Should I Eat More Protein?

By: Leo Desforges

In this article, I will outline many of the pros and cons of a high protein diet.

The FDA recommends 50 grams of protein a day per person over the age of four based on a 2,000 calorie diet.  What this means is that for the average human being, 50 grams a day is the minimum to avoid protein deficiency.  For most Americans, protein deficiency is not a typical health concern.

So why would one want to consume more protein than the FDA recommends?  Why would we want to consume more than the bare minimum?  This article will offer a few reasons why and why not.

Note that for the sake of this article, we use the following to describe a high protein diet: 0.9-1.0 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight.  Using my current goal body weight of 220 pounds as an example, I would aim to consume 195-220 grams of protein per day.  Remember that I am not recommending that the reader adopt this practice, but it should help to give an idea of what a typical high protein diet might look like.

CONS of a high protein diet:

  1. It can cost more:

Protein rich foods tend to be a bit pricier, particularly when we bias towards the lowest fat protein options (often referred to as “lean” protein).  Simple starches and simple fats are comparatively cheap.  Buying food in bulk or on sale can help offset these costs.

  1. Taste preferences:

Not everyone loves the taste of protein-rich foods and as such will have a tough time eating a high protein diet.  Although a high protein diet can be achieved as a vegetarian through consumption of dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetable protein powders, dairy protein powders, and eggs, the addition of animal protein (fish, poultry, and all other meats) will make a high protein intake easier.  A high protein diet is nearly impossible as a vegan.

  1. Convenience/habit change:

Most protein-rich foods are perishable and as such are a bit less convenient.  A piece of fruit is easier to tote around than Greek yogurt, for instance, due to the refrigeration needs of the yogurt.  There are many ways around this problem though, and typically a bit of foresight and habit change will allow for a really convenient high protein diet.

  1. Stomach distress:

For folks transitioning to a high protein diet, there can be some initial intestinal discomfort as reported by some.  This would be true of someone transitioning to eating more veggies, too (or more fat or more starch, etc.) but can be easily minimized.  By simply increasing protein intake slowly, the body, specifically the gut bacteria, will have a chance to adapt to the extra protein.  For example, if you normally include no chicken in your lunch salad, try adding an ounce every two weeks until you reach the desired amount (4 ounces, for instance).

  1. Tag along fat content:

Some delicious and nutritious protein sources have a good amount of dietary fat alongside the protein content.  Eggs, beef, and salmon would all be typical examples of this.  This is in no way suggesting that dietary fat is good or bad, and the scope of this article will not cover that topic, but it is worth bringing up for those on highly restrictive diet plans.  Fortunately there are a plethora of protein choices with low fat content if that is of concern to you.

  1. Chronic Kidney Disease:

For those with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), a high protein diet is counter indicated as it may accelerate the condition.  For those with normal kidney function, a high protein diet (in the context of an otherwise healthy diet) has been proven safe time and time again.  But as always, consult your trusted physician with ANY concerns you may have about your health.

  1. Ecological impact:

Some will suggest that animal protein production has a higher cost to the environment than an equivalent amount of calories from lower protein foods.  This is an extremely complex issue that has lots of arguments from both sides.  I will not attempt to tackle this issue now, but I do want to bring it up as a possible con of high protein diets.

PROS:

  1. Muscle mass preservation:

High protein foods contain the essential amino acids to rebuild muscle tissue.  The body is in a constant state of destroying and rebuilding itself at a cellular level.  The consumption of dietary protein aids in the rebuilding and subsequent preservation of muscle tissue.  This includes skeletal muscle (your biceps and abdominals, for example), cardiac muscle (your heart), and smooth muscle (blood vessel walls and gastrointestinal tract, for example).

On a restricted-calorie diet (AKA: a “diet”), the protein you eat becomes even more essential as the body is searching for energy that it is being denied.  In this search, it uses not only your stored body fat as fuel for its daily needs but also the energy stored within your muscle tissue.  It is an inconvenient truth: dieting decreases muscle mass.  Increasing dietary protein will help reduce, but not eliminate, the loss of muscle when on a diet, which is very important.  Why would you want to minimize muscle loss?  Here are a few reasons. First, muscle helps you do stuff like run, swim, lift, bike, jump, dance, and walk.  Less of it makes it harder to do that stuff, while more of it makes it easier.  Second, muscle mass boosts metabolism through a number of different channels (which I will not get into in this article), and a higher metabolism makes it easier to maintain your current body weight.  Third, muscle tends to be aesthetically valuable.  Whether it’s a nice looking bicep, slightly broader shoulders (creating the illusion of a slimmer waist) or a rounder backside, muscles look pretty cool (in my opinion).  Fourth, maintaining muscle mass is good for your health.  Being active and having some muscles to show for it helps with insulin regulation and dietary carbohydrate usage and slows the onset of aging symptoms.

  1. Protein is satiating:

Calorie for calorie, protein makes you feel fuller than most carbohydrates or fats. (Veggies would be an outlier, in my opinion.) Consider this: a scone has approximately the same number of calories as a pound of deli turkey.  Now, here’s an experiment to try over the weekend.  On Saturday, go to Seven Stars Bakery and eat a scone.  Pretty easy to accomplish, right?  Note how long you feel full and satiated afterwards.  Then on Sunday, go to the deli counter and get a pound of smoked turkey breast.  Then sit down and eat the whole thing.  Not as easy as eating a scone?  Then note how long you feel full.

Even if you don’t try this experiment, the point should be clear: protein is more satiating than carbohydrates, calorie per calorie.  Adding veggies to the mix improves satiety further.

  1. Protein digests inefficiently:

Protein requires a lot more energy to digest than fat or carbohydrate.  The thermic effect of food (TEF) is a nutritional concept that describes the necessary energy cost (calorie expenditure) of digesting, processing, and storing food in the body.  The TEF of protein is especially high, meaning that every gram you eat is actually “worth” fewer calories than carbs or fats. For example, if you ate 100 calories of pure protein (chicken breast is a sufficient example), the body would only assimilate around 72-77 calories.  If you ate 100 calories of pure carbohydrate (e.g., white rice), the assimilation would be around 89-94 calories.  And if you ate 100 calories of pure fat (heavy cream, for example), assimilation would be around 94-97 calories.  As an aside, the more fiber a food has, the higher its TEF becomes.  So carb sources that are high in fiber (like beans, berries, and veggies) actually act “less caloric.” This will hopefully explain why high protein and high fiber foods are often the foundation of effective fat loss diets.

This is NOT to say that carbs and fats are bad, just that a bias towards more protein and a bit less carbs/fats can skew things in your favor on a muscle-sparing, weight-loss diet.

  1. Nutrient density:

There are a plethora of important vitamins and minerals available in high protein foods.  Eggs, poultry, dairy, organ meat, fish, other seafood, and red meat contain important micronutrients that are very difficult to get from non-animal sources.  Calcium, vitamin b12, and certain essential fatty acids are just a few examples.  Supplementation can often fill in these gaps if you choose a lower protein, vegan diet.

  1. A high protein diet aids in fat loss:

In the context of a hypo-caloric diet (fewer calories than maintenance level) a high protein diet can be advantageous towards long-term fat loss.  Here are four reasons why. One: As stated earlier, protein improves satiety and thus allows you to feel less deprived.  Two: The higher TEF of protein allows high protein foods to act less caloric, which increases the caloric deficit a bit further.  Three: A high protein approach is better at preserving muscle mass when dieting, which is important because every pound of muscle you lose decreases your metabolism at the conclusion of the dieting period.  The lower your metabolism is at the end of your diet, the harder it is to maintain that fat loss.  Four:  The more muscle mass you preserve, the more activity you can do (lift heavier weights, complete longer hikes, etc.) and hence the more calories you can burn through activity.   This will all contribute to fat loss and maintenance of that fat loss.  It is important to remember that this is in the context of a caloric deficit and that total calories still must be controlled when trying to lose fat.

A high protein diet isn’t for everyone.  I hope that the lists above will give you a great starting point for learning the whys and why nots of eating more protein.  As always, questions and comments are aggressively encouraged in the comments section below!

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