number of documented effects on your metabolism: It’s been shown to increase thermogenesis, decrease energy efficiency, and improve the metabolism of fats…all of which can help you use up more calories than you otherwise would.

The fine print with this one has to do with the magnitude of these effects. The ways these studies are reported in the press can be misleading. For example, here’s an example I found on the Internet: “A study in the Journal of [Human] Nutrition and Dietetics found that high protein meals significantly improved fat metabolism.”

Now, when most of us hear that something made a significant difference, we understand that to mean that the difference was meaningful—because that’s the way we use this word in regular life. But when statisticians say that a finding was “significant,” they’re only saying they’re 95% sure that it wasn’t just due to chance or random variation. In other words, an effect may be statistically significant without being terribly meaningful in the real world.

So, while it may be technically true that eating more protein will cause you to burn more calories, it might take a year or two for those extra calories to add up to just one pound of weight loss. Still, every little bit counts.

Claim #2: Eating More Protein Helps You Eat Less

This may be true. Higher protein meals tend to keep you satisfied for longer—and this can be helpful for those who are trying to watch their calories. Let’s say you’re trying to lose a few pounds, so you cut back on calories. As a result, you’ll probably feel some hunger. At this point, it can go one of two ways. Either you cave in and eat, thwarting your weight loss efforts. Or, you stick to your diet and manage to lose some weight but you’re hungry and miserable the whole time.

Eating more protein when cutting calories keeps you from feeling quite as hungry, and this can make your weight loss attempts either more successful, less unpleasant, or both.

In practical terms, this means that when you’re looking for calories to cut, you want to cut the fats and carbohydrates first. Rather than of cutting your usual breakfast in half and eating one egg and one piece of toast, try eating two eggs and no toast. Instead of eating half a hamburger and bun, eat the whole burger but skip the bun. You get the idea.

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