When you're trying to lose weight, your dietary habits can make or break your success. A healthy diet can help you shed pounds even if you don't have time for a vigorous workout schedule, and -- on the flipside -- even the toughest workouts can't compensate for a bad diet. Including enough protein in your diet is key when you're trying to lose weight, and protein offers a slight calorie-burning benefit over other nutrients. But eating solely protein is a mistake -- one that's likely to leave you feeling drained and tired. It might even put your health at risk.
Benefits of Protein for Metabolism
There's a reason so many health gurus recommend foods rich in protein -- getting enough protein in your diet can help you lose weight. Protein has a high "thermic effect," which boosts your metabolism. Essentially, you'll spend lots of energy -- about 30 percent of the total calories in whatever protein you eat -- just breaking it down during digestion. That's significantly more than the calories you'll burn digesting carbs or fat -- between four and 10 times as much.
Protein also enhances satiety -- that means you'll feel fuller after eating a protein-packed meal than one that was low in protein. Eating protein throughout the day might stave off hunger pangs by keeping you satisfied between meals, making it easier to stick to your diet. Meeting your daily protein needs also provides nutritional support for muscle growth -- if you're weight-training as part of your weight-loss plan -- so you can get lean and fit.
How Much Protein You Need
Your daily protein needs depend on your weight, activity level and fitness goals. As you get more active, your protein needs increase -- but you still don't need to make protein the entirety of your diet. For fat loss, aim for a protein intake of 0.82 gram for each pound of body weight. If you weigh 150 pounds, that works out to 122 grams daily; if you're 190 pounds, it's 155 grams. You can meet your protein intake by eating lean meats like 97-percent-lean ground beef, chicken or turkey breast, quinoa, beans, dairy and eggs.
At a certain point, though, upping your protein intake won't offer any additional advantages. Your body can only process and use a certain amount of protein each day, and any excess will get converted to energy, rather than used to help build muscles and maintain healthy tissue. You can use a maximum of 0.91 gram of protein per pound of body weight, reports UCLA. So if you weigh 150 pounds, there's no point in eating more than 136 grams of protein each day. To get the best results, pair your protein intake with weight training -- simply eating protein won't make you look more toned, but combining protein with weight training two to three times weekly will help you lose fat and gain lean mass.
The Risks of Too Much Protein
On top of not offering any weight loss or health benefits, excess protein might even pose a health risk. Attempting to make protein the sole nutrient in your diet and depriving yourself of carbs might actually increase your risk of osteoporosis over time, explains Harvard Medical School. Eating tons of protein also ups the workload on your kidneys, which can cause health issues if you have diabetes or kidney disease.
You'll also deprive your body of essential carbs and fat. Both of these nutrients serve as crucial sources of fuel -- and you also need fat for brain health, to maintain healthy cell membranes and for proper nutrient absorption -- so cutting them out of your diet completely is likely to make you feel drained. Some fats -- like omega-3 fatty acids -- also need to come from your diet. If you're only eating protein, you could develop an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, which can cause depression, fatigue and trouble concentrating.
Planning a Well-Rounded Diet
You can make protein the star of your diet, but don't let it hog the stage. Instead, pair your protein with high-quality carbs and fats to get the range of nutrients you need to stay healthy. For example, serve scrambled eggs -- sauteed with a generous portion of veggies -- on a slice of whole-grain bread, and use your salmon or chicken breast as a hearty topping for spinach salad that's also packed with pumpkin seeds, sliced berries and seasoned with an olive-oil vinaigrette. If you decide to include protein powder in your diet -- after checking with your doctor to make sure it's OK -- blend it with frozen fruit, ground flaxseeds and nonfat dairy for a well-rounded shake that's high in carbs, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals -- not just high in protein.
Keep in mind that, while protein is key for a healthy diet, you'll need to monitor your calorie intake -- from protein, fat and carbs -- to lose fat. Make sure your well-rounded diet provides between 500 and 1,000 calories less than you burn daily, and you'll lose fat at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds weekly.
- United Nations University: Effect of Different Levels of Carbohydrate, Fat and Protein Intake on Protein Metabolism and Thermogenesis
- UCLA: Protein
- Harvard School of Public Health: Extra Protein Is a Decent Dietary Choice, but Don’t Overdo It
- McKinley Health Center: Macronutrients: the Importance of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat