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Protein's Role in Weight Loss and Aging

Protein is an essential macronutrient. This means we need it in relatively large quantities (grams as opposed to micrograms) and we must obtain it from food. In this article, I’m going to dive in and explain why we need protein. And I’m also going to discuss how much protein you should be eating as well as the best sources.

What is Protein?

Proteins are large molecules found in humans and animals as well as plants. They are made up of chains of small molecules known as amino acids. When you consume large protein molecules, stomach acid along with digestive enzymes in your gut break them down into smaller chains (peptides) and eventually into individual amino acids–assuming everything is working properly.

The digested proteins are then utilized by your gut bacteria and also absorbed through the lining of your small intestine into your bloodstream. From there the amino acids are shuttled throughout the body to create new proteins. You probably already know the amino acids are used to build and strengthen your muscles. But, that’s certainly not all!

  • Proteins are what allow you to move.
  • Proteins provide structural support within your cells.
  • Proteins are responsible for transporting molecules within the cell as well as throughout the body.
  • Proteins act as messengers, such as certain hormones, and send important signals to other cells and tissues.
  • Proteins act as antibodies, which are a big part of your immune system. Essentially, they’re responsible for attacking and neutralizing foreign invaders.
  • Proteins act as enzymes, which are the catalysts for the thousands of biochemical reactions that take place within your cells. This includes energy production.

So as you can see, proteins play a HUGE role in your body. Without them, things would start to go downhill. And as I mentioned earlier, consuming dietary protein is the only way for your body to make the proteins it needs. Thus, a lack of protein in your diet can lead to numerous problems, including loss of muscle, fatigue, stunted growth, and weakened immunity among MANY other things.

How much protein to eat for weight loss?

As I just mentioned, consuming adequate amount of protein is necessary to build new muscle. And the more muscle you have, the more fat you’ll burn. Because muscle tissue is very active and requires more energy than less active tissues, such as your skin.

However, when you’re losing weight by creating an energy deficit and moving your body more, you also have the potential to burn muscle tissue. Which is not good! Thus, eating enough protein, especially during weight loss, is essential to maintaining your lean muscle mass. Three other very important ways in which eating protein can support your weight loss efforts, include:

  • Protein requires more energy to digest than carbohydrates and fat. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). This means you’ll burn more calories (15 - 20% more) by eating a serving (4 oz) of chicken versus a helping of pasta.
  • Protein doesn’t cause sharp spikes in your blood sugar and insulin. And maintaining optimal levels of blood sugar and insulin is an important component of weight loss, weight management, and type 2 diabetes prevention.
  • Protein is satisfying and keeps you feeling full long after your meal. Thus, you’re less likely to overeat or snack between meals.

Several studies have actually shown that when dietary protein levels are increased, fewer calories are consumed. In this study, participants quickly experienced an increase in fullness and a decrease in calorie intake after their protein intake was raised by 15% of their current diet.

For the first part of the study, participants were required to eat their entire provided meals. Their protein intake was set at 30% of total calories. All participants maintained their weight during this phase of the study. Next, the study group was presented with the same meals, but they were told to only eat until they were full. And guess what? They ended up naturally eating over 400 calories less per day without being restricted. That’s huge!

By the end of the study, there was a mean weight loss of approximately 10 lbs. And over 8 lbs of this loss was from fat specifically. Again, all from just increasing their protein intake by 15%. And this isn’t the only study of it’s kind. In this study, a higher protein diet led to an increase in fullness during the day. It also reduced late-night cravings as well as helped keep the participants’ minds off of food. And this was despite how many meals the participants ate per day. Another ding against the 6 meal a day myth! So hopefully now it’s clear, that when it comes to weight loss, protein is your friend.

Recommended amount of daily protein for weight loss?

The goal is to eat enough protein to build muscle, prevent muscle loss, and ensure your body has enough left over to perform all the other functions mentioned above. And how much that is varies from person to person. And it really depends on several factors, including your activity level, health goals, and age. However, in general, 90 grams to 120 grams of protein per day will cover most people. Or 30% of your total daily intake.

Here are some reference points:

  • 4 oz chicken breast = 35 grams of protein
  • 4 oz salmon fillet = 23 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of beef bone broth = 10 grams of protein

Now, there’s debate about how much protein your body can absorb and utilize at once. However, this really only applies to body building. Studies have found that the muscle boosting effects of consuming protein after a workout maxes out at about 30 grams. This means a protein shake with 50 grams isn’t doing anything more for your muscles than a 30 gram shake. But, whatever isn’t used for building muscle can be used for all the other functions discussed earlier. Excess can also be converted into glucose and used to make energy in a process known as gluconeogenesis.

However, on the flip side, if your body doesn’t quickly burn the glucose created, it can then be converted into fat. Because, unfortunately, it doesn’t get converted back into protein. Thus, I recommend spacing out your protein in even proportions the best you can. To keep your metabolism running high, to keep your blood sugar balanced, and to keep you full and satisfied.

How does protein help your health?

How protein helps with gut health? 

The health of your gut plays such an important role in how well your body is able to digest and absorb nutrients. When it comes to protein, your body needs an adequate supply of stomach acid as well as several other digestive enzymes and a healthy population of gut bacteria to effectively and efficiently break proteins down into amino acids.

Otherwise, protein remains undigested in the gut. This can cause digestive distress and damage to the lining of your digestive tract. When this happens, large particles of protein can “leak” your bloodstream, which then triggers inflammation. This is one of the reasons why I love bone broth and hydrolyzed collagen so much. They are both great sources of highly digestible and easily absorbable protein. But they’re also a great source of glycine and proline (amino acids) that help repair the lining of your digestive tract. Slowing down to eat and thoroughly chewing your food can also go a long way. Chewing not only breaks the protein down into smaller pieces, but it also acts a signal to get your digestive juices flowing.

How does protein affect aging?

As you age, the ability for your body to process protein naturally declines. In addition, without proper nutrition and movement, your body naturally begins to lose skeletal muscle. This is known as sarcopenia. And it’s one of the leading causes of immobility among seniors. Thus, as you age, your protein needs may increase.

Is there such a thing as too much protein?

Yes, protein is essential. Yes, we need to eat adequate amount of protein. But, we also need room for lots of colorful veggies and healthy fats in our diet. So it’s essential not to crowd out these other important food groups by eating too much protein. While going over occasionally is not harmful, eating too much protein can become a problem for those with poor kidney function.

Or, when you eat WAY too much protein on a regular basis. You see, protein digestion creates nitrogen waste products, which must be filtered out of the blood by your kidneys. Thus, when you eat a lot more protein than your body needs, it can put unhealthy levels of stress on your kidneys. In addition, your body requires water to digest protein. Which means eating too much protein without increasing your intake of fluids could lead to dehydration. And with dehydration comes a whole host of other problems.

Protein quality matters for weight loss.

Eating meat from unhealthy, factory-farmed animals is not doing your body any good. These meats are inflammatory and could possibly contain growth hormones, antibiotics, and other harmful additives. Thus, it’s important to eat meat from healthy, pasture-raised animals. Meaning animals free to roam outdoors with lots of space and fed a natural diet free from pesticides. This is true for fish as well. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck with wild cold-water fish, such as Alaskan salmon.

In Conclusion, how does protein help weight loss?

I’ve covered quite a bit of information this is article. So let me summarize the key points:

  • Protein is an essential macronutrient that we must obtain from food.
  • Eating adequate amounts is important to maintain good health as well as lose weight.
  • How much protein your body needs depends on several factors, including your activity level, health goals, and age.
  • The best sources of protein come from healthy, pasture-raised animals and wild fish.

So please be sure to include high quality sources of protein in your diet. But there’s no need to overdo it. Three to four ounces of chicken, steak, or fish is typically all you need at any given time. And your meals should most often include a combination of protein, fruits and veggies, and healthy fats for optimal health and a slim waistline.

Keep Thinking Big and Living Bold!

Dr. Kellyann