Does Eating Protein Burn Fat?

woman eating steak in a restaurant
Protein can help with weight loss, but not by "burning" fat. (Image: Superanry/iStock/GettyImages)

You may have heard that increasing your protein intake can help you lose fat, but it’s not in the way you might think. Eating a specific nutrient can't directly cause your body to burn fat. You lose weight when you eat fewer calories than you need for energy, causing your body to burn stored fat to fuel your activities.

Conversely, your body stores fat when you eat more calories than you consume, so eating protein in excess of your daily needs may lead to weight gain. But, by increasing the percentage of calories you eat from protein — and decreasing the calories you consume from other nutrients — you may create a metabolic state that’s better able to burn fat.

Protein Makes You Feel Satisfied

One of protein’s greatest values in promoting weight loss is its ability to make you feel satiated — or satisfied and full. Protein takes longer for your body to digest, as compared to fat and carbohydrates, so it delays hunger. Plus, protein stimulates the release of hormones that make you feel satiated.

As a result, it’s easier to stick to a low-calorie diet plan so you create a calorie deficit and burn more stored fat for energy.

Protein Takes More Energy to Digest

Although you won’t lose a ton of pounds with the energy used during digestion, it does contribute to your overall caloric burn rate. A high-protein meal increases your rate of thermogenesis, or the number of calories used during digestion.

A 2004 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition explained that the typical thermic effect of protein is 20 to 35 percent of energy consumed. A diet high in protein can increase your resting metabolic rate, meaning you burn more calories all day long, which of course aids weight loss.

Protein Choices

You can safely obtain up to 35 percent of your calories from protein. On a standard 2,000 calorie diet, this amounts to about 175 grams per day. If you’re on a reduced calorie diet of 1,200 to 1,800 calories per day, you’d aim for between 105 and 158 grams of protein per day.

Consuming more than 35 percent of your calories from protein can crowd out other important nutrients. It may also put extra stress on your kidneys and can result in too-high of a saturated fat intake.

Choose your protein sources wisely and avoid types that are fried or that contain excessive amounts of saturated fat. Good choices include lean steak, white-meat poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, tofu, and beans and legumes. One whole egg contains 6 grams of protein, a cup of low-fat milk has 8 grams of protein and 3 ounces of chicken breast contains 26 grams of protein.

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