Protein: The Key to Sustainable Weight Management
Don’t be fooled by the title. I’m not talking about the high-protein low-carbohydrate fad diets like Keto and Atkins that have been buzzwords in the weight loss community for a while now. Not only are these diets unsustainable and unnecessary for the general population, the American Heart Association actually notes that there is no long-term evidence to support that these diets are effective and/or safe. Many health professionals will argue against them due to their association with an increased intake of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, which can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.
With the exception of some medical conditions or medications, weight gain and weight loss comes from an imbalance between calories consumed versus calories expended. Since calories are just a measurement of energy, an excess intake of calories results in an energy surplus. This energy gets stored in our body as fat deposits for us to use at a later time when food isn’t available. Conversely, weight loss occurs when the calories consumed are fewer than the calories burned by the body. This is when the body starts to dig into the existing fat stores to make up for the energy that is missing.
While in theory weight loss is very simple and mathematical, in practice many individuals struggle to simply “eat less and move more”. Often, food is emotional and social. We have cravings and desires, or we have friends who want to go grab drinks after work. It can be hard to find the balance between “sticking to a diet” and actually enjoying food. Additionally, even if you had a strict exercise regimen, it’s not possible to “out-exercise” a bad diet. This is why you’ll often hear that “abs are made in the gym”. While exercise has countless health benefits, weight loss comes from altering your diet.
Instead of starting a new fad diet, a great alternative is to center your diet around protein, without limiting any other foods. In practice, this simply looks like prioritizing a protein source with every meal and snack.
This can be effective for many people because it results in a better balance between calories in and calories out without feeling like you’re limiting your caloric intake. First, according to Dr. Helen Kollias of Precision Nutrition protein is more difficult for the body to break down, meaning that 20-30% of the calories in your protein are actually going towards digesting the protein, not getting stored as excess calories. That is in comparison to the 5-10% and 0-3% of the calories in carbohydrates and fats used for digestion, respectively. Secondly, a recent study concluded that consuming protein prevents the decrease in resting energy expenditure that occurs when you lose weight. Lastly, an article in the British Journal of Nutrition discusses the effects of protein on satiety, or fullness. Essentially, protein is more effective making you feel full and for a longer duration than carbohydrates and fats do. Meaning, if you are able to properly listen to your hunger cues, you will eat less protein than you would carbohydrates or fats.
Here are three tips that could help you ensure you always have a source of protein on your plate or in your bag!
Find Protein Options and Substitutes that you Love
The key word here is love. Don’t choose chickpea pasta instead of regular pasta even though you hate it! Find at-home recipes for your favorite snacks that let you sneak nut butter or even protein powder into. However, emphasizing protein should not be confused with eating a hamburger for every meal. Try out leaner versions of your favorite meat! Swap ground beef for a 50-50 combination of ground beef and ground chicken, or even a black beans!
Think of Snacks Like “Mini-Meals”
We have been taught to think of meals as well-balanced with proteins, carbohydrates, and fats represented in many different colors. Why are snacks any different? When we feel hungry between meals, we often grab something quick and carb-heavy to curb that hunger until meal time. It can be very beneficial to make a switch to eating something higher in protein that will keep you full for longer, rather than just long enough to sit down at the dinner table and overeat. We can turn snacks into mini-meals by following the next tip.
Add, Don’t Subtract
Always be adding to what you want to eat. If you usually eat pretzels as a snack, try adding some cheese or hummus on the side. Your body can digest the carbohydrates in pretzels very quickly, but if we add something a little more complex with protein and fat like cheese or hummus, it’s going to last in your system longer. This provides a feeling of fullness and reduces the desire to eat again soon after. This “addition” mindset is entirely the opposite of the diet mindset, but it can be great for giving your body the nutrients it needs to keep you fuller longer.
It may sound too good to be true, but these small changes will allow you to maintain a healthy relationship with all foods and reduce total caloric intake without walking around hungry everyday. As always, everything should be eaten in moderation and you should always listen to your hunger cues. Eat when you’re hungry, eat slow, and stop when you’re full!
Katie Usher is a new addition to the strength and conditioning team at Olympia Fitness and Performance. She recently graduated from the University of Rhode Island with degrees in Kinesiology and Psychology. While interning at Olympia, she found a love for helping athletes and general fitness clients push themselves to new levels in the gym, on the field, and in life. She is excited to continue setting clients on a path that allows them reach their goals.