Everything You Need to Know About Protein and Losing Fat
Curious about the possible benefits of eating more protein? Here's how protein can help you lose more fat, build lean muscle, and boost your metabolism for greater weight loss results.
Protein has been labeled the "Holy Grail" of fat loss within the Weight Loss Industry.
Go to your local Walmart, Kroger, Giant Eagle, Whole Foods, Publix, or whatever grocery chain you have nearby, and you're guaranteed to find the diet aisle stocked with hi-protein weight loss bars and supplements.
On the other side, there are some nutrition circle in Netflix Documentaries who demonized extra protein as a cancer-causing, heart attack-inducing poison...
So should you be doubling down on your protein intake to lose fat? And can eating too much protein actually harm your health?
Yes... and no...probably not....well, it depends...
The answer is a little more complicated than a simple head nod.
In this article, You'll learn:
- Is Protein the "Weight Loss Miracle" It's Cracked Up to Be?
- The Fat Loss Benefits of a High-Protein Diet
- Addressing the Negative Claims of Eating Protein
- Protein FAQ's (how much to eat, best food sources, etc.)
( note: feel free to skip ahead to any of the above sections if you are only worried about protein for fat loss, your health, or the actionable advice in the faqs)
Protein: Is it the Weight Loss Miracle it's Cracked Up to be?
First of, here are the MUST KNOWS of protein:
- Protein is one of three macronutrients that makes up the food we eat. (The other two are fat and carbohydrate.)
- Protein contains 4 calories per gram - For example, a cooked chicken breast with 25g of protein would contain 100 calories from protein (and maybe 20 calories from fat.)
- Proteins main purpose is to build and repair body tissue (aka muscle). As such, protein is an essential part of your survival.
Like I said earlier, some people view protein as some Magical Fat Loss Unicorn that will help them lose weight and build muscle just by consuming it.
Unfortunately, those claims are more "marketing fluff" than actual scientific evidence.
(except the unicorn part. Unicorns are definitely real...)
But just because the benefits are overhyped doesn't mean that extra protein isn't beneficial for fat loss.
The Benefits of a High-Protein Fat Loss Diet
The current RDA for protein is 0.8 g/kg (0.36 g/lb).
So a guy who weights 200 pounds would need around 73g of protein per day. (about 10% of total calorie intake)
However, it's important to note that the RDA protein guidelines were originally created to represent the minimum amount that we need to avoid malnutrition and, well, NOT DIE.
In actuality, we can consume more protein than that, and for fitness-oriented people like us who want to lose fat and build muscle, eating a higher protein diet can actually be beneficial.
(note: when I say high protein, I'm not referring to the guys at your local gym who're pounding chicken breasts and chugging protein shakes all day. A high-protein diet is typically no more than 20-35% of total calories. For exact recommendations, see the FAQ's section of this article)
You'll Lose More Fat and Less Muscle
We default to the term "weight loss" to describe leaning down, but what we really want is "fat loss."
When you're dieting and eating fewer calories than usual, your body has to turn to get energy from somewhere else other than food. In a perfect world, our bodies would get this energy exclusively from the extra fat stores sitting on our waistline.
Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, and if you aren't careful, you can end up losing more than just fat...
You see, weight loss refers to ALL of the scale weight you're losing.
Fat is a major component of the weight we lose, but things such as water, glycogen (energy from carbs stored in muscle), and lean muscle mass can all add to your total.
Losing water and glycogen isn't that big of a deal as they frequently fluctuate, but trust me when I say the LAST thing you want while dieting is to lose lean muscle mass.
Muscle provides a ton of physical and psychological benefits such as:
- Increased Metabolism
- Increased Strength
- Improved Confidence
- Improved Cognition
- Improved Posture and Stability
- Improved Longevity
(for a longer list of benefits, check out my Free Fitness Plan)
If you lose too much muscle while dieting, your metabolism will start slowing down - making it harder to lose weight.
Plus, you'll risk becoming "Skinny-Fat" too...
Skinny-Fat is the term used to describe someone at a healthy weight who still looking chubby due to small amounts of muscle mass.
This video describes the look perfectly:
- Skinny-Fat is characterized as having a low body weight but a high body fat percentage
- You look slim in clothes but still have a gut underneath
- It's not necessarily unhealthy, but it's not desirable either
You want to retain, or even build as much muscle as you can while dieting.
And that's where protein comes in...
Protein is essential for creating and maintaining muscle mass, especially while dieting.
By eating more of it, you'll be able to lose fat faster and build/retain more muscle. (source, source)
However, protein won't magically melt away fat and pack on lean muscle by itself. For your body to utilize the muscle-building potential of the extra protein in your diet, you'll first need to give it a reason to do so.
That's why you should ALSO be resistance training - or lifting weights.
Weightlifting serves as the catalyst for building muscle. It breaks down your muscles, and in response, your body uses the protein in your diet to repair and build them back bigger.
The bottom line:
- A high-protein diet will help you burn more fat and build lean muscle.
- It can also help you avoid the "Skinny-Fat" look characterized by having a low body weight but a high body fat percentage.
- To actually utilize the extra protein in your diet towards build muscle, you'll need to be resistance training and lifting weights.
Do you know the importance of lifting weights while dieting?
Protein Increases Satiety & Keeps the "Hangry" Beast at Bay
(I love these commercials, but a Snickers bar seems like the LAST thing I'd turn to when I'm trying to fight hunger...)
One of the unfortunate side effects of dieting is hunger, and as you know, with hunger comes increased cravings, decreased willpower, and a greater likelihood of overeating.
That's why one of your top priorities while dieting should be reducing your hunger as much as possible.
Of the three macronutrients, protein takes the blue ribbon for being the most filling.
The main reason is that protein has a double-whammy effect of boosting the "fullness hormone" peptide YY, and decrease the "hunger hormone" ghrelin in your body.
(don't believe me? Try and eat 800-1000 calories of lean chicken breast or egg beaters and see if you're still hungry after ~15 minutes of letting it settle...)
There's plenty of scientific studies to back up the "protein makes your tummy full" claim, too.
Here's one of my favorites:
This study showed that participants who increased their protein intake from 15% to 30% ended up consuming ~441 fewer calories on a higher-protein diet.
And that was without intentionally restricting anything!
Naturally consuming 441 fewer calories from a simple change in protein intake is huge. It's close to a 3,500 calorie weekly deficit, which is around where you would want to be to lose ~1 pound per week.
So it's no surprise that the participants ended up losing an average 4.9 kg (11 lbs) during the 12-week study.
Protein Increases Your Metabolism & Calories Burned
This has to do with something called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
TEF basically refers to how many calories you burn while digesting your food, and each macronutrient is different:
- Fat: 0-5% of calories are used when processing
- Carbs: 5-15% of calories are used when processing
- Protein: 20-35% of calories are used when processing
As you can see, protein takes a lot more energy to process than both carbs and fats.
You could eat 100 calories from protein, but it's likely that only ~70 of those calories will be left over after the body processes them.
This – with the combination of the fullness benefits of eating protein – can synergistically work together to help you consume less food while burning more calories from the food you're eating.
You Preserve More Muscle as You Age
No, you don't need to look like Jacked Granpa here to be healthy...
But the unfortunate truth is that muscle loss through aging causes a host of undesirable health outcomes.
Did you know that, after the age of 35, you can start to lose 0.5-1% of your lean body mass each year?
This sucks, because as you lose muscle, your strength, energy, and metabolism all take a hit.
You could eat the same exact diet, but because you're less energetic and burning fewer calories, the same number of calories that kept you at a healthy body weight in your 20s could cause you to gain unwanted fat in your 40s, 50s, and beyond.
And the even worse part is that the combination of inactivity and age-related muscle loss is correlated with earlier mortality.
In fact, there is a direct correlation between muscular strength and a decreased risk of developing a life-threatening cardiovascular disease.
Some studies have shown that grip strength may be better than looking at blood pressure for assessing your health!
Good news, though...
There are two very easy ways to reduce your risk of losing precious muscle mass and strength as you age:
- Eat More Protein - As you get older, your body gets worse and utilizing the protein you're taking in. As a result, It may be beneficial to consume a higher percentage of your calories from protein.
- Get Moving and Lift Weights - Another way you lose muscle over time is through being sedentary. By moving more throughout the day, you'll give your body a reason to hold onto muscle mass. (If you want to get the most benefit out of your activity, you lift weights or add resistance to your cardio to build more lean mass.)
Misconceptions about Protein and Health
Note: I'm not a doctor, so before taking any of this information to heart, ask YOUR doctor. I prefer to do my own research before going to the doctor or making a major health decision, and I suggest you do the same.
Protein Causes Kidney Damage
I like to use the analogy of running with or without a broken leg to explain the relationship between protein and kidney health.
I think we can both agree that It's probably not the best idea to go for a run if your leg is broken...
That'll only make things worse.
However, running doesn't cause your leg to suddenly snap in two either.
Would you agree? Good.
Protein and kidneys have the same type of relationship.
Higher protein diets do require our kidneys to work harder, so people with preexisting kidney damage should probably avoid eating high protein.
But that doesn't mean protein CAUSES kidney damage. In fact, there's really no evidence to show that consuming a moderately high amount of protein (1-1.5g per pound of lean body mass) causes any harm.
So unless you have less-than-optimal kidney function, there's no reason to avoid protein in fear that it'll hurt them. (source)
Protein and Cancer
There's no real evidence that shows higher amounts of protein cause cancer either.
One study asked people about their self-reported protein intake and followed them for 18 years after. It was found that people age 50-65 who ate more animal protein had a 4-fold increased risk of dying from cancer. (for comparison, smoking is a 20-fold increased risk.)
However, people 65+ who reported eating more animal protein actually had a LOWER chance of dying from cancer...
So, it's inconclusive, to say the least.
Another popular study involved feeding lab mice protein while simultaneously injecting them with a cancerous tumor. Not surprisingly, the tumors grew faster in the high protein rats.
You see, protein increases a hormone called IGF-1. This hormone is responsible for muscle cell growth, but it may also lead to growth in tumourous cells as well.
So, while eating more protein might increase the size of existing tumors (depending on what treatment someone is undergoing), It's not necessarily that high-protein diets cause cancer.
Similarly to protein and kidneys, the link between protein and cancer risk is based a lot on pre-existing issues and correlation.
I Don't Want Huge Muscles, Will Protein Make Me Look "Bulky?"
No one in the history of the universe has accidentally gained too much lean muscle, especially not from simply eating more protein. (unless they were genetic anomalies or on drugs)
Gaining muscle is hard, and eating more protein isn't going to help you build a significant amount of it unless you're also eating a lot of extra calories too.
If you're in a calorie deficit, you can expect a higher protein diet will help you maintain and possibly build small amounts of muscle while dropping fat.
Does Protein Quality Matter?
When people talk about protein quality, they're usually referring to the amino acid profile of specific protein sources.
Amino Acids are the "building blocks" that the body uses and there are essential and non-essential amino acids found in various amounts within different protein sources.
At one time, there was alotta-hoopla over complete (all essential AAs) vs. incomplete (missing some essential AAs) sources, but it's not as big of a deal now.
Animal sources of protein contain all of the essential AAs we need whereas plant sources don't. However, by eating a variety of plant protein sources, you can get all of the essential AAs you need.
This means that, yes, it's 100% possible to be vegan and get enough protein as well as get all of the essential amino acids you need.
What Are Some Good Sources of Protein?
- Chicken Breast
- Egg Beaters
- Lean Steak
- Ground Beef/Turkey (ideally 90/10 or leaner for those dieting)
- Deli Meat
- Greek Yogurt
- Beef Jerky
- Low-Fat/Fat-Free Dairy
Plant / Non-Animal Sources
- Some Bread
- Some Nuts
Here's a diagram that shows some other protein sources that may include carbs, fats, or both:
Should I Buy a Protein Powder?
"Do you take protein, bro?"
For some reason, protein powders emit a magical aura to people in the fitness world...
Probably because the Supplement Industry has spent millions (and made many more millions back) advertising protein powders as the secret for building muscle and losing fat.
Young teens and "bros" in gyms treat protein powder as if it's some sort of chocolatey anabolic steroid while dieters add protein shakes to their already-out-of-control diets in the belief that it'll help them melt away pounds of belly fat.
The reality, though, is that protein powders are just food in a powdered form.
There's nothing inherently special about drinking a protein shake over eating a chicken breast.
However, protein powders do provide convenience for people who don't want to cook all of the time.
Also, some protein powders, such as whey isolate, contain a lot of protein with small amounts of carbs and fats.
So, if you're someone who struggles to get enough protein from food or just enjoy the convenience of mixing a scoop of protein into your morning shake, then a protein supplement may work perfectly for you.
If you're looking for a recommendation, I like this brand.
Do I Need To Time My Protein Intake?
You may have heard that you can only absorb a certain amount of protein at a time.
The truth, though, is that meticulously spreading your protein out into 30-40g chunks throughout the day is going to provide marginal benefits at best.
If you are a professional bodybuilder, then it might be worth the trouble of spreading protein out perfectly...
But for the majority of us who are just wanting to look better and improve our health by losing fat and building some lean muscle don't need to worry about it.
You may have also heard that it's mandatory to get a protein shake in your body immediately following a workout or you'll lose all your muscle.
This has something to do with this process called muscle protein synthesis, which basically refers to repairing the damaged muscle tissue from lifting.
However, this "window" of time you have to consume protein is much wider than originally thought...
As long as you're getting in some protein ~2 hours before or after your workout, you'll be solid.
Alright Carter, Cut to the Chase. How Much Protein Do I Need!?
Everyone is different, and you may need more or less protein based on your personal situation, age, health status, activity level, etc.
But, for a normal & healthy individual who's working out 3-6 days a week weight lifting or resistance training, I recommend:
- For Fat Loss: 0.82-1.2g of protein per pound of LBM*
- For Muscle Gain: 0.64-1g of protein per pound of LBM*
- For Maintenance: ~70-120g of protein per day and you'll get the major benefits of protein.
*LBM stands for Lean Body Mass (total mass minus fat mass). For people who are 50+ pounds overweight, you can use GOAL bodyweight instead of LBM.
At the end of the day, protein is nothing more than a component of the food we eat.
It's not a magical unicorn, it's not the secret to unlimited fat loss, and it's not poisonous cancer-causing demon
However, we need it to survive, it's essential for building and retaining muscle mass, and a consuming slightly more than the RDA recommendation of 10% will likely improve your weight loss results.
Protein is just a Piece of the Fat Loss Puzzle
You could optimize your protein intake to the gram, but if you don't have the other crucial pieces in place, it won't matter.
You see, a lot of people make as mistake and only focusing on one aspect of losing weight.
They focus on exercise but neglect their diet entirely.
They focus eating less but forget about the importance of resistance training and exercise (and as a result, they have to go extremely low in calories and end up losing muscle along the way.)
Heck, they may even get their diet and exercise dialed in, but their approach is so incredibly unsustainable that in doesn't last 2-3 months down the road.
The truth is that you need all three aspects of losing weight – exercise, diet, and mentality – to get results. And having all three of these things in harmony is what leads to long-term and lasting weight loss success.
That's why I created my ecourse, Fat Loss Forever.
This 14-day course outlines everything you need to know for optimizing your diet, exercise plan, and mentality when losing weight.
I created this course for people who, like me, have struggled with losing weight and maintaining a healthy body.
I spent years failing at yo-yo diets before finally having success, and this course is designed using the strategies and tactics that helped me do it.
So, if you're tired of fad diets and failed attempts, and ready to get the fat loss results you've always wanted in a sustainable, flexible, and enjoyable way, click the button below to enroll in my free 14-day fat loss course.
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