Clarifying Recommendations You Receive About Protein Intake

By Dr. William S. Yancy, Jr., MD, - Program Director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center

 

Have you ever been told to eat more protein when trying to lose weight because protein is satiating? Or that you should eat more protein because it helps prevent muscle loss when you are losing weight? On the other hand, have you ever been told NOT to eat too much protein because it taxes your kidneys?

 

Sometimes it’s hard to sift through all of the information you receive from friends, family, health professionals and surfing the web because it’s frequently conflicting or confusing. How can opinions differ so greatly? It turns out that even experts often don’t agree on certain subjects because they view the data differently. Or they know different sets of data. Throw in politics, special interests and other types of bias, and no wonder information can be conflicting and confusing. Think how much controversy surrounds global warming!

Clarifying Recommendations You Receive About Protein Intake

What happens most of the time when experts disagree on a health issue is that the experts are familiar with different sets of data, and they extrapolate the results from the data they know beyond its reach. So what is known about protein and its usefulness for weight loss?

It turns out that there is high quality research showing that protein is more satiating than the other sources of energy: carbohydrate and fat, not to mention alcohol.  And there is substantial research in overweight humans showing that higher protein diets lead to greater weight loss than lower protein diets. There is also substantial research showing that people who are restricting calories in order to lose weight can preserve their muscle mass better if they emphasize protein intake. If you weren’t aware, it turns out that when we lose weight intentionally, about 2/3 of the weight that is lost is fat and 1/3 is muscle. But of course, it is the fat that is more important to lose in order to improve health, and to look and feel better. Eating higher levels of protein (and doing strength exercises) can shift the balance of weight loss so that more fat and less muscle is lost.

So what is the optimal amount of protein for weight loss? Well, the typical range of protein intake in diets across the globe and over decades is 15-30% of daily calories. Another way to look at this range is approximately 0.8-1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight (or 0.36-0.75 g of protein per pound of body weight). In fact, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (the RDA is the amount that meets the needs of most people) is 0.8 g of protein per kg (0.36 g of protein per pound) of body weight.  Therefore, an averaged sized man who is 180 pounds (BMI =25) should strive for at least 65 g of protein daily (0.36 x 180 = 65). However, the amount should be increased to 81-108 g per day (0.45-0.65 g of protein per pound of body weight) if he is active or if he is trying to lose weight. And the amount should be 99-162 g per day (0.55-0.90 g of protein per pound of body weight), essentially double the RDA, if he is an athlete exercising multiple hours a day. Now this is based on having a BMI in the normal range (BMI=18.5-25). A person with a higher BMI can calculate their needs assuming their BMI was 25, and then strive for at least that amount.

How about type of protein to eat? And timing of your eating? Protein can come from animal or plant sources. Animal sources (meat, poultry, fish/shellfish, eggs, dairy products) are the most efficient and complete way to get protein but plant sources can be just as adequate. If focusing on plant sources, you should combine various types (for example, legumes, nuts, whole grains) and may need to eat a higher total amount of protein than if you were eating animal sources. Plant sources also come with starch, so that should be factored in if you are trying to limit carbohydrate intake. In terms of timing, it is best to spread your protein intake over the course of the day because protein intake can stimulate protein manufacturing in your body. Therefore, you will likely get better muscle building (and better satiation) if you ensure there is protein in each of your meals and snacks.

We still have not addressed the “protein taxes the kidneys” issue. By now, I imagine you have guessed that it is not a big concern. It turns out that this concern is based primarily on changes in kidney function that were observed in animal studies over short periods. There remains some concern about high protein intake in people with reduced kidney function but a wide range of protein intake has not caused health problems in people with normal kidney function. And research has not shown clear benefit from reducing protein below the recommended amount in people who do have kidney disease.

So, enjoy your protein each day, throughout the day, in order to increase satiety, weight loss and muscle building.

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