What Is the High-Protein Diet?

High protein diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

High-protein diets encourage 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.

High-protein diets have been around for centuries. People indigenous to the Arctic region—where plant life is scarce—historically subsisted only on marine life and caribou. Maasai warriors in Kenya were traditionally known to survive mostly on animal blood, milk, and meat. And some Native American tribes sustained themselves with mostly buffalo and plants.

During the late-1970s, high-protein diets became popular with the Scarsdale diet, which recommended a diet of 43% protein, 22.5% fat, and 34.5% carbohydrates. Modern diet programs that focus on high protein intake include the Atkins, South Beach, and Dukan diets.

Some research suggests that a diet high in protein can help women who are overweight and obese lose 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. However, when it comes to diets, one size doesn't fit all; what works for one person may not work for another.

What Experts Say

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

Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

What Can You Eat?

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

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

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

What You Need to Know

Any healthy diet for weight loss or wellness should include a balance of the three macronutrients (or macros): fat, carbohydrate, and protein. A high-protein diet contains at least 20% of calories from protein. The amount of protein you should eat depends on a few factors including your age, sex, body size, and activity level.

General guidelines advise getting between 10% to 35% of your total calories from protein. Active adults may require 1.2 to 1.7 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day. This equates to 82 to 116 grams for a person weighing 150 pounds. The official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for healthy adults is a minimum of 0.8 g/kg/day (which is 54 grams of protein for a person who weighs 150 pounds).

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 their macronutrient intake to ensure they are getting the right ratios of protein to carbohydrate and fat.

A typical starting ratio for a high-protein diet is 30% of calories from protein, 30% of calories from fat, and 40% of calories from carbohydrates. But a starting ratio is just that—a starting point. Many proponents of high-protein diets find they do better with a little more or a little less of a macronutrient, adjust your macros as needed while maintaining a high-protein approach.

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

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

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

  • Whole grains

What Not to Eat
  • Refined carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, and white rice

  • Saturated fats and fried foods

  • Added sugar, including candy and sweetened condiments

Following a high-protein diet typically requires:

  • Including protein at every meal: Planning meals around a protein, such as lean beef, chicken, or pork, and filling the rest of the plate with vegetables
  • Skipping processed carbs: Instead of eating refined grains, like white rice, pasta, and bread, including small portions of whole grains that are high in protein, like amaranth or quinoa or replacing pasta with spiralized zucchini or carrots and substituting riced cauliflower for white rice
  • Snacking on protein: Keeping high-protein snacks like almonds, Greek yogurt, hummus, ricotta, and string cheese on hand for when between-meal hunger strikes
  • Starting your day with protein: Focusing on high-protein breakfast foods like eggs and smoothies made with protein powder, such as whey, pea protein, or collagen

Sample Shopping List

High-protein diets emphasize lean protein, nutrient-packed vegetables and berries, and whole grains. The following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started with a high-protein lifestyle. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list, and you may find other foods that work better for you. If you plan to buy in bulk, fill your cart with a variety of fresh and frozen meats, seafood, and even berries to stock your fridge and freezer.

  • Lean cuts of red meat (sirloin tip, top round, filet mignon)
  • 75–80% lean ground beef
  • Chicken breasts and thighs
  • Seafood filets (salmon, cod, halibut)
  • Beans (black, pinto, kidney)
  • Vegetables (dark leafy greens, peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower)
  • Soy milk
  • Low-fat milk, cheeses, and yogurt
  • 2 dozen eggs
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds)
  • Berries (blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, amaranth, barley)

Sample Meal Plan

Each meal on a high-protein diet features a serving of protein accompanied by plenty of vegetables and smaller servings of certain fruits and whole grains. You can also snack on protein in between meals to curb hunger. Nuts or low-fat string cheese are great options.

The following three-day meal plan offers a glimpse at what a high-protein diet might look like. You can choose to accompany these meals with water or a glass of wine at dinner. Keep in mind that if you decide to follow this diet, there may be other meals that are more appropriate to suit your tastes and preferences.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • More satisfying than other weight-loss plans

  • Help build and maintain muscle

  • Wide variety of healthy food options

Cons
  • Potential for nutrient deficiencies

  • Processed foods sometimes encouraged

  • Associated with some health risks

Like most weight-loss plans, a high-protein diet has its share of benefits and drawbacks. Review the pros and cons associated with a high-protein diet to determine whether it's the right diet plan for you.

Pros

  • You'll feel fuller longer. Including protein in your meals and snacks can help you to feel full and satisfied, which may help with portion control.
  • You'll build and maintain more muscle mass. A strong body not only performs better throughout daily activities, but muscles also burn more calories than fat, even at rest.
  • You may be more inclined to choose healthy foods. When you plan a meal around a lean source of protein, you have less space on your plate for less healthy foods. 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.

Cons

  • Nutrient deficiencies are possible. A high-protein diet is often lacking in dietary fiber which can cause constipation and other health concerns. Getting enough dietary fiber is not only important for colonic health, but it also helps reduce inflammation and protect against cancer.
  • High-fat and processed foods are sometimes encouraged. Certain versions of high-protein diets also advocate for eating high-fat foods, such as fatty cuts of beef, full-fat dairy, and processed and cured meats such as deli meat, sausage, bacon, and hot dogs, which are not the best choices for a healthy, balanced diet since foods like these are often associated with heart disease and cancer.
  • Too much protein may be unsafe for those with chronic diseases. People with kidney disease should not follow a high-protein diet without speaking to their doctor. The body converts excess protein to glucose to be used for energy, which could cause a spike in blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

While high-protein diets may have many benefits, there are some potential negatives. While this eating approach may be an effective strategy for losing weight, important food groups such as fruits and grains are often cut out, which does not provide a well-rounded diet.

Is a High-Protein Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

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

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

  • Protein: 10% to 35% of daily calories
  • Fat: 20% to 35% of daily calories
  • Carbohydrates: 45% to 65% of daily calories

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

There are a few different varieties of high-protein diets including the Atkins Diet, Dukan Diet, and Whole30. Here's how they compare:

  • 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 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 intended as a short-term "reset" of your body (aiming to reduce cravings and break sugar addiction) that eliminates sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, and most legumes, which basically leaves meat, vegetables, and fruit.

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 the 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. 

Health Benefits

Eating a diet that includes plenty of lean protein provides several benefits, especially when you're trying to lose weight. High-protein diets help build and preserve muscle mass, boost your metabolism, and increase satiety.

You also burn a few extra calories when you eat protein because your body has to work harder to chew and digest the food. This is known as the thermic effect of food. Keep in mind, however, that the number of extra calories burned is small so you shouldn't create an entire weight loss program based solely on this benefit. 

Health Risks

Some high-protein diets severely restrict carbohydrates and can result in nutritional deficiencies and a lack of fiber, which can lead to constipation and other health concerns. In addition, a high-protein diet can cause bad breath.

People with diabetes may find a high-protein diet can raise their blood sugar levels. In addition, people with diabetes who use insulin may have difficulty managing blood glucose as protein causes delayed blood sugar spikes.

Excess protein is excreted through the kidneys, which may worsen kidney function among people with kidney disease. In addition, protein metabolism results in nitrogen (ammonia) production. Nitrogen must be excreted via the urine. As a result, people on high protein diets are at increased risk of dehydration and need to drink more water.

Though most high-protein diets advocate for lean protein choices, others include and even encourage protein sources that are high in saturated fats. A diet high in saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease, and studies have noted an association between processed meat intake and cancer.

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 a good program for you.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, and budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exerciseJ Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

  2. Chege, P.M., Kimiywe, J.O. & Ndungu, Z.W. Influence of culture on dietary practices of children under five years among Maasai pastoralists in Kajiado, KenyaInt J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2015;12:131. doi:10.1186/s12966-015-0284-3

  3. Park S, Hongu N, Daily JW. Native American foods: History, culture, and influence on modern diets. J Ethn Foods. 2016;(3)3:171-177. doi:10.1016/j.jef.2016.08.001

  4. Josse AR, Atkinson SA, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Increased consumption of dairy foods and protein during diet- and exercise-induced weight loss promotes fat mass loss and lean mass gain in overweight and obese premenopausal women. J Nutr. 2011;141(9):1626-34. doi:10.3945/jn.111.141028

  5. Ganesan K, Habboush Y, Sultan S. Intermittent fasting: The choice for a healthier lifestyleCureus. 2018;10(7):e2947. doi:10.7759/cureus.2947

  6. Carreiro AL, Dhillon J, Gordon S, et al. The macronutrients, appetite, and energy intakeAnnu Rev Nutr. 2016;36:73–103. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-121415-112624

  7. O’Keefe SJD. The need to reassess dietary fiber requirements in healthy and critically ill patients. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2018;47(1):219-229. doi:10.1016/j.gtc.2017.10.005

  8. Delimaris I. Adverse effects associated with protein intake above the recommended dietary allowance for adultsISRN Nutr. 2013;2013:126929. doi:10.5402/2013/126929

  9. U.S. Department of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations - 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines

  10. Rodriguez NR, Dimarco NM, Langley S. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(3):509-27. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.01.005

  11. Pasiakos SM. Metabolic advantages of higher protein diets and benefits of dairy foods on weight management, glycemic regulation, and bone. J Food Sci. 2015;80 Suppl 1:A2-7. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.12804

  12. Calcagno M, Kahleova H, Alwarith J, et al. The thermic effect of food: a reviewJ Am Coll Nutr. 2019;38(6):547-551. doi:10.1080/07315724.2018.1552544

  13. Santesso N, Akl EA, Bianchi M, et al. Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysisEur J Clin Nutr. 2012;66(7):780-788. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2012.37

  14. Shilpa J, Mohan V. Ketogenic diets: Boon or bane? Indian J Med Res. 2018;148(3):251-253. doi:10.4103/ijmr.IJMR_1666_18

  15. Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncol. 2015;16(16):1599-1600. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00444-1

Additional Reading