Protein. Is it important for weight loss? A quick online search or a stroll through the pharmacy section of your local department store garners a multitude of protein supplements, body builder shakes, and protein-based meal replacement drinks.
Its obvious that a lot of protein is being sold, but do you really need it? Is using protein supplements for weight loss a smart idea? Is using supplements truly the best way to get protein if you do need it?
Is Protein Important?
Yes, protein is very important; if you don’t get enough, that’s called starvation. Protein is the building blocks of the body. When you eat protein, it breaks down into amino acids, which is the raw material of almost every cell in your body, with muscle cells containing large amounts of protein.
When you don’t get enough protein, your body isn’t able to build muscle, and may even start breaking down muscle for fuel. Protein is used for repair, to fix the normal wear and tear on body parts.
Hormone regulation is dependent on protein ingestion, which means that when you don’t get sufficient protein in your diet, you may start to feel “hormonal”. It doesn’t really matter whether you are doing high fat or low fat, low carb, or carb loading, you need to get enough protein in your diet.
There are vociferously varying opinions as to how much and what kind of protein you need for healthy weight loss, muscle building, and general healthy. This article attempts to sort out some of the facts and myths around protein, and provide some guidelines as to what kind, how much, and when is best.
What about protein supplements? Should we be using those, or should we be getting all our protein from food? In the swirl of conflicting advice and opinions, what is truth?
Kinds of Dietary Protein
The types of protein available for dietary consumption fall into three main categories. Animal sources, plant sources, or processed supplements. You can read more about it here.
Animal sources of protein provide a complete source of protein, containing all the amino acids essential for life. This means that red meat is the easiest source of protein from food, as well as one of the densest.
There are some concerns about eating large amounts of red meat, because of the relatively higher fat content, as well as trace amounts of antibiotics and hormones present in non-organic meats.
Plant based protein is the second type of protein from food. No single plant contains all the amino acids, so plant-based sources of protein must be combined to provide a complete protein. Nuts and beans, for example, are a well-known combination that provides all the necessary amino acids.
The third type of dietary protein source is from commercial supplements. Not surprisingly, this is where all the marketing hype takes place. Meat and plants are, after all, grocery store products, not a great revenue source for the health and fitness industry.
Common ingredients in commercial protein supplements are plants (soybeans, peas, rice, potatoes, or hemp), eggs, or milk . Learn about the hidden dangers of protein powders.
How Protein Helps With Weight Loss
Protein helps you lose weight in multiple ways, from increasing satiety and satiety hormones, to lowering huger hormone levels, to increasing calories burned. Your brain receives multiple signals from your body about hunger and fullness and satiety (how full you feel).
Those signals are based on substances in the blood, which are influenced by what you eat. When you eat more protein and less fat and carbohydrates, your brain receives signals to make more of the appetite-reducing hormones GLP-1, peptide YY and cholecystokinin and less of the hunger hormone ghrelin.
Protein also requires more energy to digest, meaning that only 70 to 80 percent of the calories from protein get turned into energy. Higher protein consumption also affects what is known as postprandial thermogenesis.
This is a fancy term for how fast your metabolism runs on one food versus another. Postprandial thermogenesis is significantly higher on a high protein diet.
Finally, a diet of thirty percent protein has been shown to reduce cravings and evening/late night snacking by quite a bit. Reduced cravings and less snacking means automatically getting fewer calories, which is necessary for weight loss.
On top of that, snacks are often the least healthy part of our food intake, with the greatest number of empty calories. Removing empty calories without having to struggle through intense cravings is a huge win for weight loss AND general health.
When Should You Eat Protein?
Okay, lets bust a myth or two here. You may have heard that the best time to eat a high-protein meal or drink a protein shake is right after a workout, in the magic “30 minute anabolic window” where all the protein gets soaked up by your muscles (and turned into more muscle).
That’s a great theory. The only problem is that it isn’t true. In a direct side to side comparison of pre- and post-workout protein supplementation, there was no difference in muscle mass between the two groups after ten weeks, although both groups had gain muscle mass.
However, the advocates of post-workout protein loading do have one thing going in their favor. When you work out, you also work up an appetite. As I’ve discovered the hard way, eating a belly full of junk food after a workout doesn’t lead to weight loss, and will probably tank your energy and mood as well.
Deliberately planning a high protein snack or meal soon after a workout will help prevent the urge to eat any and all junk food within reach. And that’s a good thing for maintaining weight loss and energy.
What Kind of Protein Should You Eat?
It depends. If you are looking to build or maintain muscle mass, especially if you are keeping a vigorous workout schedule, a casein protein supplement may be your best choice for supplementation.
But, in general, the “real food” principle that Michael Pollan presents in his bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a good principle to stick to for all your eating. As famously summarized, “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
People groups living in various countries all over the globe get their protein from combinations of plants and animals, in variations from mostly plants to mostly animals. What seems to be most important is that the food is close to the original form, unprocessed, and not filled with chemicals and preservatives.
Practically speaking, that means you are better off in the long run when you get protein from whole foods, such as meat and plants, rather than from commercial supplements.
Some Practical Tips
Add protein slowly. Your digestive system needs time to get used to the additional protein. Adding a slug of protein will lead to gas production (no one appreciates that!) and intestinal discomfort, even diarrhea. The Harvard health blog recommends getting 46 grams of protein daily for women, and 56 grams daily for men. This could be:
- an egg for breakfast (6 grams)
- 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt at lunch (18 grams)
- a handful of nuts for a snack (4–7 grams)
- a cup of milk (8 grams) and 2 ounces of cooked chicken for dinner (14 grams).
If you choose to use commercial supplements, read labels, and choose one without a lot of added sugar, calories, and chemicals. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t use it.
Listen to your body. I have friends who feel best on a plant-based diet, and others who have discovered that they have very little energy on plants alone, so they need to add generous amounts of red meat, eggs, and milk products.
Health Tip of the Day 🙂
I can’t handle milk very well unless its organic and either has a specific genetic composition or comes from animals other than dairy cows. That means milk protein (and any supplemental protein derived from milk) isn’t a good source for me, although I have friends who drink more than a gallon a week and love the way they feel on it.
Don’t fall for thinking that your experience has to fit the consensus, someone else’s experience, or the scientific literature. Listen to and honor your unique body and the unique way it responds to foods, products, and actions.
No matter how much someone else may swear by a certain form of protein, if you don’t feel your best on it, then it isn’t what’s best for you. And as always, remember the down-and-dirty truth of weight loss.
There are only two ways to lose weight. Eat less and move more. While protein is a key part of a healthy diet, effective and healthy weight loss usually means also cutting calorie to around 1500 a day for women and 2000 for men, while also getting plenty of vigorous activity in your week.
Whether that means joining a gym, going for a run, hopping in the pool, or playing outdoors with family and friends, movement is a key part of healthy weight loss. Ultimate Frisbee, anyone?
How have you used protein supplements for weight loss or in yoor health routine? What have you found that works well for you? Share below and don’t forget to share with others.