Originally published 22 July 2016. Last updated 21 August 2020.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 455 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
I should begin by saying that I have had to change my views on this topic. In school, we dietitians are taught that most healthy people need a certain amount of protein each day. The recommendations generally go something like this:
For otherwise healthy, sedentary (not active) adults, 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day is recommended. For healthy, active adults (especially those that train with weights), 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram body weight is recommended.
Let’s try and make sense of this. Basically, a 150 lb. adult who is not very active should eat about 55-70 grams of protein per day. A 150 lb. weight-lifting adult would need about 115 grams of protein per day. These numbers stand regardless of whether you are male or female.
However, as I started applying this concept to my clients, I realized that these formulas may be a little outdated. I started examining recent literature regarding protein intakes and overall health, muscle growth, athletic performance, etc. You know, things that will help you really look and feel like a superhero. Here’s what I discovered…
It seems as though for most healthy adults, consuming more protein in your diet does not appear to be harmful. Rather, it may be quite beneficial.
Does This Mean I Have to Follow a Low-Carb Diet?
Now, I want to be very careful here. Sometimes, when I discuss increasing protein consumption, people assume I am talking about the Atkins, Paleo, or other high protein diet. Notice, I did not say that you must follow a “low-carb diet,” like Atkins or Paleo. Low-carbohydrate, high protein diets tend to be difficult to follow in the long term. But, for some of you, increasing lean proteins in your diets may provide some benefits. For example, increasing dietary protein may help you feel full longer which may help you control how many calories you eat each day, may reduce the risk of diabetes, may improve muscle growth and athletic performance, and may prevent osteoporosis.
If you’re otherwise healthy (free of kidney problems especially) and even if you’re not very active, I would recommend that you consider consuming more lean proteins each day. This may not be that difficult to do. It may mean having a little more chicken on your salad at lunch and a larger portion of fish at dinner.
Instead of having a calorie-heavy smoothie or energy drink when you feel tired (energy drinks have their own issues—I’ll discuss in a later blog), have a protein-rich snack in the afternoon. You will likely feel a boost of energy… that’s because protein-rich foods help you feel more energetic. Especially when consumed by themselves, carbs tend to make you feel sleepy. These adjustments will likely not require a drastic change to your lifestyle, but a little increase in lean protein may go a long way.
What types of lean proteins should you eat? What about protein supplements and meal replacement shakes? There is enough material here to create a separate post… hmm… I think I may have to do that.
How Much Protein Should You Eat to Lose Fat?
Fat loss is a tricky thing. There are so many mechanisms involved. This is probably why we still don’t have the magic ingredient, recipe, or workout that guarantees fat loss.
For now, we're going to take a look at protein levels as it correlates with losing fat.
Daily Protein Requirements
Chances are, you’re probably already consuming enough protein. How could I possibly know this? This is because there have been a lot of data collected on how much and what types of food populations around the world consume regularly. What we’ve learned is that most consume plenty of protein each day. But how much protein do we need to support fat loss? Is there a magic number?
Let’s say that you are relatively active and incorporate resistance training into your routine. The American College of Sports Medicine says that in this case you need to consume 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight. It’s frustrating for those of us in the U.S. because their recommendations don’t use ounces of protein and pounds of body weight. But luckily the math isn’t too hard. We’ll figure this out together… stay with me here.
Let’s say you weigh 125 lbs. To use the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations, we need to convert your weight into kg. Luckily, the math is simple: take 125 lbs. and divide that by 2.2. Even if you don’t weigh 125 lbs., you would still divide your body weight by 2.2.
125/2.2 = 56.82 kg. Now, what?
Now that we know this, we can figure out how much protein you need to consume each day.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 455 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
How Much Protein Do I Need to Consume Daily?
Like I mentioned before, the American College of Sports Medicine says if you’re performing a good amount of resistance training, you need somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight. We know your hypothetical body weight in kg–we just figured that out to be 56.82. So we take 56.82 and multiply it by the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations.
We’ll start by multiplying 56.82 (remember, that’s your body weight in kg) by 1.2 grams protein. Plug that into your calculator and you’d get about 68 grams of protein.
That means, at a minimum, you need to consume about 68 grams of protein each day to continue to build strength and muscle. Let’s find out how much you need to consume at a maximum, according to these recommendations.
We’ll again take your body weight in kg, 56.82 and multiply that by 1.7 (remember, the recommendations said 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein should be consumed each day, so we’re using the higher number here).
56.82 x 1.7 = 97 grams of protein.
If you (or, really, anyone else that weights 125 lbs.) wants to get enough protein to support muscle growth, you need to consume anywhere between 68 and 97 grams of protein per day.
For those of us in the states, we still don’t quite know how to make sense of grams, so bear with us. 68 and 97 grams of protein is about 1/3 to ½ cup of cooked chicken for example. Someone that weighs 125 lbs. needs to eat about ½ cup of cooked chicken each day to ensure they’re getting enough protein to build strength and muscle. Not much, I know. Plus, this doesn’t include any protein they’re getting from other sources: eggs, meat, dairy, beans, soy, breads, etc. So, sadly, I’m not really psychic. I just know that most people get way more protein than that each day.
Protein and Fat Loss
How does this relate to fat loss? Some studies have found that if you consume more protein, more than what’s often recommended, you may be more likely to lose body fat. This may happen because protein helps us feel full, which can prevent us from eating too much and too often. Consuming fewer calories consistently will definitely lead to weight loss and possibly fat loss. But here’s the trouble: just like carbs can get converted by the body to fat, so can protein. If we eat too much protein, our bodies may convert it to body fat. So increasing protein intakes may not help with fat loss.
What about eating 5-6 times a day? This is not necessary. Again, the theory is that by eating more often, you will actually end up eating less in the long run. This is because you won’t ever feel starving and have those binge-eating moments. But the problem is that you may never really feel satisfied, either.
And what if you’re not really hungry but it’s time to eat? If you force yourself to eat when you’re not really hungry, you could be hurting your progress. Plus, if this behavior continues, you could end up developing a new bad habit: eating when you’re not really hungry!
The Bottom Line
First, getting enough protein is important for a number of reasons… not just fat loss. But you’re probably consuming enough protein each day as it is. Consuming more may not lead to fat loss, but fat gain. If you want to support fat loss, consider focusing instead on watching calories, incorporating regular exercise (particularly resistance training), and maybe some high intensity interval training. Then do these things consistently.
In time, the fat will come off. You may notice that it starts coming off from the weirdest places, like your wrist. The watch you wear may start to feel loose, but that’s ok. That means it’s working. Eventually, the body will turn to losing fat around other areas, like the belly, hips, legs, and arms.
Where your body first chooses to give up its fat stores is based on genetics. So if it doesn’t come off of your hips as quickly as you’d like, you can blame your parents for that one!
Are Protein Bars and Energy Bars Good For You?
Since we're on the topic of proteins, here's another Q&A I did on protein and energy bars.
At this time, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have any rules on what constitutes a “protein bar.” This means that the food could have 1 gram of protein or 20 and companies can still market it as a protein bar. You may also hear these products called “energy bars.”
These products are definitely trending. For many, these protein or energy bars are really convenient. Television commercials show novice hikers on a trail in the wilderness stopping for a break and chomping on one of these protein bars for a quick snack before tackling the next leg of their trip. I still remember days when these bars would be marketed mostly to hikers and athletes. But because they are so darn convenient and many of them quite tasty, food companies realized there’s a much bigger market out there.
In fact, I happened to be cruising along the cereal aisle at my local grocery store the other day and was amazed at how many varieties of protein bars there are. That day in particular, I had to make a few stops: I needed to go to Trader Joe’s because I like some of their produce better than many of the larger supermarkets (Trader Joe’s, for those of you that may not be familiar, calls itself a neighborhood grocery store, but has chains all over the U.S. It’s basically a supermarket but on a smaller scale and they manufacturer many of their own prepackaged foods). Then, I needed to go to Costco, which is one of those large membership-only warehouse club stores. I like to go to Costco to buy those large tubs of mixed nuts since that’s my daily afternoon snack.
Anyhoo, during my shopping spree, I couldn’t help but notice all of the varieties of protein and energy bars available. At the supermarket, these bars took up nearly half of the cereal aisle–and those shelves were packed from top to bottom! Trader Joe’s had their own selection, albeit not nearly as many. Then Costco had even more options, and because it’s Costco, you could buy like a box of a thousand protein bars for one low price! No wonder there’s so much confusion over these things! But, I digress…
The bottom line with regards to whether these bars are actually nutritious is this: some are and some aren’t. Some products are a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. Others, from a nutritional standpoint, more closely resemble a Three Musketeers bar.
What to Look For Before Purchasing Energy or Protein Bars:
- Fiber content – aim for at least 3 grams of dietary fiber per serving
- Protein – the bar should contain 10 to 20 grams of protein per serving
- Ingredients – look at the first 5 ingredients on the ingredients list. Remember, ingredients are listed by weight. The first ingredient listed is what that food is made mostly of by weight. By looking at the first 5 ingredients, it will give you a pretty good picture of what that product is made mostly of. I like this trick because you won’t even need to try and do the math when it comes to figuring out whether there’s a lot of added sugar, for example. The first few ingredients should ideally be real foods like nuts and fruit. If the first 5 ingredients contain the words, “sugar,” “syrup,” or “chocolate,” you may want to keep shopping. If the product has more than 5 ingredients, just know it probably contains some food additives or manufactured preservatives.
- Calories – aim for a bar that contains between 100 and 200 calories per serving. For athletes, or those hikers I mentioned before, going up to 500 calories is acceptable if the bar is meant as a meal replacement. If it’s supposed to be snack, then 100 to 200 calories is best.
In general, if you can pack your own snack, like an apple and string cheese, or a banana and peanut or almond butter, you will likely be better off. But if you’re in a hurry and need something quick, I don’t mind when folks use some of these protein or energy bars as a quick snack. I just prefer they don’t make it a habit.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 315 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.