Everything You Need to Know Before Starting a High-Protein Diet

Among the three macronutrients — carbohydrates, fat and protein — protein is the only one that hasn't gotten a bad rap. In fact, if you're trying to lose weight, you may be encouraged to eat more protein. Confused? Here's the lowdown on high-protein diets.

A high-protein diet could help you lose weight, but can wreak havoc on your gut health if you eliminate fiber-rich foods. Credit: Sjale/iStock/GettyImages

How Does Protein Fit Into Your Diet?

The current Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, according to Harvard Medical School. However, the RDA only denotes the minimum amount of a nutrient you need to in order to carry out basic life functions — so this number will be lower than your target protein goal. To calculate the minimum amount of protein you need per day, do the following:

  1. Divide your current weight in pounds by 2.2 (to get your weight in kilograms).
  2. Multiply that number by 0.8.

Using that formula, a 140-pound person should consume, at the very least, 51 grams of protein while a 180-pound person should consume at least 65 grams of protein.

If you're active, however, you could benefit from eating even more protein, says Amy Goodson, RD, a sports dietitian in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "If you're very active, you should set your protein goals based on your body weight and type of activity," she says. Here's what that looks like, according to Goodson:

  • For endurance training: Consume 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
  • For team sports (such as basketball and volleyball): Consume 1.4 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
  • For strength training: Consume 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

So, a 140-pound person might eat 76 to 127 grams of protein per day, depending on activity while a 180-pound person should aim for 98 to 164 grams of protein per day.

Read more: Why Post-Workout Nutrition Is So Important — and Exactly What to Eat

Clearly, there's a lot of variability in recommended protein intake. And in some instances, it might be more than double what you're eating now. While the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) calls for getting 10 to 30 percent of your total daily calories from protein, Harvard Health recommends eating at least 15 percent of your daily total calories from protein.

That means you have a lot of room for flexibility in your diet, which you can use to your advantage, depending on what you like to eat or what you want to accomplish in the weight room.

The Benefits of a High-Protein Diet

Sensibly upping your protein intake can have a lot of potential benefits. For example, it can keep your inner snack monster at bay.

"Out of all three macronutrients, protein takes the longest to break down. That means, it helps you feel full faster and keeps you feeling fuller longer," says Goodson. "If you're aiming to lose weight or body fat, a higher protein diet can help you feel more satisfied while taking in fewer calories," she says.

Here's another perk for people trying to lose weight: Increasing protein consumption can help offset some of the muscle loss that can happen during dieting, says Goodson. "The body's response to a calorie deficit is to break down muscle [along with fat]. When people are trying to lose weight, we often recommend they eat more protein to preserve lean muscle mass," she says.

If well-planned, a high-protein diet may also help you eat healthier in general. A March 2017 study in Advances in Nutrition shows that protein can replace unhealthy ultra-processed food, like refined grains, saturated fat and added sugars.

What's more, high-protein foods such as meats, dairy and eggs generally supply a good range of nutrients like iron, zinc, energizing B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D, says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CEO and founder of NY Nutrition Group in New York City.

Read more: Protein 101: What It Is, Why It's Important and How to Get More

The Downsides of a High-Protein Diet

Managing an ideal protein intake is important because focusing exclusively on steak and eggs can come with downsides. If you eat more protein but rid your diet of whole grains or vegetables, you may not be eating enough carbohydrates to support your energy levels during exercise, says Goodson.

There's also the risk of eating too little fiber. "Fiber works as a prebiotic in your gut to feed healthy bacteria and promote healthy digestive function," she says.

"It all comes down to what you're taking out. If you're removing baked goods and sugary cereals, great! If you're removing veggies and quinoa, then you should reevaluate your high-protein diet," Goodson says.

It's also possible to gain weight on a high-protein diet. "People make the assumption that eating more protein will automatically help with weight loss, but that's not necessarily the case. Your body can still convert extra calories [even if they come from protein] into fat," says Moskovitz.

The bottom line is that eating a high-protein diet is generally OK for most people.

Warning

“If you have healthy kidneys and no pre-existing conditions or disease, a higher protein diet is safe,” says Goodson. If you still have concerns, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before making changes to your diet.

How to Get More Protein In Your Diet

First, you'll want to try to incorporate protein over the course of the day, says Goodson. "Distributing protein evenly throughout the day will provide your body with the amino acids it needs to rebuild and recover," she says. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and carry out every metabolic function in your body.

The biggest change here might be getting more protein at breakfast, particularly if you're someone who's used to starting off rather light (think: a small bowl of cereal or piece of fruit) and then sitting down to a large chicken breast lunch or dinner.

Read more: 7 Recipes to Add More Protein to Your Breakfast

Goodson points to the work of Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, who has studied protein distribution. One small study from his group, published in June 2014 in the Journal of Nutrition, compared an even distribution of protein (eating moderate amounts of protein three times per day) with a typical pattern (light protein at breakfast, heavy protein intake at dinner) in both men and women. They found that eating moderate protein at each meal was better at stimulating muscle protein synthesis. While the results are provocative, they'll also need to be confirmed by other experiments.

A good goal to aim for is about 30 grams at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, says Goodson. If you want to be extremely precise based on what you need for your training, a February 2018 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concludes that those who are doing resistance training should aim for 0.4 to 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight over the course of four meals. That 140-pound person would therefore be eating 25 to 35 grams of protein per meal.

What's more, an April 2015 review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 1.2 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight — with each meal containing 25 to 30 grams of protein — can lower your appetite and help manage body weight.

The next step: Making those proteins count. Goodson recommends leaner proteins since animal proteins can have a lot of saturated fat. "While some research supports that saturated fat may not be as bad for you as once thought, the American Heart Association still recommends limiting it to no more than five to six percent of your total daily calories," says Goodson.

Go for proteins like chicken breast, lean cuts of beef and pork, fish, eggs or low-fat dairy. When it comes to protein powders, whey, soy, pea, chia and egg white are all good options depending on your preferences and dietary restrictions, Moskovitz says.

And finally, a certain food isn't inherently better just because it has added protein. "Just because a food is labeled 'high-protein,' that doesn't mean it doesn't have sugar, saturated fat or salt," Moskovitz says. Protein or not, always read labels so you know exactly what you're getting!

Read more: How to Read a Nutrition Label — and Finally Get Your Macros Right

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