If protein was a superhero, it would be Wolverine-Batman-Hulk-Spiderman-Hellboy-Thor-Gambit-And-What-The-Hell-Throw-In-Green-Lantern-Too.
Basically, protein does it all.
Protein helps you build and maintain muscle. Protein powers a variety of functions in your body, from enzyme production to hormone regulation. And protein can also help you lose the weight you want—not to mention keep it off.
The mechanisms behind protein and weight loss are interesting and complex. But it’s actually relatively easy—not to mention delicious—to work more protein into your diet, starting today, and begin losing weight.
How, exactly, does protein help me lose weight?
The effect is twofold.
First, protein is “satisfying.” Dietitians use this term to mean how quickly you fill up when you sit down to a meal. The more quickly you feel full (or satisfied) the less likely you are to overindulge and consume more calories.
Think about it. What’s easier to eat: two servings of refined pasta or two servings of chicken breast? Part of the reason it’s harder to choke down that extra helping of poultry is because of the inherent satisfaction properties of protein. Protein can elevate levels of peptides in your stomach, which, in turn, send signals of fullness to the brain.
But the other part is that chicken requires chewing.
Thoroughly masticating food increases what researchers call “oro-sensory factors,” which send satiation signals to your brain, helping you feel full on less food, according to Dutch researchers. Study participants who chewed each bite for an extra 3 seconds ended up consuming less.
Second, protein is “satiating.” Dietitians use this term to mean how full you feel after a meal. The fuller you feel between meals the less likely you are to overindulge in mindless snacking.
Okay, so how much protein should I eat to help lose weight?
Research has repeatedly shown that consuming about 30 grams of protein at mealtime can induce both satisfaction and satiety. (Bonus: the same amount is beneficial for muscle growth and maintenance.)
Great, so what does 30 grams of protein look like? An easier way to think about it is to look at size and thickness of your palm. Any piece of fish, chicken, beef, tofu about that size and width is roughly going to shake out to about 30 grams.
Notice that the recommendation is “at mealtime.” That also means at every meal.
American eat almost three times as much protein during dinner (38 grams) as they do during breakfast (13 grams), according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Three eggs offer 21 grams of protein. One cup of cottage cheese has 25 grams. A three-ounce serving of smoked salmon has 16 grams. Troubleshoot breakfast by incorporating more of those foods.
By comparison, a medium chocolate donut has a measly 2 grams of protein.
Does the source of protein matter for weight loss?
How much protein you consume is important, but so is the type of protein you’re eating.
“Protein quality is important, but it’s more about the variety you’re eating,” says Men’s Health nutrition advisor Mike Roussell, Ph.D. If you’re eating chicken only, you’re missing benefits from steak (iron), fish (omega-3s), and chickpeas (fiber).
So ask yourself not only “Did I eat enough protein today?” but also “Did I eat different proteins than yesterday?”
But be cautious. This doesn’t mean protein-enhanced animal crackers are exactly good for you, says Roussell.
Watch out for sugar- and calorie-loaded foods disguised as healthy due to their protein label—meaning that while a battalion of new products is clamoring for your stomach space, not all of those foods satisfy dietitians’ criteria.
Eat the good stuff, and you’ll flatten your gut.