The role of protein in weight loss
Depending on where you get your health and fitness advice from, the recommendations for protein can vary dramatically. Consuming an adequate protein intake is essential for success with all fitness goals. Looking to lose weight? Protein intake needs to be elevated. Looking to pack on some muscle? Protein intake needs to be elevated. Happy with your current fitness levels but exercising regularly? Yep, you guessed it. Protein needs to be elevated. But what is protein and what does it do?
Proteins are made up of a chain of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that the human body requires. The human body can make eleven of these from your diet and these are called non-essential amino acids. However, nine of these our body cannot create so they need to be consumed within our diet. These are essential amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of our body tissue and they are needed for growth and repair. Following exercise there is micro-damage to your muscles. Protein is required to repair this damage.
The Food Standards Agency (2007) guidelines for protein consumption stand at 55grams for an adult between 19 and 50 years old. Whether we agree with these recommendations or not, these are targets for a sedentary individual. As soon as exercise activity levels are increased, so should the level of protein ingested. When you are on the journey of weight loss, consuming adequate protein becomes even more important.
In order to lose body fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit (consuming less energy than you are expending). Following exercise, your body will reach for its nearest protein source for growth and repair. The nearest source is: your muscles. By increasing the amount of protein in your diet you should prevent too much muscle degeneration.
Another benefit of increasing your protein intake is the effect that it has on satiety. Protein is very filling so stops you reaching for snacks after a meal. Pretty handy for when you are trying to lose weight. When working with clients seeking weight loss, my first port of call is their nutrition. 99% of the time, protein intake is far too low and needs to be increased. Once dietary changes have been made, clients tell me that they have never eaten so much and have never felt fuller. This is usually down to the increased protein. If using calorie-tracking software (which we thoroughly recommend) a good starting point for protein consumption is to multiply your bodyweight by 1.6 (Mettler et al, 2010). This number is the grams of protein you should consume daily.
So where can we get this protein from?
Animal meat is a complete protein source. This means that it provides you with all of the essential amino acids your body needs. Other forms of complete protein sources include dairy products, eggs, fish and seafood. Other than quinoa and buckwheat, vegetable sources do not contain all of the essential amino acids required. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or simply don’t want to consume as much animal meat, a variety of food sources are required to consume all of the amino acids. Examples include rice and beans, peanut butter sandwich, yoghurt with nuts and hummus with pita bread.
The key to protein consumption is balance. It often gets over complicated but keeping variety within your diet is essential for long-term health.
Food Standards Agency (2007) nutrient and food based guidelines for UK institutions, http://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/nutrientinstitution.pdf
Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Feb;42(2):326-37