It’s interesting to look at studies proving either that low fat is better than low carb or that low carb is better than low fat.
You know a common issue with many of these studies though?
Protein isn’t held constant!
Often protein is HIGHER in the group that showed better results.
So is it really that it was low fat or low carb or was it the PROTEIN that made the difference!?
Even a recent study proving that NEITHER low carb nor low fat worked better than the other admitted that the low carb group used slightly higher protein than the low fat when they both showed equal results.
Again…is it protein that really makes something work “better” when in a calorie deficit?
Is protein really the macro you should be focusing on?
If so…What are the BENEFITS of increasing protein? Can it improve our health and help us reach our aesthetic goals?
And if protein is the key…how much protein do we need?
First…YES! Protein is key.
But Why Is Protein So Important?
Often when people start increasing protein they worry about still getting enough healthy carbs and healthy fats.
Rarely do you hear people though worry about getting enough “healthy protein.”
Because…let’s face it…most of the “marketing” out there has spent way more time focusing on the quality, and quantity of those other two macros OVER protein.
But we are LITERALLY MADE UP OF PROTEIN!
From our bones to our muscles to our arteries and veins…heck even our skin, hair, and fingernails are made up of protein not to mention our heart, brain, liver, kidneys, and lungs are built from tissues made up of proteins!
So consuming adequate amounts of protein is key to keeping our tissues healthy and helping them repair and rebuild.
If we don’t get enough protein, basically our bodies won’t function well as protein helps replace worn out cells, transport substances throughout the body and even aids in growth and repair!
For instance, protein is the building blocks of muscle.
Increasing your protein intake can not only help preserve your lean muscle mass while in a calorie deficit BUT studies have shown that high protein diets can even help you BUILD lean muscle mass while in a deficit.
The muscle building benefits of protein also make it more important for us as we get older!
As we get older, especially us ladies, it can be harder and harder to retain and even GAIN muscle. A diet high in protein helps!
But it isn’t just muscle retention that protein helps with as we get older.
Getting enough protein can also help us prevent increased skin fragility and decreased immune function.
Now you may be thinking that protein is only key when you are working out intensely, but that also isn’t the case.
When we are injured, we often think we need less protein, BUT a diet higher in protein can help us prevent muscle loss while we are out and restricted from training.
Plus protein helps improves recovery and muscle repair. When your diet focuses on protein, you will provide your muscles with the building blocks they need to repair.
AND an increase in protein can also help your tendons and connective tissues repair aka injured tissues that often take LONGER to recover.
Greater protein synthesis accelerates tissue repair and strengthens connective tissues to reduce your risk for injury.
Now what about your bone health?
I mentioned that our bones are made up of protein BUT for awhile the “myth” existed that a high protein diet was bad for your bones.
However, this is not the case.
High protein diets can help improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis. The amino acids in protein are used to build bone and because protein increases muscles mass, there is also an increase in bone strength!
Studies have even started looking at whether or not we need to INCREASE our protein recommendations for older adults to help prevent an increased occurrence of fractures.
And protein not only makes up all of our tissues, making it important for our bone and muscle health, but helps carry the oxygen that reddens our blood, combines with sterols to form hormones and even is need to “carry” fat and cholesterol throughout our bodies.
This means that getting more protein can even help improve brain functioning, quality of sleep AND lower blood pressure!
Now What About A High Protein Diet And Weight Loss?
A high protein diet can not only help with weight loss but, most importantly, body RECOMPOSITION.
A high protein diet has been shown to help us not only retain more lean muscle mass while in a caloric deficit but even GAIN lean muscle mass while in that deficit.
And, on the flip side, you can even AVOID gaining fat while in a calorie SURPLUS by maintaining a high protein ratio.
A study even showed that a hypercaloric high protein diet, aka 5.5 times the recommend daily allowance, does not result in an increase in body fat!
So if you want to put on muscle mass, while avoiding gaining a ton of fat in the process, keeping your protein high is key!
But how else does protein help with weight loss?
Well it can increase feelings of satiety aka make you feel fuller for longer!
One of the most important roles protein plays in body weight regulation is due to the fact that it increases feelings of satiety or fullness.
Protein keeps you satisfied so that you don’t end up feeling like you are starving even if you’re trying to lose weight.
It can also make weight loss easier because of the thermogenic effect!
What is the thermogenic effect exactly?
The thermic effect of food is the calories you expend to digest and process different macros.
Protein takes the most energy to digest with about 20-30% of the total calories in protein eaten going to digesting it. Then carbs take about 5-10% while fats take 0-3%.
Studies have shown protein to have a thermogenic effect 5 times greater than carbs or fat! AKA you burn more calories to process protein.
You may have even “seen” the thermogenic effect of protein if you’ve ever eaten a huge protein heavy meal and then gotten the “meat sweats.”
And unlike carbs or fat, protein’s thermic effect is much more constant regardless of your current body composition. While fat’s thermic effect may be LOWER in obese individuals, protein’s is not.
This is important to note as you consider calorie output and the deficit you are creating.
You may need a slight calorie INCREASE if your diet is higher in protein than say fat. It’s also why I mention that a calorie deficit can VARY based on the macro breakdown you use!
The thermogenic effect of protein makes it EASIER to lose weight and drop body fat on a protein-rich diet EVEN if you “overeat.”
Plus, because it preserves lean muscle mass, you will tend to burn more calories even at rest and your metabolism will stay healthy.
It is important to note that consuming protein can increase levels of glucagon, a hormone in your body that can help control body fat.
When glucagon is released, the liver breaks down stored glycogen into glucose for the body to use.
It can also help liberate free fatty acids from fat tissues aka provide fuel for cells and make that body fat do something useful instead of hiding our six pack 😉
So How Much Protein Do We Need? What Really Is “High” Protein?
That is a question up for debate….
The standard American diet, what ratio you’ll see in most fitness trackers, puts protein at 20%. Daily recommendations for the minimum amount needed put us at about 10%.
At about 10% we are getting about .8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight or about .36 grams per pound.
The problem with this minimum recommend number is that this number is really the amount we need to prevent protein DEFICIENCY.
It’s not about getting an OPTIMAL amount, especially for those training hard.
So while you may “survive” we aren’t just seeking survival…We actually want our bodies to THRIVE.
This puts active people seeking more in the range of 25-40% protein if they want to benefit from their training routine.
Many high protein diets will recommend between 30-50% of your diet come from protein and around that 30% is where you’ll really start to see the benefits of a “high protein” diet.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition even recommends between 1.4-2 grams per pound for active people stating that it isn’t only safe, but may actually improve training adaptations.
While there may not be “more” benefit to eating above 40% per say in terms of increased growth or weight loss for the average exerciser, many people will find success with even slightly higher protein partly due to the increased satiety.
It is important to note though that when you are in a calorie deficit, it may be beneficial to increase protein intake beyond what you may eat when maintaining.
This increase in calories may not only help with muscle retention, but lead to faster weight loss!
Also, the fact that, just like other diets that “cut out” macronutrients, a higher ratio of protein will force you to dial in the overall quality of your foods in many cases.
And if you’re familiar with bodybuilding calculations…
A standard bodybuilding recommendation is to get about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, which is usually about 40% of your total calories.
Studies of high protein diets have even looked at diets where protein is 4.4 g per kg of bodyweight or about 2 grams per lbs of bodyweight and shown no negative health effects and also no fat gain when eating in a calorie surplus!
The exact amount of protein you decide to include may be based on your goals, workouts and even your age with a higher protein ratio especially benefiting you if you are looking to really get that six pack!
Are There Any Downsides?
There are two common fears people have when it comes to high protein diets – kidney issues and bone density loss.
But neither issue is founded.
While anyone with kidney issues may want to avoid a high protein diet as it may have negative implications for them BECAUSE of their current health issues, a diet high in protein doesn’t CAUSE kidney problems in people who have healthy kidneys.
A one year study even showed no harmful effects on liver and kidney functions nor measures of blood lipids.
And protein has actually been shown to IMPROVE bone health.
So while the health claims against it may not be founded, increasing protein isn’t an easy change for many to make.
A downside of high protein though is that…well…for most people it isn’t as enjoyable to eat more protein. Protein doesn’t “taste as good.” So it can be a harder transition to increasing protein over eating more carbs or even fat.
Also, people often do need to adjust the amount of fiber they are taking in as a higher protein diet, if you aren’t focusing on whole, natural foods and quality carbs, can lead to constipation.
Now you may be thinking…Another downside is that I’m a vegetarian or vegan and protein means eating animals…
But you DO NOT need to eat animal protein to increase your protein intake.
Although it is important to understand the different protein sources out there and how best to make sure you get all of the essential amino acids for results…For more on complementary proteins and how to increase your protein intake, I cover this in other sections of the Macro Academy. Sorry! 😉
A Side Note…
I do want to make this note about ALL of the studies I’ve mentioned across all of the different diets and even dietary preferences…
With any diet studies, you do also want to note that so much is based on self reporting AND adherence. Many of the studies under further reading even break down test groups further based on adherence. Like this one where in the group that adhered to the diet, they achieved better results with higher protein….)
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Further reading on protein: