What Is the High-Protein Diet?

In This Article

A high-protein diet encourages eating more protein and fewer carbohydrates or fat to boost weight loss, improve energy, and enhance athletic performance.

Protein is an essential nutrient for health. It is responsible for a number of important functions in the body, including hormones, enzymes, and cell repair and maintenance.

Research suggests a diet that is high in protein can help people lose more fat while retaining lean muscle mass. Diets that are high in protein help to decrease hunger, increase satiety, boost metabolic rate, and preserve muscle mass.

In general, a high-protein diet recommends getting more than 20 percent of your total calories from protein. That typically means eating fewer calories from carbohydrates or fats to keep your calories in balance.

What Experts Say

"A high-protein diet often means cutting carbohydrates. A healthier approach is a balanced diet that includes about 50 percent of calories from carbs, 20 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fat."

Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

Background

High-protein diets have been around for centuries. People indigenous to the Arctic region—where plant life is scarce—subsisted only on marine life and caribou. African warrior tribes were known to survive on only meat and milk. And some Native Americans are believed to have eaten mostly buffalo with a few plants.

During the 1970s, high-protein diets came into fashion with the Scarsdale diet, which recommended a diet of 43 percent protein, 22.5 percent fat, and 34.5 percent carbohydrates. Modern diets that focus on high-protein intake include Atkins, South Beach, and Dukan diets.

How It Works

Any healthy diet for weight loss or wellness should include a balance of three macronutrients (or macros): fat, carbohydrate, and protein. A high-protein diet contains at least 20 percent of calories from protein.

The amount of protein you should eat depends on a few factors including your age, gender, body size, and activity level. 

Protein Guidelines

  • RDA for healthy adults: Minimum of 0.8 g/kg/day (54 grams for a person weighing 150 pounds)
  • Exercisers: 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg/day (82 to 116 grams for a person weighing 150 pounds)
  • Consume 10 to 35 percent of your total calories as protein.

If you use a calorie tracking app or website to count calories, it's easy to check your daily protein intake. Many people on a high-protein diet use apps to track macros to ensure they are getting the right ratios of protein to carbohydrate and fat.

A suggested ratio to start for a high protein diet is 30 percent of calories from protein, 30 percent of calories from fat, and 40 percent of calories from carbohydrates. After a few weeks on the plan, you may find you do better with a little more or a little less of a macronutrient, and you should adjust your macro settings as needed.

What to Eat

There are no foods that are expressly forbidden on a high protein diet. It is recommended to eat more lean proteins and eat less refined carbohydrates, sugars, and fats.

Eat More

  • Lean proteins, such as lean meat, seafood, beans, soy, low-fat dairy, eggs, nuts, and seeds

  • Vegetables, including leafy greens, peppers, mushrooms, and cruciferous vegetables

  • Low glycemic fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries

  • Whole grains

Eat Less

  • Refined carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, and white rice

  • Sugar, including candy and sweetened condiments

  • Saturated fats and fried foods

Recommended Timing

There is no suggested meal timing for a high-protein diet, although some people on a high protein plan also practice intermittent fasting, which is either restricting calories to certain days and fasting on others or going a longer period of time without eating, such as 16 hours a day.

Resources and Tips

Following a high-protein diet does not need to be difficult. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Start your day with protein. Eggs make a protein-rich and filling breakfast. If you don't have time or don't like eggs, a smoothie made with protein powder, such as whey, pea protein, or collagen, leafy greens, and berries can be a satisfying breakfast.
  • Include protein at every meal. Plan meals around a protein, such as lean beef, chicken, or pork, and fill the rest of your plate with vegetables.
  • Skip processed carbs. Instead of eating refined grains, like white rice, pasta, and bread, include small portions of whole grains that are high in protein, like amaranth or quinoa. You can also replace pasta with spiralized zucchini or carrots, and substituted riced cauliflower for white rice.
  • Snack on protein. Keep high-protein snacks on hand for when between meal hunger strikes. Almonds, greek yogurt, hummus, ricotta, and string cheese all make convenient snacks on the go.

Pros and Cons

Like most weight-loss plans, a high-protein diet has its share of benefits and drawbacks.

Pros

  • More filling

  • Builds muscle

  • Can improve diet

  • Burns more calories

Cons

  • May be harmful to kidneys

  • Protein turns to glucose in the body

  • May lead to nutrient deficiencies

  • May increase risk of heart disease

Pros

Eating a diet that includes plenty of lean protein provides several benefits when you're trying to lose weight:

  • Protein helps you to feel full. Including protein in your meals and snacks can help you to feel full and satisfied after you're done eating. This feeling of fullness may help you to eat less throughout the day.
  • Protein builds muscle. Protein helps you build and maintain muscle mass. A strong body not only performs better throughout daily activities, but the muscles that shape an attractive figure also burn more calories than fat, even at rest.
  • Eating protein may improve your diet. When you plan a meal around a lean source of protein, you have less space on your plate for foods that aren't healthy. And learning to eat different types of protein may improve your diet as well. If you eat tuna, for example, you not only benefit from the protein in the fish but you also benefit from the healthy fat it provides.
  • Eating protein burns more calories. You burn a few extra calories when you eat protein because your body has to work harder to chew and digest the food. Scientists call this the "thermic effect of food." Keep in mind, however, that the number of extra calories is small so you shouldn't create an entire weight loss program based solely on this benefit. 

A high-protein diet may be an effective strategy for losing weight, this type of plan often cuts out other important food groups, such as fruits and grains, and does not provide a well-rounded diet.

Cons

While high-protein diets may have many benefits, there are some potential drawbacks. 

  • Nutritional deficiencies. Some high-protein diets severely restrict carbohydrates and can result in nutritional deficiencies and a lack of fiber, which can lead to constipation. In addition, a high-protein diet can lead to bad breath. 
  • Increased heart-disease risk. Some versions of high-protein diets also advocate for eating high-fat foods, such as fatty cuts of beef and full-fat dairy. A diet high in saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease. 
  • Worsening kidney function. People with kidney disease should not follow a high protein diet without speaking to their doctor. Excess protein is excreted through the kidneys, which may worsen kidney function. 
  • May increase blood sugar. The body converts excess protein to glucose to be used for energy. People with diabetes may find a high-protein diet can raise their blood sugar levels. In addition, diabetics who use insulin may have difficulty managing blood glucose as protein causes delayed blood sugar spikes.

How It Compares

Many experts recommend following a reduced-calorie, high-protein for weight loss. A diet focused on lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is considered a healthy way to lose weight.

USDA Recommendations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines provide recommendations for a healthy, balanced diet. The 2015 to 2020 guidelines recommended percentage breakdown of macronutrients is:

  • 10 percent to 35 percent of calories from protein
  • 45 percent to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates
  • 20 percent to 35 percent of calories from fat

For healthy adults, the recommended dietary allowance for protein (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. That means at a minimum every day you should eat slightly less than 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms) you should eat at least 54 grams of protein each day.

If you exercise for weight loss, you may want to consume more protein. A position statement developed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) the Dietitians of Canada (DC), and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that exercisers should consume between 1.2 grams and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. 

A high-protein diet that includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, and healthy oils fits within the good health guidelines.

The USDA recommends consuming roughly 1,500 calories per day for weight loss, but this number varies based on age, sex, weight, and activity level. Use this calculator to determine the right number of calories for you.

Similar Diets

There are several different varieties of high-protein diets, including the Atkins Diet, Dukan Diet, and Whole30.

  • Atkins Diet: The Atkins Diet is a low-carb, high-protein diet that limits carbs to 20g of carbs per day to start, increasing to 100g a day, and ending with a maintenance phase.
  • Dukan Diet: The Dukan Diet is a low-carbohydrate, low-fat, and high-protein weight loss program It is based on the premise that it's hard to lose weight when you are hungry and focuses on lean proteins and fat-free dairy, which boost satiety.
  • Whole30: The Whole30 is a 30-day diet that eliminates sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, and most legumes, which basically leaves meat, vegetables, and fruit. Intended as a short-term "reset" of your body, the plan aims to reduce cravings and break sugar addiction.

A Word From Verywell

The best diet for you is the diet that you can stick to. For some, this is a high-protein weight loss plan. If eating more protein helps you to eat less all day and build a stronger, more active body, then it may be the best program for you. But remember that calories matter most when you're trying to slim down. So track your total calories and protein to lose weight and keep the pounds off for good.

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