By Natalie Stein, BS Food Science, BS Nutritional Sciences, MS Human Nutrition, MPH Public Health
It seems as though protein is all the rage these days for weight loss and health. The trend follows from the knowledge that protein can decrease hunger, improve your blood sugar levels, and support lean muscle mass.
If everyone knows that protein is good, why isn’t everyone losing weight already? One reason may be that they do not know how to use protein to their advantage. Here are 5 ways you can capture the power of protein to improve weight loss and health:
1. Go lean. Some protein foods are high in calories because of their excess fat, so it is easy to overeat and gain weight from them. Also, the saturated fat in fatty meats such as bacon, ground beef, ribs, bologna, and fatty steaks, can interfere with your blood sugar control. Instead, choose lean proteins when you can. Most lean proteins are low in fat. Exceptions include nuts and peanuts, which are considered “lean” because their fat is healthy and research shows that people who eat them tend to have lower body weights. These are examples of lean proteins.
Fish, including fatty fish such as salmon, and shellfish.
Skinless chicken and turkey, and lean ground chicken and turkey.
Eggs and egg whites.
Beans, peas, lentils, and soy products, including tofu.
Peanuts, nuts, seeds, and peanut and nut butter.
Low-fat cheese and yogurt.
2. Remember moderation. If protein is good, more protein must be better, right? Not so fast. While your body can absorb all the protein you eat, your body can only use about 30 grams of protein at once for protein-specific purposes, such as building muscles. Any protein above that amount goes to energy production. Protein has 4 calories per gram, which is the same as carbohydrates. As with carbohydrates, getting too many calories from protein eventually leads to fat storage and weight gain. You can get 30 grams of protein in a small chicken sandwich. For reference, here are the protein contents of common foods.
Fish, poultry, and lean meat: 20-25 grams per 3-ounce serving.
Eggs: 7 grams per large egg.
Low-fat cheese: 5-7 grams per ounce.
Beans: 14 grams per cup.
Peanut butter: 7 grams per 2-tablespoon serving.
3. Eat plants. All plants are cholesterol-free, and most are low in unhealthy saturated fats. In addition, many plant-based protein sources are high in important nutrients such as fiber, which helps keep you full, and potassium, which helps lower blood pressure. Swapping plant-based proteins for meat a few times a week can help improve blood sugar levels, too. It is possible to hit the daily value of 50 grams of protein from an all-plant diet. Here is a sample menu that will get you there.
Breakfast (13 grams protein)
1 cup of oatmeal made with soy milk (10 grams)
2 tablespoons of chopped walnuts (2 grams)
1 sliced banana (1 gram)
Lunch (22 grams protein)
1 cup of vegetable lentil soup (8 grams)
PB sandwich with 2 slices of whole-grain bread, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, and ½ cup of berries (13 grams)
1 cup baby carrots (1 gram)
Dinner (18 grams protein)
1 medium whole-grain tortilla wrapped around 1/2 cup fat-free refried beans, ½ cup brown rice, and ¼ cup avocado slices (14 grams)
Side salad with lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and vinaigrette (4 grams)
4. Demand double duty. Why settle for just protein when you could also get one or more additional nutrients? Some protein sources are practically superfoods because of the other nutrients they provide. It makes sense to consider the entire nutrient package when choosing your protein. Here are some protein foods that can do double or triple duty for you.
Cheese and yogurt have bone-building calcium.
Salmon, tuna, and other fatty fish have heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Beans, lentils, and split peas have filling fiber, which also helps stabilize blood sugar.
Nuts and peanuts have heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and blood pressure-lowering potassium.
Put protein in its place.
Which protein sources you choose are important, but they will do you even more good if the sources of carbohydrates and fats that you choose are healthy, too. For example, an egg with bacon on a biscuit is laden with refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fat compared to an egg with low-fat cheese on a whole-grain mini-bagel. The same is true of a chicken burger with fries compared to chicken with a baked sweet potato and broccoli.
Protein has the power to improve health and increase weight loss, but it can take a while before you get into the habit of harnessing protein’s full potential. Your Lark personal health coach can give you the reminders and tricks that you need for using protein as best you can as you log meals and chat with Lark.