When a friend hears that you want to lose weight, she might suggest that you start packing more protein onto your plate. It's what helped her lose 20 pounds, after all. It's also the magic bullet your colleague swears by—she lost 5 pounds in a month by eating more protein. But what does it really do? And is weight loss really just a matter of adding more eggs and chicken to your day? Here's the scoop on whether or not eating more protein can help you lose weight.
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First, it's important to know just what protein's role in the body is. It's part of the big three macronutrients—protein, fat and carbohydrate—so it's clear this is one nutrient we need in abundance. Protein breaks down into amino acids, which "are part of the immune system, neurotransmitters, help build muscle tissue, facilitate cellular repair, and are in your DNA," says Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D.N.
When you want to lose weight, protein can play an important role. "Protein contributes to satiety and satisfaction, and it does slow the rise in blood sugar. In time, that helps you maintain your energy levels and helps you control your appetite," Heller says. When your energy levels aren't crashing and your appetite is satisfied, you're less likely to feel like you need to reach for those chocolate cookies for a midday pick-me-up.
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There may be another X factor in the equation: exercise, and lots of it. When you lose weight, it can come from both fat and muscle. But to be more successful, you want to minimize muscle loss and maximize fat loss. Exercise can help you do that.
In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016, young men who were on calorie-restricted diets were instructed to eat either a low- or high-protein diet. They all also did resistance and high-intensity interval training six days a week. Those in the higher-protein and exercise group increased their lean body mass and lost more fat compared to the lower-protein eaters. Keep in mind that they looked at men—the study would have to be repeated in women—but the results are promising.
"Protein is a big player in weight loss, but not a magic bullet," adds Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Superfood Swap. Not only do protein foods take longer to digest so they keep you full, "you get the added bonus that protein burns more calories than other food groups when it's being digested," she adds. If you have trouble with cravings (like that cupcake that won't stop staring at you), make sure you get protein in at meals and snacks. It's that satisfaction factor that can control your inner sugar monster.
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This isn't carte blanche to eat all you want. Eat too much of anything—including protein—and you'll gain weight. Not to mention it will kick out other healthy foods that you need.
You may have heard the sad story of the female bodybuilder in Australia who died after eating too much protein. This is rare. (And it's important to note that she may have had an underlying medical condition, urea cycle disorder, that made her vulnerable to having complications from eating a lot of protein).
While this type of condition may be rare, other conditions like kidney disease are not, points out Heller. If you have diabetes and are looking to lose weight, you may have an undiagnosed kidney problem that makes the organ unable to handle a lot of protein. And while a high protein intake may preserve muscle mass as you lose weight, it can also negatively impact your insulin function, concludes a study in Cell Reports on obese postmenopausal women. It's important to talk to your doctor first about any health concerns.
In addition to the potential risks, remember you can't survive on protein alone. "Protein foods do not have all the nutrients we need for optimum health and wellness," Blatner says.
Keep Reading: Top Vegetarian Protein Sources
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The answer: probably. So you don't really have to worry that you have a shortfall.
"Americans generally get plenty of protein in their diet," Heller says. Where you may err is by having a standard protein-rich dinner, rather than spreading out your intake throughout the day. That's because your body can only utilize about 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal, she explains. Eating more than that simply goes to waste, so what's the point of packing in more than that?
Besides, as a 2015 review points out, higher protein diets—eating 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal—may help balance your appetite, and help you stick to a diet better. And consistency is one of the most important factors in making a diet work.
Blatner recommends choosing a variety of protein foods every week rather than the same old standbys. "Each protein has different vitamins and minerals beyond protein," she says. Eating a range gives you the variety of nutrients your body needs to function well and feel good as you lose weight.
Plus, take the opportunity to branch out from the way you think about protein. It's not just animal meat. In fact, Heller recommends leaning more toward plant-based proteins, like chickpeas, black beans, lentils, edamame, and nuts and seeds. Even grains like pasta or quinoa contain protein. Veggies have a small amount, too.
Read More: A Guide to Protein Serving Sizes
Breakfast is a great time to focus on getting protein, but with traditional picks like toast and cereal, it may be lacking. Compared to a "normal protein" breakfast (13 grams protein), an equal-calorie high-protein breakfast (35 grams) prompted overweight teens to eat fewer calories over the course of the day, and led to more stable blood sugar levels, found a 2015 study by University of Missouri researchers. Blatner recommends eating eggs in the morning as your protein source, like avocado toast topped with eggs.
Having plenty of protein in your breakfast can prevent a blood sugar crash a couple hours later, Heller says. If you typically eat oatmeal and fruit, add soymilk or stir in almond butter. "This may sustain you better until lunch so you don't need an extra midmorning snack," she says.
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"While getting sufficient protein can help you shed weight, overdoing it won't. It's all about that word you hear all the time: balance. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats all fit into a weight-loss diet, Blatner says.
This may take adjusting your plate to meet the right ratios, or a trick Blatner refers to as "visual wisdom." (It's often easier to do this rather than worrying about counting protein grams or calculating a specific percentage of calories.) One-quarter of your plate is protein, one-quarter whole grains, and one-half produce (particularly nonstarchy veggies like spinach and cauliflower). Add a bit of fat, too, like avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil or cheese.
"It's a balanced diet—low in processed foods, high in whole foods—that will both help with weight loss and boost overall health," she adds.