If you follow the latest in health and nutrition, you’ve likely heard some conflicting opinions over the years about what you should and shouldn’t eat.
One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on, however, is the need for protein. Protein is vital in the development of muscles, bones, hair, teeth, and pretty much all parts of your body.
Beyond its role as one of our most essential nutrients, there are plenty more reasons to get more protein in the diet. If you have specific health or weight loss goals, or if you just want to stay healthy as you get older, eating more protein is a tried and true way to help you reach your goals.
If you fall into any of the following categories, there is some pretty compelling evidence you could benefit from more protein in your diet.
1. You’re on a weight-loss diet.
When it comes to losing weight, no food group will help you more than protein. According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a higher-protein diet that consists of 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is not only linked to greater fat loss, but better maintenance as well.
Protein increases satiety, or the feeling of being full, better than any other macronutrient. Several studies have shown that those who eat a high-protein meal (with 20-30 percent of calories coming from protein) experience greater feelings of satiety throughout the day than those who eat a meal consisting of 10-15 percent of calories from protein. And, according to this study, this effect occurs whether you’re eating or drinking your protein.
With a higher protein diet, the weight you lose is also more likely to be fat than muscle, helping you preserve lean body mass. In this study of 39 adults, the subjects were divided into three groups—one group consumed the recommended daily amount of protein (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight), while the other groups ate 1.2 and 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 2 and 3 times the recommended daily allowance (RDA) . While the amount of weight loss in each group was similar, volunteers who ate 2 and 3 times the amount of protein experienced greater fat loss than those who ate the RDA.
Protein also has a greater thermic effect than other types of food. During dietary thermogenesis, the body increases the amount of energy it uses to digest the food you eat, raising the metabolism. Protein burns up to five times as many calories as carbohydrates or fat.
2. You want to build muscle mass.
Protein is the building block of muscle, so increasing your protein intake will help you build muscle. Keep in mind, however, that it’s not the protein itself that causes muscles to grow—muscle mass increases while at rest after resistance training. (So upping your protein intake won’t turn you into Popeye overnight.) However, when combined with weight training, dietary protein plays a significant role in building muscle mass.
Protein contains amino acids. Simply put, these are the building blocks of muscle. When it comes to growing muscle, leucine is king—it has about 10 times the impact on muscle growth than any other amino acid.
Because of this, it’s important to take leucine content into account as well. People who want to build muscle often turn to meat and dairy-based protein powders and shakes to help them increase their gains, but plant proteins should be incorporated into a muscle-building nutrition plan as well. In this study, researchers found no significant difference between animal and plant protein with leucine with regards to its ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (which is when your muscles actually grow).
The time of day you consume protein has also been shown to affect muscle growth. In this study, participants consumed protein shakes before bed and after lifting weights. The study showed that the protein stimulated protein synthesis and sustained it throughout the night. When amino acids are consumed after a workout, it maximizes muscle protein synthesis and results in greater muscle growth than when no amino acids are available.
3. You are an older adult.
Eating more protein is even more important as we get older. Adults lose 3-8 percent of muscle mass on average each decade after the age of 30—that’s a loss of nearly 25 percent by the time you reach 60!
Muscle loss associated with aging is known as sarcopenia, and it affects between 35 and 45 percent of the population in the U.S. over the age of 65. Sarcopenia is a serious concern for the aging population, accounting for a 3-4 time greater likelihood of developing disabilities with age.
There are multiple reasons it occurs, including decreased physical activity, a slower metabolism, and hormonal changes over time. Another cause of sarcopenia is decreased protein intake over time. Oftentimes, older adults tend to eat smaller quantities of food and less variety, and lower protein intake naturally occurs.
Fortunately, you can lower the risk of sarcopenia by eating more protein. According to one study, a daily protein intake of at least 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight can help preserve healthy muscles with age; in another study, increasing intake to up to 2 grams per kilogram helped offset muscle loss in those who were chronically ill.
Are you getting enough protein?
So you’re convinced you need to eat more protein. Great! The amount of protein you need each day will vary with your weight, activity level, and overall goals.
The recommended daily amount is .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. However, this may be insufficient. If you’re trying to build muscle, for example, research has shown that consuming between 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight will maximize muscle growth. And as mentioned above, to prevent muscle loss with age, increasing intake to 1.2 grams can help preserve healthy muscles.
Are you eating the right protein?
It’s important to remember that increasing your protein intake doesn’t mean you a free pass to start eating cheeseburgers and steaks every day. In fact, it’s best to limit red meat in general as a protein source; the saturated fat content in red meat has been shown in many studies to increase heart disease and other serious health concerns.
Your best bet is to consume a wide variety of both lean animal proteins and plant-based protein. Fish, turkey, and lean cuts of chicken are good animal-based options that are low in saturated fat and high in protein.
Plant-based sources include beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. While these are healthy choices, they contain moderate amounts of protein together with some carbs and fat. If your goal is to consume more protein, plant protein powders are a richer source of lean protein with very few carbs and an excellent and convenient substitute.
Just about everyone can benefit from increasing their protein intake—it will make you leaner, stronger, and healthier as you age, and there is plenty of scientific research to back it up.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian