You may have heard about a recent study which showed that more protein enhanced weight control. The Australian researchers found that when subjects were fed a lower-protein diet (10 percent of their calories), they ate 12 percent more over a four-day period than when 15 percent of their calories came from protein. But when protein was bumped up to 25 percent there was no observed change compared to the 15 percenters.
The right amount of protein has been a hot topic for quite some time, especially for weight loss. Other studies show that protein supports weight control in at least three distinct ways:
First it’s satiating, as this new study indicates, so it tends to naturally curb eating. When consumed with carbs, it slows digestion to better regulate blood sugar and insulin levels. Finally, it has been shown to increase metabolism and help maintain or build calorie-burning muscle. But that doesn’t mean your dinner should be limited to a mondo piece of grilled chicken if you’re trying to trim down.
When it comes to protein needs there is a pretty wide range for the recommended amount. It's 10 to 35 percent of total calories, or anywhere between 0.8 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight, up to 1.7 grams per kilo for athletes in training. When I work with clients one-on-one I always individualize it, but in general, I like to aim for the middle of the range. For an average adult woman, that would be roughly 80 to 100 g of protein per day. To put that in perspective, one 3-ounce chicken breast (about the size of a deck of cards) provides about 25 grams.
However, I don’t want my clients to have to count grams or calculate percentages (who has time for that?). To keep it simple, I advocate including a portion specific amount of lean protein at every meal, which can be vegetarian (dairy or eggs), vegan (beans, lentils or organic tofu) or omnivore (poultry, seafood) along with produce, a whole-grain, plant-based fat, and natural seasonings. This configuration, which I call the ‘5-piece puzzle’ is the crux of the weight loss plan in my newest book. I chose it because I believe it creates the best possible balance.
When trying to lose weight many people opt to axe whole grains or good fats and pump up the protein. In my opinion, that’s not balance. Carbohydrate, fat, and protein each perform unique jobs in the body. When you have too much of one and not enough of the others your body can't function at its best. To use an analogy it would be like if a lot of extra cafeteria staff showed up for work at a school but all of the teachers called in sick – the extra food service workers can’t do the teachers’ jobs, so everything would be out of whack. OK, it’s an odd analogy, but pretty fitting, because your body functions best when it has the right amounts of each type of macronutrient showing up for work.
For example, when too much protein and too little fat and carbs are consumed, your cells burn protein for energy. This can create an acidic environment in the body, which triggers calcium (a base) to get pulled out of bones to neutralize the acid. Muscle also tends to weaken in an acidic environment, which increases the risk of injury and premature aging. And when protein is burned for fuel in place of the carbs you’re not eating (your body’s preferred fuel source), it’s essentially wasted, because it’s not available to maintain and repair your muscle and other lean tissue.
Bottom line: Striking the right balance is the key to optimizing how you look and feel. When you include lean protein at every meal, along with the other ‘puzzle pieces’ as I call them, in the right amounts, you should fall right into the ideal range. I’ve dubbed it the Goldilocks effect – not too little, not too much, just right.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.