How Much Protein Do You Need?

10 min read  |  February 27, 2024  | 

High protein diets go by many different names and enjoy enduring popularity. But before you follow a high-protein diet, weigh the pros and cons.

“The right diet depends on the person. A high-protein diet may work for some people, but not for everyone. As dietitians, we see how the body is responding or not, and then we may try different diets,” says Veruska Gonzalez, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, a clinical dietitian with the University of Miami Health System.

A professional nutritionist or dietitian may suggest a diet you will likely find appealing, making it easier to follow long-term. 

Factors other than food affect your weight.

A dietitian can also help you identify factors besides food contributing to your weight, like chronic stress.  

“When we assess a new patient, we take stress into account, whether a person is having a hard time at work or with family. Some people over-exercise. Working out too much is a form of excessive stress, too. The body doesn’t like to lose weight under stress,” Gonzalez says.

They can help you consider ways to reduce that stress or better handle it. 

For weight loss, prepare to be flexible. 

If you’re trying to lose weight without professional guidance, you may also need to be patient and willing to try different approaches. 

“In terms of weight loss, it’s trial and error. Whether a diet is high protein, high carb, keto – some people will react to it, and some won’t.” Gonzalez says. 

“High protein is often a good choice. People stay full, and they can build muscle,” she says.

Not all diets are designed for weight loss.

Although the word “diet” makes many people think of weight loss, some people need a diet to help them gain weight. 

“For some people who are losing a lot of muscle mass or who need to gain weight, a high protein, high-calorie diet is usually recommended,” she says. 

People on high-protein diets feel fuller longer. 

Several studies have shown that people who consume higher protein diets regularly tend to eat less food overall and to maintain healthier weights.

The body digests different types of nutrients at different rates. Carbohydrates take the least time, while protein takes longer, and fats take the most time. When you don’t eat enough protein, you’re likely to fill up on other foods. 

Often, the result is that you take in more calories overall, feel full for shorter periods, and snack more often. 

High-protein diets can help reduce snacking and grazing.

“For weight loss, you want plenty of protein and fiber. Protein leaves you feeling satisfied. It helps people stop mindless snacking. You eat less because you’re fuller, Gonzalez says. 

In one study, overweight men with an average age of 47 followed a diet in which protein provided 25% of the calories. The participants’ reported that their desire to eat late at night was cut in half. Their preoccupations with thoughts of food decreased similarly as well.

Danish researchers asked this question – “Are Dietary Proteins the Key to Successful Body Weight Management?” To find out, they combined the evidence from 37 studies looking at the effects of the amount of protein a person consumed on their body weight. 

High protein diets promoted weight loss more successfully than diets that focused on cutting calories in their analysis. 

You prime the body to build muscle while reducing harmful fats.

Protein is the basic building block of muscle, so eating plenty can also help you maintain your muscles as you lose weight.  

In other words, a protein-rich diet helps preserve lean body mass. It also reduces the storage of harmful body fat, such as fat around the belly. 

You burn more calories for digestion. 

Your body has to work to break down the substances in food into nutrients your body can actually use, and this work consumes energy (calories). Breaking down proteins into usable nutrients takes more work than breaking down carbohydrates.  

Just by eating relatively more protein, you are prompting your body to work harder and burn more calories. 

Calories from protein are less able to become fat. 

“You lose weight when your body burns up more calories than you take in as meals and snacks. But all calories are NOT created equal,” says Ms. Gonzalez. 

Carbohydrates and proteins both contain four calories per gram of food. Fats contain nine calories per gram. However, excess calories from dietary fats are easier for the body to store as fat compared to calories from protein.

Proteins are workhorses made of amino acids.

Proteins are large, complex molecules. They are made up of many smaller building blocks called amino acids. Proteins do most of the work carried out by your body’s cells.

They are part of the structure of cells. They control each cell’s reproduction, metabolism and the entry and exit of needed substances into the cell.

Last fall, an international research team calculated the number of cells our bodies contain. An adult male weighing about 155 pounds (70 kg) is made of approximately 36 trillion cells; an adult female weighing about 130 pounds (60 kg), about 28 trillion. For a child weighing about 65 pounds (30 kg), the cell count comes to about 17 trillion. 

One trillion has twelve zeroes after the “1”—1,000,000,000,000.

Our body can make some amino acids, but not all.

There are 20 types of amino acids, and they have different functions. 

“We need all 20 types of amino acids. The nine that we can’t produce are called “essential amino acids” because it’s essential for them to be included in our diets,” Gonzalez says.  

For instance, your body uses the amino acid histidine to produce histamines. We usually think of histamines concerning allergies, but they also play a part in sleep and thinking.  

The amino acid called valine plays a role in muscle growth, tissue repairs and healing, and energy generation. 

Then there’s tryptophan. It is famously abundant in turkey but is present in all proteins. Your body needs tryptophan to create serotonin, which affects your mood, hunger, and sleep. 

Some small proteins contain about 50 amino acids. Other proteins have hundreds or thousands of amino acids. 

Animal proteins are all complete.

All animal proteins are complete, containing all twenty essential amino acids. Meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products provide lots of protein. 

Many plant foods also contain ample protein, but it’s not complete. Nonetheless, whole plant foods can offer ample protein and loads of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. 

“You can pair incomplete proteins from plants at a single meal or throughout the day to make complete proteins. Lots of traditional food combos work this way. Variety is key,” Gonzalez explains. When you eat a peanut butter sandwich, hummus with pita, or rice and beans, you are obtaining complete proteins.

The human body actually stores essential amino acids. This means that if you eat an incomplete protein in one sitting (peanut butter on a spoon, let’s say), your body can draw out the other amino acids needed for a complete protein from its stores. 

High protein diets are possible for vegetarians and vegans. 

“If you’re sticking with a plant-based diet and also want high protein, you can use lots of legumes and seeds and different kinds of whole grains,” Gonzalez says.

With a high-protein vegetarian diet, you will possibly need to include a protein powder, she adds. “The powders based on pea protein or rice protein are the ones most people find easiest to digest,” Gonzalez says. 

Be careful about protein powders.

Proceed carefully before you start using protein powders, which are widely available in different varieties. 

“There is a time and place for protein powders, but not everyone needs them. I recommend speaking with a professional to see if powders are right for you and for help finding ones that are good quality,” says Gonzalez. 

Some powders contain loads of sugar. 

“Protein powders are dietary supplements. Although they aren’t monitored or regulated by the FDA, the FDA does offer a resource on their website to help consumers identify harmful ingredients,” says Gonzalez. 

Some protein powders contain lots of added sugars and are higher in saturated fats, which you don’t want if your goal is to lose weight or lower your cholesterol. Excess sugar intake harms your body in other ways, too. It promotes inflammation, which is linked to a long list of diseases and problems. 

“People with milk allergies, who are sensitive to lactose, may find that protein powders cause them discomfort if the powder includes whey protein instead of whey isolate, which many do,” says Gonzalez. 

Your weight depends on more than your food choices.

Many of us believe that our weight reflects only two factors – food intake and exercise. 

“So many factors play into how much a person weighs and their body type. Eating well and exercising matter, but they’re not the only things that do. Sleep is hugely important too – people who get less than six hours of sleep a night may be predisposed to being overweight,” Gonzalez says. 

Current research shows that external factors also significantly affect a person’s weight. Influences such as the places where you live and work, the time pressures you face, your ethnic background, and the weight of your regular dining companions all affect your weight greatly. 

Help is available to you, for free. 

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, increased access to nutritional services. That law requires that nutritional counseling be available to all adults at risk for chronic diseases, with no copays. This is true whether you’re covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or private insurance. 

You can access in-person nutrition and wellness classes and/or online programs. Contact your insurance provider to find out what’s available. 

Government programs, such as WIC, that help people access food also provide nutrition education. Some hospitals and local health departments also offer classes. 

If you’re on regular medications, seeking expert help is wise.

If you have a chronic health condition such as diabetes or high cholesterol, there’s more going on than you just wanting to lose weight. 

“Your medications may affect your appetite or interact with certain foods in ways that ought to be considered. There are some medications meant to be taken with food,” Gonzalez says. “A dietician can give you guidelines for planning your meals to work with your medicine.”

“Some people turn to a dietician because they’re confused by all the dietary advice they find online,” Gonzalez says. If you feel that way, seek expert advice. 

The word diet actually comes from the Greek word “daitia” which means “way of life.” 

It included other habits that affected health, such as exercising, sleeping well, and enjoying leisure pursuits and companionship. 

This larger meaning is one that health experts suggest that we all adopt. 

Milly Dawson is a contributor to UHealth’s news service.

Tags: dietary tips, nutrition care in Miami, Veruska Gonzalez

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