Protein: It’s what’s for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. Especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
In the last decade, there has been a long list of fad diets that have gone in and out of vogue. Low-fat diet. Low-sugar diet. Low-carb. Atkins. Vegan. Vegetarian. Paleo. No matter what regimen people pick up or put down, one thing stays the same—everyone needs protein.
Protein is an organic compound made of long chains of amino acids. You can find it in meat, fish, cheese, and tofu, as well as in nuts, yogurt, beans, legumes, and plenty of vegetables too. If your body is a temple, then proteins are the building blocks—essential for keeping you active, healthy, and your muscles growing.
There is ample research touting the benefits of a protein-rich diet, especially when it comes to helping people lose weight. Protein helps increase satiety (how satisfied you feel after eating), thermogenesis (heat generation in the body, to burn calories), and energy levels—all three of which help in weight loss, according to High-protein weight-loss diets: are they safe and do they work? by Eisenstein, Robers, Dallal and Saltzman.
So how much protein does the average person need to be eating? The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is currently set at 0.8 g protein per kilogram for adults. To figure out how much protein is recommended, it takes a bit of simple math. Let’s walk through it with an example of a woman who weighs 150 lbs.
First, she needs to convert her weight in pounds to kilograms. To find your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.21. (1 kilogram =2.21 pounds). A 150-pound woman who weighs 67.8 kilograms. The recommended protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram of weight—so she should multiply her weight (in kilograms) by 0.8 to find how many grams of protein to eat each day. A 67.8-kilogram woman would need to eat 54.2 grams of protein per day to reach the recommended allowance.
Keep in mind that the RDA was created for someone who lives a mainly sedentary lifestyle—without much high intensity training or exercise. For the athletes I train, I often recommend they consume 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. That way, they are getting plenty of fuel for the hard work they’re doing in the gym—the building blocks needed to build muscle. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to look at the RDA as a minimum. Better to eat more protein and stay fueled during the day, than to be tempted toward unhealthy snacks or slip back into bad habits.
What you’ll find out quickly, though, no matter if you follow the RDA or a higher-protein plan, is that eating that much protein isn’t cheap. The most protein-rich foods can be expensive: steak, chicken, halibut, to name a few. These animal-based proteins are also tough to swallow (no pun intended) for vegetarians, or people who have also been told to watch their cholesterol. No matter what you do, though, research is clear that it is important to base you diet on real food, not on protein powders or protein supplements, that lack other essential nutrients like vitamin A, calcium, vitamin D, iron and folate. Greek yogurt is one of my favorite snacks—it packs a huge protein punch, with 23 g per 8 oz. serving.
There is little research available on risks associated with high-protein diets. Some preliminary research shows that protein consumption up to three times the recommended daily allowance may, in the long term, contribute to bone loss. However, limiting your protein intake to real food will keep you from over-consuming. And if you are trying to lose weight, it is essential to consume the right amount of protein at each meal, in order to stave off hunger, and provide energy throughout the day.
-Joe Johnson is a credited fitness coach and personal trainer. Learn more about Joe at www.myjoebody.com.