Beginner’s Guide to a High Protein Diet
As the New Year approaches, many of us are starting to think about making resolutions for 2022. Chances are, fitness improvement is on your list. At the heart of weight loss is your nutrition plan. The word diet conjures up restrictive eating, ’90s-era shakes, and boiled chicken breast. Dieting doesn’t sound like fun, but having a plan in place to meet your nutritional needs makes it much more palatable. But why the high protein diet? Well, put the word “high” in brackets for a minute and assume that most of us are consuming less protein than would benefit our overall health.
The ideal amount of protein is around 56 grams per day according to Healthline. If you’re curious about how much protein you eat on average per day, try a fitness tracker app. Follow your diet for a few days and see where you land. You might be surprised if you don’t even hit the 56g mark. Even if so, there are benefits to eating a high protein diet. We’ll cover them below, explain how to switch to a high protein diet, and address some of the concerns surrounding a high protein diet. We’ll also cover what to eat so your high protein diet isn’t 6 ounces of grilled chicken breast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Another thing to note: protein is a macronutrient. The other two are carbohydrates and fats. Our daily diet is made up of a mixture of these three macronutrients. While it can be easy to focus on macros, it can be short-sighted. For example, you might want to eat a diet high in protein and fat. Keto and Atkins are two examples. It can be taken to the wrong extreme. Eating a pound of bacon for breakfast is, indeed, a high fat meal that contains protein. But it’s unhealthy for your heart, your cholesterol, and just cutting out a macronutrient doesn’t magically equate to weight loss. So, throughout this guide, while focusing on incorporating more protein into your diet, it won’t come at the expense of overall health.
It is important that you do your own research, listen to your body, and see your doctor. This guide is intended for general health, and not for people with GERD, celiac disease, gastroenteritis or other medical conditions, the solutions of which are beyond the scope of this guide.
Benefits of a high protein diet
There are a ton of protein benefits. Among them are:
- Protein helps repair damage to your muscles during training
- Protein helps brain development, hormones, and other bodily functions
- Protein is filling, which means you’ll feel more satisfied while consuming less.
This last point is especially important if weight loss is your goal. Limiting calories can be difficult. You might not have as much energy, you can train as hard, and if you really limit calories you can have less focus and attention. Because it is satisfying to eat protein, you will feel less of the effect of calorie restriction while consuming higher amounts of protein.
If you are trying to lose weight, you will have to function with an energy deficit. This means that the number of calories you burn (by sitting and exercising) must be more than the number of calories you eat. When you are working out in a calorie deficit, your body begins to burn its existing stores (of fat and muscle) for fuel. By doing weight training and eating a decent amount of protein, you are signaling your body to keep that muscle you have worked so hard for. Instead, it will use the existing fat for energy, resulting in the weight loss that you are hoping for.
How To Increase Protein In Your Diet
Slowly increase the amount of protein you eat. Don’t go from 56g to 156g overnight. Everyone’s body is different, but in general, protein can be difficult for the body to digest. Instead, slowly increase your protein intake over a week or two, allowing your body to adjust to the higher levels of protein. As a rule of thumb, focus on whole foods first. Whole foods high in protein include:
- Me at:
- Lean red meat
- Eggs: Not only are eggs rich in protein, but the body absorbs protein from eggs very well.
- cottage cheese
- Nuts: Although higher in fat, nuts also contain a good amount of protein.
- Legumes and beans: Black, red, kidney, chickpea, name it, it has protein
When to avoid protein shakes
If you are trying to lose weight and therefore suffer from the calorie deficit mentioned above, you may want to avoid protein shakes. It is generally easier to drink calories than to eat them because fluids are less abundant. If you are limiting calories, the last thing you want is less food! A large salad with lots of greens and grilled chicken or tofu will leave you fuller and longer than a shake.
It all depends on your personal preferences, but try whole foods first and see how you feel. If you’re not trying to lose weight and instead have the opposite problem (you can’t gain weight), then a protein shake can be a great addition to your nutritional plan. The shakes provide 25-50 grams of protein and are easy to consume compared to 6 oz of chicken or a cup of beans. They also have the advantage of being easy to consume post-workout, especially if you’re training in the middle of the day.
High protein diet vs ketogenic diet
A high protein diet may or may not include carbohydrates. Cutting back or even eliminating carbs will send your body into ketosis, which is a whole different nutritional plan. If you are interested in the ketogenic diet, do some research to fully understand the diet. This high protein diet doesn’t advocate cutting out carbohydrates, but simply increasing protein over what you eat throughout the day.
A little lesson on macronutrients: carbohydrates and proteins each contain 4 calories per gram. Fat has 9 calories per gram. This means that if you are considering a 2000 calorie diet, say 150g (or 600 calories) is from protein, 250g (or 1000 calories) is from carbohydrates, and 50g (450 calories) is from fat. That’s 2,050 calories. Some people’s bodies do better with a high fat content, others with a higher carbohydrate content.
Try this: Set a constant daily protein intake (once you hit it). Then experiment with different levels of carbohydrates and fats. I wouldn’t go below 20g of fat because fat is responsible for testosterone and mood.
One thing to note, if you are trying to lose weight, eating carbohydrates can be more filling than eating fat. One cup of brown rice equals 216 calories, 2 teaspoons of olive oil is 238 calories. What would you like the most? When trying to lose weight and function in a calorie deficit, it’s all about continuing to eat as much food as you can and feeling as full as possible. This helps prevent the hunger pangs (maybe even hunger pangs) associated with weight loss diets.
How much protein to eat and how much is too much
Thus, 56 g was rejected as a baseline. This Healthline article suggests that up to 0.75g per pound maximizes the benefits of protein consumption. More than that and the benefits diminish. So, if you weigh 175 pounds, consume 130g of protein per day. For many of us, that’s a lot, and getting that much protein into our diet can be a challenge. However, in some spheres 0.75 g / lb is still low. Professional bodybuilders, for example, consume between 1g and 1.5g of protein per pound of body weight. Eating too much protein, however, can have negative effects.
Cons of a high protein diet
- As mentioned, protein can be difficult for the body to digest, and processing all of these proteins can leave you lazy. It can also wreak havoc on your digestive tract.
- High protein diets that include a lot of red meat and fatty meat can have negative health effects like high blood pressure, heart disease, and high cholesterol.
- For those with pre-existing kidney problems, a high protein diet can make it worse. Talk to your doctor and get regular physical exams before starting a high protein diet.
High protein diets for vegetarians and vegans
There are many good sources of protein that are not from 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 a vegetarian (sometimes vegan), Venus Williams is vegan, and bodybuilder Barny du Plessis is also vegan.
When to eat protein
Usually, the body can only process a limited amount of protein at a time. For maximum benefit, consume 25 to 30 grams of protein with meals and snacks throughout the day. You can divide 150g of protein into three meals and two snacks each consisting of 30g of protein. It’s important to get protein as part of your first meal of the day. Especially if you are trying to maintain muscle mass.
How exactly you structure your protein intake is up to you and will vary depending on your dietary preferences, whether you work at home or in 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 to be intentional in your meal choices and meal preparation. If you let your diet depend on everything you come across, holiday cookies, office birthday cake, and fries (all low in protein) will make their way into your life. If you really want to get in shape, stay in shape, and hit your macronutrient goals, stock your fridge (and lunchbox) with healthy foods. You will quickly find that you more easily fill your stomach with them too.