A Beginner’s Guide to a High Protein Diet
At the heart of your weight loss is your meal plan. The word diet means eating restrictions, ’90s shakes, and poached chicken breasts. Dieting may sound unpleasant, but having a plan that meets your nutritional needs is much more enjoyable. But why a high-protein diet? Let’s put the word “high” aside for a moment and consider that most of us consume less protein than is beneficial to our overall health.
Protein is a macronutrient. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Our daily diet consists of a mixture of these three macronutrients. While focusing on macros can be easy, it can also be shortsighted. Keto and Atkins are two examples. This can be taken to the wrong extreme. Eating a pound of bacon for breakfast is really a high-fat, protein-packed meal. But it’s unhealthy for your heart, your cholesterol levels, and skipping macronutrients doesn’t equate to weight loss. So while this guide is still focused on incorporating more protein into your diet, it won’t be at the expense of overall health.
It’s important for you to do your own research, listen to your body, and consult with your doctor. This guide is intended for overall health, not for those dealing with GERD, celiac disease, gastroenteritis, or other medical conditions, the solutions to which are beyond the scope of this guide.
There are a ton of benefits of protein.
There are a ton of benefits of protein. Among them are:
- Protein helps repair the damage caused to your muscles when working out
- Protein helps brain development, hormones, and other bodily functions
- Protein is satiating, meaning you’ll feel more satisfied while consuming less
This last point is especially important if your goal is weight loss. Limiting calories can be a challenge. You may not have much energy, you may not be able to train hard, and if you are really restricting your calorie intake, you may lack focus and attention. Because there is satisfaction in consuming protein, you will feel the effect of limiting calories less when you consume large amounts of protein.
If you are trying to lose weight, you have to work in an energy deficit. That means the number of calories you burn (either sitting or exercising) must be greater than the number of calories you eat. When you work in a calorie deficit, your body starts burning existing stores (fat and muscle) for fuel. With strength training and a decent amount of protein, you’re signaling your body to maintain the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build. Instead, the existing fat is used as energy, which leads to the expected weight loss.
How to Increase Protein in Your Diet
Slowly increase the amount of protein you eat. Don’t jump from 56g to 156g overnight. Everyone’s body is different, but in general, the body can have difficulty absorbing protein. Instead, slowly increase your protein intake over a week or two to allow your body to adjust to the higher protein levels. As a general rule, focus on whole foods first.
Whole foods high in protein include:
- Lean red meat
- Eggs: Not only are eggs high in protein but the body absorbs egg protein really well
- Cottage cheese
- Nuts: Though higher in fat, nuts also contain a good amount of protein
- Legumes and Beans: Black, red, kidney, chickpea, you name it, it’s got protein
If you are trying to lose weight and are therefore working in a calorie deficit as mentioned above, you should avoid protein shakes. It’s generally easier to drink calories than eat calories because fluids are less filling. When you’re restricting calories, the last thing you want is to eat less filling! A large salad with lots of vegetables and grilled chicken or tofu will keep you fuller for longer than a shake.
It’s all personal preference, but try whole foods first and see how you feel. If you’re not trying to lose weight and are having the opposite problem (unable to gain weight), then protein shakes can be a great addition to your diet. The shake provides 25 to 50 grams of protein and is easy to eat (drink) compared to an additional 6 ounces of chicken or a cup of beans. They also have the benefit of being easy to take after a workout, especially if you work out in the middle of the day.
A high-protein diet may or may not contain carbohydrates. Reducing or even eliminating carbs will put your body in ketosis, which is a completely different meal plan. If you are interested in the ketogenic diet, do your research to get a complete understanding of the diet. This high-protein diet does not suggest eliminating carbohydrates, but only increasing protein in proportion to what you eat per day.
Brief lesson on macronutrients:
Carbohydrates and protein each have 4 calories per gram. Fat has 9 calories per gram. This means that on a 2000 calorie diet, for example, 150 g (or 600 calories) will come from protein, 250 g (or 1000 calories) from carbohydrates and 50g (450 calories) from fat. That’s 2,050 calories. Some people do better with more fat, some with more carbohydrates.
Try this out:
Set a constant daily protein intake (once you reach it). Then experiment with different amounts of carbohydrates and fats. I wouldn’t lose less than 20g of fat because fat is responsible for testosterone and mood.
One thing to keep in mind when trying to lose weight is that eating carbohydrates can be more filling than eating fat. A cup of brown rice contains 216 calories, 2 tablespoons of olive oil contains 238 calories. What will make you fuller? When you’re trying to lose weight and work in a calorie deficit, the goal is to eat as much as possible and feel full. This will help avoid the hunger pangs (perhaps even hunger) associated with dieting.
So 56g has been thrown down as a baseline. This Healthline article suggests up to .75g per pound maximizes the benefits of protein consumption. More than that and the benefits go down. So, if you weigh 175 pounds, you need 130g of protein per day. For many of us, that is enough, and incorporating lots of protein into our diet can be a challenge. However, 0.75g/lb is still low in some areas. For example, professional bodybuilders consume 1g to 1.5g of protein per pound of body weight. However, eating too much protein can have negative effects.
There are plenty of quality protein sources that are not meat. Some of the highlights include eggs, nuts, and nut butter, beans, and soy products. If you’re worried about losing muscle or performance, consider the fact that Alex Honnold is vegetarian (sometimes vegan), Venus Williams is vegan, and bodybuilder Barny du Plessis is vegan as well.
In general, the body can only process a limited amount of protein at any one time. Consume 25 to 30 grams of protein with meals and snacks throughout the day for maximum benefit. You can split 150g of protein between three meals and two snacks of 30g of protein each. It’s important to get protein as part of your first meal of the day. Especially if you’re trying to maintain muscle mass.
Exactly how you structure your protein intake is entirely up to you and depends on your dietary preferences, whether you work from home or the office, live in a van, or have other dietary restrictions. One thing that will help you get enough protein (and meet your nutritional goals) is being aware of your food choices and meal preparation. If you let your meal go with whatever you want, Christmas cakes, office birthday cakes, and French fries (all low in protein) will find their way into your life. If you’re serious about getting fit, staying in shape, and reaching your macronutrient goals, fill your fridge (and lunch box) with healthy foods. You will soon find that filling your stomach with it is also easier.