My athletes and clients have all heard me tell them how important protein is. It’s important for my athletes who are trying to perform at their best and it’s important for my fat loss clients who want to get a beach ready body.
There’s a massive amount of carbohydrate and sugar-rich processed garbage passing for food on store shelves, fast food joints, convenience stores and even from most of those “weight loss plans.” Real food is getting harder to spot and real protein foods can get lost in a lot of noise.
I coach my clients and athletes to eat real food, increase their protein intake and not to fear dietary fat. But for some reason, protein is often the one macronutrient they struggle to get enough of.
In the follow-up to this piece, I’ll share a couple of simple ways to boost protein intake without feeling like you’ve added a cow to your daily calorie intake. I’ll also share my absolute favorite protein powder, both here and in that piece. Having some of this awesome stuff around will make getting more protein in your diet a heck of a lot easier.
But first, let me lay out for you the “Baker’s Dozen” real life, real science-based reasons to get more protein in your diet. Here we go!
1. It helps you gain muscle – Increasing your muscle mass has so many benefits that it could be the subject of a completely separate piece. More muscle means more strength and power. More muscle means (in most cases) being more athletic and moving better. More muscle means better fat burning and metabolism. More muscle means looking better naked or in a bathing suit or, well, pretty much dressed or naked, period.
The building block of muscle is protein. More specifically, the building blocks are amino acids, which make up protein. While there are over 500 types of amino acids in nature, there are 22 that are typically found in the human body. 20 of these make up the human genetic code. So we could actually add a 14th reason to eat more protein – your DNA needs it!
13 of the 22 recognized amino acids are known as essential amino acids. This means your body can’t produce them and they must be acquired from your food. I’m not going to list them all here, since I’ll be doing a piece specifically about aminos in the next few weeks, but some of the more well known amino acids include glutamine (key for recovery,) arginine (important for energy production) and tryptophan (important at nap time – just kidding – actually key for production of hormones and neurotransmitters!)
We know from research studies and years of high quality bro science that eating ample amounts of protein helps increase muscle mass. (1,2) The takeaway? If you’re trying to gain muscle, you’re going to need adequate protein intake. For most people, that means eating more of it!
2. It helps you lose fat – Did you know that your metabolism gets a kick when you eat. It’s true! The increase in metabolic rate only lasts a little while, but it does happen.
The process by which this happens is called the thermic effect of food, or TEF for short. It happens because your body needs to burn calories to process your food in digestion and then extract the nutrients and use them where needed.
But some foods give you a bigger thermic boost than others. It turns out that protein has a much higher thermic effect than any other macronutrient. Okay, it only beat out fat and carbs, but hey, it won!
Protein gives you a 20 – 35% thermic boost, compared to 5 – 15% for carbs or fats. (3) If you eat high levels of protein throughout your day, you can seriously boost your metabolism and jack up the number of calories you burn. In fact, you may burn 80 to 100 calories more each day just by eating enough protein! (4, 5, 6)
Not enough extra calories for you? How about the study where the high-protein group burned 260 more calories every day than a low-protein group? That’s about the number of calories you’d burn on a 30 minute jog! (7)
3. It makes you stronger – We already talked about how protein helps you gain muscle. What we didn’t talk about is how it helps you recover from your workouts and makes you stronger. You see, if you put in a hard workout to get those gains, you can’t go and do it again without having recovered from your previous epic workout.
Protein helps repair muscle tissue that has broken down during training. That’s how muscles get bigger and stronger. When you train, you create micro-tears in the muscle fibers. When these heal, the muscles get bigger. Adequate protein intake means the repair rate of muscle fibers will outstrip the breakdown rate from hard training.
Interestingly, getting enough protein also triggers improved muscle adaptation by stimulating new protein generation in the muscles and getting the brain and body to prioritize uptake of proteins (amino acids, really) into muscles. This speeds the repair process and lets you get more frequent and more intense training sessions in.
Hence, increased protein intake can make you stronger. That is, as long as you’re putting in the work while you pour on the protein!
4. It’s good for your bones – You may have heard one of those TV doctors (you know, the ones selling you Amazonian berries and bat guano as weight loss miracles) say that too much protein is bad for your bones. Some nonsense about increased acid load in the body and calcium leaching from your bones to neutralize the acid. Yada, yada, yada.
Like their Amazonian weight loss cures, it’s a load of crap. The vegans play this card, too. “Animal protein is bad for your bones, blah, blah.” Shut up, hippie! Okay, that was harsh and unnecessary. I have vegan friends and they’re very nice. But they do say crap like that.
The whole acid load/calcium leaching theory has been turned on it’s head by, you guessed it – science! Most long term studies tell us that protein (yes, animal protein, too!) has huge benefits for bone health. (8, 9, 10)
Higher protein intake helps women, especially post-menopausal women, maintain bone mass and avoid osteoporosis as they age. Folks who keep their protein intake higher as they age have a lower risk of osteoporosis and fractures, regardless of gender. (11, 12)
Conveniently, many of the most available sources of protein are also good sources of other nutrients that support bone health like calcium, vitamins D, B12 and K and minerals like magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. Nice, huh?
5. It makes you smarter – Recent studies have shown that higher levels of protein intake improve brain function. We’re going to discuss the relationship between protein and your hormones and neurotransmitters in a minute, but right now, we’re talking brain function. Yes, I know it’s all connected, just like the brain.
Anyway, eating more protein helps improve brain functions like memory and recall. This makes sense, since a steady flow of certain amino acids is needed for brain function. There are also studies linking higher protein intake to improved motor skills. This also makes sense, since we know that babies deprived of adequate protein often have motor skill developmental delays.
6. It keeps your hormones in line – Amino acids are involved in the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. Earlier I mentioned tryptophan. Tryptophan is thought of as something that puts is to sleep. I wrote and podcasted about it not too long ago.
But the truth is that tryptophan is crucial to the production of serotonin, the “happiness hormone.” In fact, serotonin is synthesized in the brain and gut from tryptophan. So no protein, no serotonin and that, my friends, is not good.
But protein is also involved with the regulation of several weight regulating hormones. It does this by acting on an area of the hypothalamus in your brain. With increased protein, you’ll increase the levels of several satiety-inducing hormones, particularly peptide YY, cholecystokinin (I’m stoked, aren’t you?) and GLP-1. These hormones promote a feeling of fullness and satiety, so you are less likely to overeat.
We’re not done with hormones and their relation to protein yet, however. There’s more fun interactions yet to come!
7. It helps with stress – Chronic stress can cause an actual breakdown of body tissues. The human body is designed to handle a certain amount of wear and tear, called an allostatic load. Under normal stress conditions, the body can repair and replace tissue at a rate close to or equal to the rate of breakdown. High or chronic stress levels can ramp up the breakdown of cells, increasing the allostatic load on your body. Not good.
High stress levels can also lead to blood sugar imbalances like hypoglycemia. There’s good news, though! Protein helps stabilize blood sugar. Increasing your protein intake, particularly in the morning, can help. It tends to boost energy levels, reduce the frequency and severity of mood swings, reduce agitation and jitteriness and make you feel better.
Eating protein sources that include collagen can also help mitigate the allostatic effects of stress. Collagen is important for cell repair and maintenance. Protein sources containing collagen include gelatin (that’s gelatin, not Jell-o,) eggs, salmon, cod and bone broth as well as some seeds like chia seeds and pumpkin seeds. While seeds aren’t significant protein sources, they do contain some and that collagen can be helpful if you’re under stress.
8. It helps you lose weight – For most people, this is the Holy Grail. If something will help them lose weight, they’re in! Well, protein is one of those Holy Grails, then.
We’ve already covered the metabolism-boosting aspect of eating more protein. But protein also aids in weight loss other ways. For example, a 2007 study found that women on the Atkins diet, which is actually a low carb, high protein diet, not the high fat diet it is often criticized for being, lost more weight over the course of a year than dieters on either a balanced or low fat diet.
Want to make sure the weight you lose is fat, not muscle? You got it, eat more protein! In a 2013 study, women who ate double the RDA of protein lost 70% of their weight loss as fat, compared to 41.8% of weight lost as fat. That means “normal” dieters lost nearly 59% of their weight loss as fat-free mass (read muscle or water.) Not what we’re really going for during a diet, I don’t think. (13)
The body of evidence showing that high protein diets are good choices for fat loss and weight loss is becoming a little gaudy. Study after study seem to back up the idea that to lose more weight and more fat, eat more protein. (14, 15)
Here’s an example of what I mean. In one study, a group of overweight people were placed in an environment where their intake of food could be precisely controlled. Researchers than doubled their protein intake as a percentage of calories, from 15% to 30%. What happened, you ask? Over a 12 week span, they consumed about 440 calories less per day. They also lost an average of 11 pounds during this time, without ever counting calories or purposely eating less. (16) Pretty remarkable, don’t you think?
With higher protein intake, you get a metabolic boost. This has the effect of reducing caloric intake and stifling cravings (which we’ll discuss shortly.) As a result, weight loss and fat loss on high protein diets is almost instantaneous in many cases. (17, 18)
There’s also evidence that higher protein intake helps those on restricted calorie diets, too. (19) Most folks have a very difficult time staying on restricted calorie diets, so if higher protein can provide the restriction for you, why not let it?
Also interesting is protein’s role in helping you maintain your weight loss. This is often the most challenging aspect of weight loss for the average person. Increasing intake or maintaining a higher level of dietary protein can help keep those pounds off.
In one study, a mere 3% increase in protein intake, from 15% to 18% of total calories cut the amount of rebound weight gain in the test group by 50%! (20)
So increase your dietary protein intake if you want to make weight loss easier and have a better chance of keeping it off!
9. It helps suppress your appetite and beat cravings – Protein is the most filling of the three macronutrients. It takes less protein to make you feel full than either fat or carbs. (21)
Why? Remember when we covered hormones a little while back? It’s largely about them.
Protein boosts peptide YY levels, as noted previously. This helps you feel full. Protein also reduces how much ghrelin is released by your body. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells your brain that you’re hungry. So less ghrelin, less hunger. (22, 23)
But what about cravings? Well, those are really about your brain and what it needs. Your belly can be full and you can still get cravings. Increasing protein intake can help you beat those cravings, especially late at night.
You see, some of the same mechanisms that drive addiction drive your cravings. Scientists think it has a lot to do with the function of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in the action of the reward center of the brain. It’s a pretty primitive part of the brain that just wants what it wants when it wants it. (24)
One study of overweight adolescent girls linked eating a high protein breakfast with reduced night-time cravings and snacking. Another study of overweight men showed a connection between increasing protein to 25% of total calories and a reduction of cravings by 60%. Night-time cravings were reduced by half. (25)
In order to avoid falling prey to your cravings, it’s best to prevent them in the first place. Protein seems to be that preventative.
10. It boosts your immune system – Your immune system depends on the presence and vitality of antibodies to fight off infection. Those antibodies are made of protein. Therefore, a lack or insufficiency of protein in your diet puts you at risk of having wimpy antibodies or not enough of them.
Most protein sources also contain nutrients like magnesium and zinc. These nutrients are critical to your immune system, too.
11. It helps repair injuries – Let’s face it. No matter how smart you train or how prepared you are for sport or life, injuries happen. We all get boo-boos now and again. Protein is important for the healing and recovery process. As mentioned earlier, it’s the building block of muscles, hormones and other body organs and tissue.
That’s why increasing protein intake after injury can speed the healing process. (26, 27) Maintaining an adequate protein intake may be the key to avoiding minor, nagging injuries, too.
12. It lowers blood pressure – High blood pressure is like an epidemic in a large swath of the population, especially in America. It’s a major factor in heart attacks, strokes and chronic kidney disease.
But even for people who don’t, or can’t exercise, protein offers some hope for lowering blood pressure. One study found that participants who ate the highest amount of protein had a 40% lower risk of having high blood pressure when compared to the lowest intake group. The high intake group ate an average of 100 grams of protein a day, which is not extremely high, all things considered. (28)
Dairy products contain natural ACE inhibitors like casokinins and lactokinins. ACE inhibitors exert an anti-hypertensive effect, lowering blood pressure. Most ACE inhibitors are prescribed pharmaceuticals, and the actual impact and effect of these natural versions is not fully understood yet, but it’s believed they work in similar fashion to the drug versions.
Animal proteins also contain arginine. Arginine dilates blood vessels, helping keep blood pressure under control. Eggs have a significant amount of arginine.
Increased protein intake was shown to reduce systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 1.76 mm Hg on average and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 1.15 mm Hg. This was in a review of 40 controlled trials, so the body of evidence was significant. (29)
If that’s not enough for you, another study showed that a high-protein diet also drove down LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. Bonus! (30)
13. It helps keep you young – Okay, it doesn’t literally keep you young. Protein will, however, help you mitigate some of the less-than-fun things that can happen as you age.
For example, there’s sarcopenia. While it’s not technically a dirty word, maybe it should be. Muscles tend to weaken gradually as you age. Sarcopenia is a more extreme or severe version of this weakening. Sarcopenia can lead to weakened bones, fractures and a marked reduction in your quality of life as you get older. (31, 32)
Lifting weights and performing strength training can help stave off some of this weakening. (33) So can eating more protein. In fact, increasing protein intake has been shown to help prevent age-related muscle breakdown and prevent sarcopenia. (34) Add to this the reality that added protein can give your immune system a boost (as mentioned earlier) and you’ve got a really solid reason to get more protein as you get older.
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So how much protein should you eat? What are the best protein sources? Isn’t a high protein diet bad for your kidneys? Is plant-based protein better or worse for you? When should I eat protein? Before a workout? After a workout?
These are all great questions. Some I’ve already covered in “A Simplified Guide to Protein Intake for Athletes and Fat Loss.” You can find it in article form on my website and in podcast form on the Four Pillar Fitness podcast. (Click here for the podcast link.)
Or…you could hang in there and come back in a couple days for the follow up to this piece! I’ll answer all those questions and maybe even give you the location of Hillary’s missing emails and President Trump’s tax returns. Ok, not those last things. I just wanted to be sure you were listening.
I look forward to delivering some more answers in a few days!
Keep the faith and keep after it!