Low-fat diets are out. High-protein diets are in. That’s because many nutritional studies show people who cut down on carbs and boost consumption of chicken, fish, certain cuts of meat, and plant-based proteins reduce their risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
But the kinds of foods you eat — as well as when and how much — are the keys to making the most of a high-protein diet, according to new research by the University of Missouri. Unfortunately, the UM researchers found most Americans don’t consume enough high-quality protein to take advantage of the well-known benefits of such foods — such as boosting metabolism, shedding pounds, increasing feelings of fullness, and helping the body retain muscle.
Heather Leidy, who led the UM study on protein consumption — published in this month’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — says the researchers’ findings are troubling. But she adds that even a moderate increase in protein consumption, balanced throughout the day, can lead to significant benefits.
"Although most Americans don't consume the amount of protein necessary to achieve benefits, such as increased feelings of fullness, the research suggests that individuals only need to add an additional 10-15 grams of high-quality protein, such as eggs, beef, pork or dairy, at breakfast and lunch to achieve the recommended amount," says Leidy, an assistant professor in the UM Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.
To help consumers maximize the health benefits of a protein-rich diet, Leidy and her colleagues devised a four-point eating plan, based on the latest research.
No. 1: Eat a protein-rich breakfast.
Eggs, yogurt, fish, and certain cuts of meat are all better choices than high-carb cereals or toast for breakfast. Such foods can lead to lasting feelings of fullness that help keep you from snacking during the day, studies have shown.
Leidy recommends aiming for 30 grams of protein for breakfast — roughly the amount in 1.5 cups of yogurt or a four-egg omelet.
"Breakfast, in general, provides benefits for appetite control and satiety, or feelings of fullness," Leidy notes. "Eating a protein-rich breakfast containing about 30 grams of protein leads to even greater satiety throughout the day and can reduce unhealthy snacking by improving appetite control."
No. 2: Eat less for dinner.
If 30 grams of protein for breakfast sounds like a lot, Leidy says planning ahead — by eating less protein for dinner, and more for breakfast and lunch — can make it easier to accomplish that goal.
Most Americans have their biggest meal at night, even though nutritional studies suggest lighter dinners and heartier, protein-rich breakfasts have greater health benefits.
"Most people eat enough protein in the evening," she notes. "Take whatever source of protein you ate for dinner — whether that's a steak or a pork chop — and eat it for breakfast along with Greek yogurt or include it in a pre-made breakfast casserole with eggs, which can easily get you to 30 grams of protein in the morning."
No. 3: Add a little protein to daily meals.
Most Americans consume too many carbs, and too little protein, at virtually every meal.
Leidy says individuals should aim for a diet that contains at least 1.2 grams of protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. For example, a 150-pound woman who wants to lose weight or prevent weight gain should eat approximately 90-100 grams of protein a day.
"This amount of protein has been shown to promote weight and fat losses while preserving lean mass," she explains. "Additionally, new evidence also indicates that spreading this amount evenly throughout the day is important. Thus, eating approximately 30 grams of high-quality protein at each meal appears to be necessary for these benefits."
For most Americans, that can be accomplished by doubling the amount of protein eaten at breakfast and lunch. Another option: Consumer protein-rich snacks between meals — such as cottage cheese (20 grams per five-ounce serving), peanut butter (8 ounces per tablespoon), or several slices of deli turkey (18 grams.
No. 4: Consume high-quality protein.
Not all proteins are created equal. High-quality “complete protein” foods — such as beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products — contain all the essential amino acids a body needs and are easily digestible, Leidy explains.
But most plant-based proteins found in vegetables and grains are lower quality "incomplete proteins” that lack one or more essential amino acids and are less digestible.
That’s why complete protein foods are usually the better choice for building muscle, losing weight, and maintaining a healthy balance of nutrients, says Leidy.
Although high-protein diets are generally safe for most people, some individuals at risk for heart disease should consult their doctors before going on excessively high-protein diets.
A Spanish study of older adults found high-protein diets — like the Atkins and South Beach plans — tended to gain more weight, raising their cardiovascular risks, than those on other diets.
But the researchers noted they found only an association between dietary protein, weight gain, and death rates — not a cause-and-effect link — which suggests other factors may be involved.
It’s possible, for instance, that the study participants on high-protein diets ate fewer healthy foods — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
The upshot: Adding protein is a healthy option for most Americans, but it shouldn’t supplant other nutritious whole foods in your diet.
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