Protein: The most important macronutrient for weight loss

Today I’m tackling three questions I find myself answering a lot… “Why do I need protein?”,”How much protein do I need?”, and “How can I physically get this much protein into my diet, without eating too many calories?”

Let’s start with the first one…

Why protein is a critical component to weight loss

Protein is needed in order to burn fat.

First, chemically speaking, your body cannot effectively burn and use fat as energy if it doesn’t have help from either carbs or protein.  And, because we’re cutting the carbs to fairly minimal levels (any diet worth anything requires careful control over carb intake), high protein levels are needed to give the body the right kind of fuel that it needs in order to effectively burn fat and use it for energy.  Protein also requires more energy to burn, compared to carbs and fat.

Simply put? The more protein you eat, the better your body is going to be at burning fat.

Protein helps to prevent our body from burning muscle while we’re trying to lose weight.

Any time you eat at a caloric deficit (meaning, you’re eating fewer calories than your body requires to sustain your activity levels), your body will resort to getting the energy it needs internally. And remember, your body needs TWO kinds of energy. Fat is required to sustain our energy levels, and protein is required in order to fuel repairs to our body and muscle growth.  Your body needs BOTH. (Side-note, your body is also capable of using protein as an energy source, if needed).  If you don’t feed your body enough carbs/fat, it will get the energy it needs from fat.  If you don’t feed your body enough protein, it will get the nutrients it needs by burning your muscle.

To be clear, when we’re trying to lose weight, we want the body to burn the fat. We DON’T want the body to burn the muscle!!  (I talk a lot about this in this blog post, on why you don’t want to be losing more than 2lbs per week… Because if you ARE losing weight faster than that, you’re probably burning muscle, and not fat!!)..

Why does this matter? Because if your body starts burning muscle, your metabolism slows down!  The less muscle you have, the slower your metabolism!!

Side-note: Crash / fad diets (such as “all juice” diets, hCG, and others) that promise massive weight-loss in very short amounts of time often work by starving the body of protein — forcing the body to burn internal muscle as a fuel-source.  These diets DO work in terms of scale movement (you will lose a lot of weight in a very short amount of time), but the weight-loss is coming mostly from muscle, not fat. Without protein to protect the muscle, people who do these diets are literally DESTROYING their metabolism. (Remember, more muscle = higher metabolism. And less muscle = lower metabolism).  This is why people who are constantly yo-yo dieting are often on a downward spiral of weight-gain. (Every time they do the next fad diet, their make their overall situation WORSE!)

Net result?  If you don’t eat enough protein, your body will get the protein it needs by burning muscle. And that’s bad. Really bad.

Protein is needed to build muscle

As mentioned above, the amount of muscle on your body plays a critical role in how fast or slow your metabolism is.  The more muscle on your body, the faster your metabolism works, the faster you’ll burn fat, and the more food you can eat!

This is why weight-lifting is an important component of weight loss. The more muscle you build, the more food you can eat, and the faster your body can burn fat! And when you’ve reached your target weight, having more muscle on your body plays a critical role in your ability to keep the weight from reappearing. (Studies have shown that people who incorporate weight-training into their weight-loss plan are far, FAR more likely to succeed at keeping the weight off once they reach their goals).

… But all the strength training in the world isn’t going to help you unless you’ve got the protein in your diet that’s required to build the muscle!


How much protein do I need?

This question has been studied extensively by the scientific community. The answer is: it depends!  It depends on how much strength training you do, it depends on how much fat-burning you’re doing, it depends on your body-type, it depends on your metabolism. Rather than saying “how much do I need?” perhaps a better question to ask would be “What’s the most I can eat before it’s definitely no longer doing any good?”

The answer, according to dozens upon dozens of scientific studies on the topic, is: No more than 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body-weight.  (For some people this number will be less, but in no studied conditions was the number ever MORE than that).

What happens if you eat too much?  Nothing. Once your body has taken what it needs for muscle building and cell repair, it uses what’s left as an alternate form of energy.  What happens if you eat too little?  Bad things (see above). So it’s probably better to ere on the side of caution. This is why you should never go under your target protein goal.

Don’t like protein?  Get creative. It’s not optional. =)

How can I possibly consume that much protein?

This is a legitimate problem. A 200lb person trying to consume 0.82g of protein is targeting 164g per day!! If you tried to eat that much protein using normal foods while simultaneously trying to eat at a caloric deficit, you’d find you were eating a VERY boring diet.

Fat-free greek yogurt is an excellent source of protein, so is chicken, turkey, ham, egg-whites, and all forms of seafood (shrimp, crab, fish, etc.). Stick to lean sources, otherwise you’ll end up eating too much fat.

However, even with the above foods, you may still struggle to hit your daily protein number. This is where protein supplements come in handy. (Powders, shakes, protein bars, etc.).  I will often eat 1 to 2 protein shakes a day just to make sure I hit my number. These days there are a zillion different protein powders, shakes, and bars on the market, and a lot of them are quite good!  I’m a huge fan of the Dymatize ISO 100 protein powder (chocolate), and the “GNC Total Lean Shakes” if you want a “grab and go” version.  I also really like “Combat Crunch” bars, and “Quest Bars” as a meal-replacement, or a snack.  I have my favorite protein-shake recipe here.

Also, PLAN AHEAD!! You should know exactly what you will be eating the next day, before you go to bed. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks should be completely planned out AHEAD OF TIME!  A lot of beginners will wait until the end of the day to look and see if they got enough protein, fat, carbs, etc. — only to realize they went over on something, and don’t have enough of something else.  You’ll never get it right if you don’t take the time to plan it beforehand, and stick to the plan.

If you need suggestions on protein shakes that are high-quality, taste great, and healthy — you should check out my blog entry where I list out my top recommendations in this area.