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You probably realize that, when it comes to weight control, what you eat is as important as how much you eat. However, you may not realize that increasing your consumption of protein may actually help you maintain a healthy weight.
A recent study indicates that people who eat less protein actually tend to eat more calories per day than people who eat more protein. The study reflects other research showing that your overall calorie intake may depend in part on your protein intake.
There are three basic types of nutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates – and all food contains some combination of these. Meat, for example, contains mainly protein with some fat, while bread contains mainly carbohydrates, generally with a very small amount of protein and fat.
People following what’s considered to be a healthy diet normally cut back on fat consumption and increase carbohydrate consumption. Few medical authorities recommend changing protein consumption; clinicians generally believe that most people get enough protein in their diets.
However, the “protein leverage hypothesis” theory speculates that a decline in the ratio of protein to fat and carbohydrate in the diet can lead to obesity, since your body will keep prodding you to eat in order to get more protein. For example, if you eliminate protein-rich red meat (as many nutritional experts recommend) and substitute whole-grain pasta, you will lower your ratio of protein to carbohydrate, and potentially gain weight in the bargain because your body will encourage you through hunger to eat more.
In the journal PLoS One, Dr. Alison Gosby of the University of Sydney tracked calories and hunger in 22 normal-weight subjects. Each subject ate only a fixed menu for three four-day periods. Although the menus were designed to be similarly enjoyable, they ranged in protein content from 10 to 25 percent of total calories. Fat content in the food remained constant, so carbohydrate content rose as protein content fell, and vice versa.
The study found that subjects eating only 10 percent of their calories as protein tended to snack more between meals; even though they didn’t increase the amount of calories they consumed during meals, they still ate about 12 percent more calories each day, compared to the number of calories they ate when their food consisted of 15 percent protein.
In fact, if the study subjects continued to consume as many calories as they did when eating diets with only 10 percent protein, they would gain more than two pounds each month. The excess calories came in the form of between-meal snacks, including both salty and sweet snacks, the study found.
In the study, eating a breakfast that consisted of only 10 percent protein led to increased hunger less than two hours later. This seemed to cause increased snacking, which can lead to weight gain. Higher-protein breakfasts seemed to stick with subjects longer, since those consuming breakfasts made up of 15 percent or 25 percent protein didn’t report hunger as quickly.
Other studies concur, finding that people eating more protein actually eat fewer calories overall, even though they tend to report feeling fuller. This may explain why low-carbohydrate diets seem to work; although most low-carb diets don’t limit calories, people who eat more protein may actually consume fewer calories unintentionally, simply because they’re not as hungry.
Dr. Gosby’s study concluded that diets lower in protein content may increase the risk of obesity. However, she stopped short of endorsing a high-protein diet as a weight loss tool. Based on the research, how much protein should you consume each day?
The Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intake (RDI) calls for adults to get 0.66 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. That translates into a little less than one-third of a gram of protein per pound; for example, if you weigh 165 pounds, you should get about 50 grams of protein per day.
If you consume 2,000 calories in total per day, however, eating 50 grams of protein only gives you approximately 8 percent of your total calories in protein – a level that might cause excess hunger and calorie intake.
Dr. Gosby does not recommend protein intake above the current RDI levels. However, she concludes that eating a diet comprised of less than 15 percent protein could potentially lead to weight gain – and might provide a partial explanation for the obesity epidemic.
By Jeanne M. Andrews