When it comes to weight loss, protein is quite the hero. And for good reason: Protein is satisfying, helps you feel full and carries you through to your next meal, per a June 2015 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Adding protein to your meals can also make it easier to stick to a lower-calorie diet, adding to its weight-loss perks.
That said, more protein doesn't necessarily mean more weight loss. And some protein choices are better than others.
Here, we break down four myths about protein that could be hindering your weight-loss efforts.
Myth 1: Faux Meats Are Healthy
They can be healthy, yes, and eating plant-based can have weight-loss benefits, but "meat-free" doesn't automatically equal healthy.
Some faux meats are overly processed, and research suggests that people who eat more processed foods tend to gain more weight over time compared to people who usually load up on whole foods.
In one study, published June 2011 in The New England Journal of Medicine, participants who ate more processed foods like potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks and processed meats gained on average about 3 pounds more over a four-year period than participants who ate fewer processed foods.
Remember, a calorie isn't just a calorie, so aim to eat more plant-based proteins that are whole foods (think: beans, lentils, nuts, tofu) and meat substitutes that are less processed (the shorter the ingredient list, the better).
Myth 2: Bland Is Best
We think the notion of "bland is best" might have stemmed from the diet advice to put your meals on repeat.
Meal repetition can work: When people (some of whom had obesity) ate macaroni and cheese every day for five days in a row, they consumed fewer calories compared to their counterparts who ate the pasta dish once a week for five weeks, according to an August 2011 study in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. But that doesn't mean you need to eat unseasoned and boring food.
Here are a few ideas to add flavor and very few calories to your favorite proteins:
Perfect the Sear
Searing meat and fish builds big flavor — that's because you're caramelizing the outer surface of the protein when it hits a hot, hot pan. To get that crispy-brown coating, start with a dry protein (i.e., pat it dry with paper towels); let your pan get scorching hot while you season your protein with salt and pepper; add a very thin coating of oil (depending on your pan size, that's a mere teaspoon or two) to your pan; then add your protein and don't fuss with it. After a few minutes, shake the pan, and if the meat or seafood releases, it's ready to be turned.
Poach Your Seafood
Poaching calls for cooking your protein in a bath of almost-boiling and flavorful liquid like a wine- or herb-infused broth. It's a great technique for seafood because it's fairly simple to execute and also yields a milder-tasting fish than if it were grilled or broiled, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
Keep the Skin On
For protein cuts like chicken breasts, chicken thighs, salmon and other meaty fish fillets, keep the skin on when you're cooking them. The skin will help trap the juices naturally present when you cook chicken or fish and leave you with a tastier and more tender piece of protein. Once they're cooked, you can remove the skins to save calories (and fat).
Myth 3: You Need a Protein Shake After Every Workout
Nope, not always. For most folks, if you have a healthy, protein-rich meal or snack within a few hours of your workout (on the front- or back-end) you don't need that post-workout shake.
According to a January 2013 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, you can get enough protein for recovery and muscle-building from the meals and snacks you eat throughout the day. Adding a protein shake can be overkill and just end up adding unnecessary calories.
That said, per the study, there's an exception. If you're working out in a fasted state (e.g., first thing in the morning on an empty stomach), you'll need a hit of protein and carbs after your sweat session to help shift your body into muscle-building mode.
Myth 4: You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
We Americans have a tendency to be hyper-focused on protein. In a July 2018 Nielsen survey, 55 percent of Americans said buying high-protein foods was important to them. But most of us are actually meeting our protein needs just fine.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest we aim to eat 10 to 35 percent of our calories from (animal or plant) protein, and a January 2021 Dietary Data Brief from the USDA found that adults get about 16 percent of their calories from protein.
So, the average American could add some protein to their diet. But keep in mind that when you increase how much you eat from one food or food group, you need to pull back on what you're eating from another to keep your total calories in check.
The bottom line? Protein is an important part of the weight-loss equation, but there's no need to go overboard. Better to leave room in your diet for healthy fats, nutrient-filled fruits and veggies and fiber-rich carbs.
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- National Fisheries Institute: "Poaching"
- Kitchn: "How to Sear Meat Properly"
- AJCN: "Long-term habituation to food in obese and nonobese women"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?"
- J Acad Nutr Diet: "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets"
- N Engl J Med: "Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men"
- Nielsen: "PROTEIN: CONSUMERS WANT IT, BUT DON’T UNDERSTAND IT"
- USDA Dietary Data Brief: "Protein Intake of Adults"
- AJCN: "Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health"