Protein, along with carbohydrates and fat, is a major macronutrient that helps your body function optimally. You need it to build strong tissues, support immunity and boost your metabolism. Protein is also essential for weight loss, especially in the obese, as it helps to stabilize blood sugar, curb hunger and potentially increase the number of calories you burn through digestion. Protein also supports exercise efforts and keeps you from losing too much muscle mass as you create a calorie deficit to lose weight.
Protein's Role in Satisfaction
Obesity carries with it a number of possible health complications, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and triglycerides, heart disease and sleep apnea. Losing weight by reducing calories can help improve these conditions.
Protein takes longer to digest compared to carbohydrates and thus can play a role in making you feel more satisfied when trying to cut calories. A 2008 paper in an issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that a higher protein intake may help you reduce overall food consumption, even when you're not on a diet. A 2007 study published in Obesity showed that obese women who were restricting their calories reported greater pleasure from food and higher feelings of satiation when their diet consisted of 30 percent protein.
Protein Discourages Blood Sugar Swings
When you eat protein as a larger part of your daily calorie intake and reduce your intake of refined carbs, your blood sugar levels become more even. Protein's slower digestion rate means you don't experience large spikes in blood sugar that are followed by quick lows, zapping your energy and spurring cravings. Refined carbohydrates, like white bread and sugar, cause these blood sugar swings, but protein mitigates them. When your blood sugar swings wildly, it also causes surges of the hormone insulin, too much of which encourages your body to store calories as fat. When you're obese, steadier blood sugar levels make it easier to stick to a reduced calorie diet, can improve your energy and help slow down fat storage -- all of which can help you reach a healthy weight.
Protein Takes More Calories to Digest
About 10 percent of your metabolic rate is used to digest food. Higher-protein diets require more calories to digest, so this portion of your metabolism gets a little boost just by increasing the percentage of your calories that come from meat, poultry, tofu and fish. While the increase in your metabolism may not be enough to induce significant weight loss, it does mean that protein -- whether it's a can of water-packed tuna, a cup of low-fat cottage cheese or a few slices of deli turkey -- makes a better snack choice than a bag of refined-wheat crackers or a cereal bar. If you're obese and trying to lose weight, you need every bit of calorie burn you can get to help you reach a healthy weight.
Protein Helps Preserve Lean Mass
To improve health, it's critical to lose weight without losing too much lean body mass. You want to lose fat, which is the primary form of tissue that, when you have it in excess, increases your risk of chronic disease. When you severely restrict calories, though, your body doesn't just use extra fat for energy; it can also turn to muscle mass.
A higher protein diet, low-calorie diet helps discourage the body from eating into muscle mass, showed the 2007 study in Obesity. If you strength-train while trying to lose weight, a higher protein intake helps you retain muscle even more. If your weight and the pressure on your joints make exercise hard, start with simple chair based exercises such as light biceps curls and shoulder presses. Work with a resistance band to strengthen the muscles of your legs and walk for short periods of time often. Consult a fitness professional to help design a program that's appropriate for your abilities.
Optimal Intake of Protein for Obese People
No absolute definition of a "high-protein diet" exists, especially one that's considered optimal for obese people. A 2015 edition of Clinical Nutrition published a study suggesting that about 0.55 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily helps obese people trying to lose weight, when combined with a low-calorie diet and resistance training.
Avoid proteins that are breaded and fried, or full of saturated fat. Opt for skinless chicken or turkey breast, lean flank steak, white fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, tofu, tempeh, dried beans and legumes or pork tenderloin. Bake, roast, grill or broil them and season with fresh herbs, spices and citrus or vinegar.
Remember that while increasing your protein intake, your consumption of other macronutrients must shrink slightly so that you are maintaining a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories per day to lose a safe 1 to 2 pounds per week. Focus on moderate servings of nutrient-rich foods, such as fresh watery, fibrous vegetables and fruit, whole grains and healthy unsaturated fats to accompany protein at meals and snacks. .
Is This an Emergency?
- Experience Life: Protein Power
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Protein, Weight Management and Satiety
- Clinical Nutrition: Exploration of the Protein Requirement During Weight Loss in Obese Older Adults
- Obesity: Higher Protein Intake Preserves Lean Mass and Satiety with Weight Loss in Pre-Obese and Obese Women
- University of New Mexico: Controversies in Metabolism
- Life Time Weight Loss: Insulin and Fat Storage