The truth about protein and weight loss: we cut through the hype to bring you the facts

Susan M. Kleiner

Every decade has its hot nutrient. The ’80s had carbs, as we all jogged and marathoned our way to the pasta and potato bar. The ’90s were the fat decade: There were good fats, bad fats — even fake fats. Now the hot nutrient is protein, and the top-selling diet books can’t get enough of it. There’s the protein diet, the high-protein diet and the even-higher-protein diet. But how much protein do we really require? What foods contain it? Which protein is best? And does working out influence protein needs?

The more active you are, the more protein you need, explains Melinda Manore, Ph.D., chairwoman and professor of the department of nutrition and food management at Oregon State University. But with high-protein diets all the rage, some women are eating more than what even the most active females need. The Zone diet supplies almost double the amount of protein recommended by the American Dietetic Association (ADA), while the Dr. Atkins and Protein Power diets more than double it. (For details, see “3 Protein Diets at a Glance” on page 181. To calculate your own protein needs, see question 3, “How much protein do I really need to eat every day?” on page 178.)

Q: What is protein and is it crucial to make sure I get enough?

A: Protein comprises 20 building blocks called amino acids. Of those 20, the body makes 11 called nonessential amino acids. The other nine, called essential amino acids, must be supplied by food, or dietary protein, explains Julie Burns, M.S., R.D., owner of SportFuel Inc., a sports-nutrition company in Western Springs, III.

There are two kinds of dietary protein — complete and incomplete, Burns says. Animal and soy proteins are called “complete” proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids. Plant products, including vegetables, nuts and legumes, are called “incomplete” proteins because they lack one or more essential amino acids, she says.

As a macronutrient, protein helps curb your appetite, which may help you lose weight. Compared to carbs and fats — which are primarily energy sources — proteins play crucial roles in the body. They provide structural features of body tissue and serve as immune-system antibodies/signaling molecules. In the form of enzymes and hormones, proteins help regulate sleep, digestion and ovulation.

For these functions and others, your body requires complete proteins. However, by combining a variety of plant products throughout the day or over the course of a few clays, you can easily satisfy your body’s needs without eating meat or soy products, Burns says. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, eat combinations of plant proteins that complement each other, such as rice and beans, peanut butter and bread, or hummus and pita.

Q: I’ve heard some forms of protein are “superior.” Is that true?

A: Just because animal protein is complete doesn’t mean it’s healthier than incomplete plant proteins, Burns says. Sources of animal protein are usually higher in fat, particularly saturated fat, and lower in fiber than plant-based sources, although there are plenty of lean complete proteins: seafood, lean beef, pork tenderloin, the breast meat of poultry, nonfat milk and egg whites are a few examples, says Burns. Plant sources of protein, on the other hand, don’t contain saturated fat, are always cholesterol-free and have lots of disease-fighting phytochemicals.

Q: How much protein do I really need to eat every day?

A: If you’re mildly active (you exercise three times a week for 30-60 minutes), you probably don’t need more than the RDA — 0.4 grams per pound of ideal body weight, says Melinda Manore, Ph.D. To calculate your daily protein needs in grams, multiply your weight by 0.4. (For a 145-pound woman, that’s 58 grams, or 12-15 percent of total daily calories.)

If you’re moderately active (you exercise four to six days a week for 30-60 minutes), you may need slightly more — from 0.6-0.7 grams. (That’s 87-101.5 grams, or about 20 percent of total daily calories, for a 145-pound woman.)

If you’re highly active (you exercise daily for an hour or more) you may need even more protein than that — from 0.9-1 gram. (For a 145-pound woman, that’s 130.5-145 grams, or about 30 percent of total daily calories.)

You also may need this amount if you are recovering from a serious illness or exercising at higher altitudes than usual — for example, you’re backpacking at 7,000 feet but live at sea level. At higher altitudes, your body is deprived of oxygen until you adapt, placing a stress on all systems and increasing cellular damage. Protein helps protect and repair cells while your body acclimates, which can take several weeks.

Q: Is it a problem if my protein intake is higher than the RDA?

A: If you consume more protein than you really need, you risk several negative consequences. First, you could gain weight. Consuming more calories than you need in a day, even if they’re protein calories, will cause your body to store the extra calories as fat.

In addition, eating protein at the expense of vegetables, grains and other healthy foods can deprive your body of essential nutrients. Plus, it can cause dehydration because it takes a lot of water to eliminate extra protein.

Excess protein also has been linked to bone loss because the more protein you eat, the more calcium you excrete, for reasons scientists don’t fully understand.

A study conducted in 1998 at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., concluded, however, that people who eat excess protein probably can prevent bone loss by consuming adequate calcium — or 20 milligrams for every gram of protein. Since bone health depends on a balance of adequate levels of protein and calcium, the best way to avoid bone loss is to eat the right amount of protein for your weight and consume at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily.

Q: What happens if I’m not getting enough protein?

A: Eating too little protein means your body can’t perform all the functions for which protein is required, at least not at peak levels. Over time, you may feel tired and sluggish, be more susceptible to illness, and fail to build muscle or improve your athletic performance at the rate you otherwise would. You also may lose bone. At highest risk are women on low-calorie diets (less than 1,200 calories a day), competitive athletes who restrict calories and burn protein instead of fat, and vegans and macrobiotic diners who don’t get enough of the amino-acid building blocks needed to synthesize complete proteins.

Fortunately, getting enough protein is so easy you almost have to make an effort not to. By eating a healthy, balanced diet containing 15-20 percent lean protein, 55-60 percent carbs and 20-30 percent fat, you’ll have no trouble achieving a healthy weight and staying well.

To see how simple it is to get enough, see “Protein Countdown Meal Plan” (opposite) and “15 Best Protein Bets” at


meal plan

It’s ridiculously easy

to get enough daily

protein without overloading

on fat or calories.

As this healthy meal plan

demonstrates, you can

get more than you need

eating everyday foods.

To see how fast protein

grams can add up, follow

our protein tally.

(Note: Protein tally based

on the ADA guidelines for a

145-pound woman consuming

a 1,800-calorie diet, or

68 grams.)


1 cup oatmeak cooked in

1 cup nonfat milk and topped

with 2 teaspoons brown sugar and

1 tablespoon walnuts (16.5 g)

1 banana (1.7 g)

1 cup calcium-fortified

orange juice (1.7 g)

Protein tally: You’ve already

consumed almost 20 grams, or

more than a fourth of your daily

protein needs of 68 grams.


1 chocolate chip cookie (0.33 g)

1 cup nonfat milk (8.35 g)

Protein tally: You’re up to

approximately 28.6 grams now.


1 peanut-butter-and-pear

sandwich made with 2 slices

whole-wheat bread, 2

tablespoons peanut butter

and 1 pear,

seeded and thinly sliced (15 g)

2 cups tossed salad with

2 tablespoons oil-free

dressing (2.54 g)

Diet cola (0 g)

Protein tally: You’re now

at 46 grams


10 baby carrots (1 g)

1 apple (0 g)


3 ounces grilled salmon (22.5 g)

Protein tally: Congratulations!

You’ve now consumed 69.5

grams of protein and covered

your daily needs.

1 baked potato with 2 teaspoons

butter (4.6 g)

1 cup steamed brocoli (2.6 g)


1 cup frozen blueberries (1 g)

Nutrition Score for day:

1,893 calories,

25% fat (55 g; 14 g saturated),

16% protein (78 g), 59% carbs

(279 g), 40 g fiber, 910

mg calcium, 1,473 mg sodium.

Protein count total: This meal plan

provides 78 grams, or 10 grams

more than the ADA’s recommendation

Meal plan by Elizabeth

Somer, M.A., R.D.

3 protein diets at a glance

Too much protein isn’t the only problem with the popular high-protein

diets. All there are also loaded with fat, while Dr. Atkins’ and Protein

Power are so low in carbs it’s hard to fit in enough fruit, vegetables

and whole grains to lose weight healthfully and keep it off. Here’s how

they compare with guidelines for a healthy diet recommended by the

American Dietetic Association (ADA).



PROTEIN (G) 68 171 162 126

% CALORIES 15 38 36 28


% CALORIES 55 8 5 40


% CALORIES 30 54 59 32


* Based on a 145-pound woman consuming a 1,800-calories diet.

Nutreint Percentages

Percent of Calories

protein carbohydrate fat

ADA 30% 55% 15%

THE ZONE 32% 40% 28%

ATKINS 59% 36% 5%

PROTEIN POWER 54% 38% 8%

Note: Table made from pie chart

3 lowfat, healthy protein recipes

Think high protein means high fat? Think again. Preparing meals with an emphasis on protein doesn’t mean opting for foods high in saturated fat. Take red meat for example. Sure, you may get a good dose of protein from a steak, but you’re also downing gram after gram of artery-jamming saturated fat. Better choices, including skinless chicken and turkey, fish, shellfish, egg whites, nuts, seeds and beans, are crammed with high-quality protein, yet they’re virtually saturated-fat free.

Each recipe delivers 26-35 grams of protein, or up to half of what the ADA recommends daily (68 grams) for a 145-pound woman.

— Robin Vitetta-Miller, M.S.

Mexican Black Bean-Couscous Salad With Cilantro and Green Chilies

Serves 4

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

1 1/2 cups reduced-sodium

chicken broth or water

1 cup whole-wheat couscous

1 15-ounce can black beans, rins

and drained

1 4.5-ounce can diced green


1 green bell pepper, seeded and


1 beefsteak tomato, diced

4 ounces reduced-fat Monterey

Jack cheese, diced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh


2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Bring chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Stir in couscous and boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes, until liquid is absorbed.

Transfer couscous to a large bowl and fluff with a fork. Add remaining ingredients. Toss to combine. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled.

Nutrition Score per serving (1 1/2 cups): 429 calories, 13% fat (6 g; 4 g saturated), 63% carbs (68 g), 24% protein (26 g), 17 g fiber, 351 mg calcium, 4mg iron.

Braised Chicken with Olivesand Artichoke Hearts

Serves 4

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

2 cups instant brown rice

2 teaspoons olive oil

4 4-ounce skinless chicken breast

halves, with bone

Salt and ground black pepper

to taste

20 Greek (Kalamata) olives, pitted or

with pits

1 14.5-ounce can artichoke hearts,

drained and halved

1 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken


4 cups fresh baby spinach


2 teaspoons cornstarch

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add brown rice and return to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Season both sides of chicken with salt and pepper and add chicken to pan. Sear 2 minutes per side or until chicken is golden brown.

Add the olives, artichoke hearts and 1 1/4 cups of the chicken broth to the pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pan and cook 10 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.

Remove chicken from pan and arrange on a serving plate. Set aside.

Add spinach to the pan and cook 20-30 seconds, until spinach wilts. Using tongs, remove spinach and arrange alongside chicken.

Dissolve cornstarch in remaining 1/4 cup of broth. Add mixture to the pan and simmer 1 minute, until liquid thickens. Spoon sauce, with olives and artichokes, over chicken. Serve with brown rice.

Nutrition Score per serving (1 chicken breast halt, 5 olives, 1/3 cup artichoke hearts, 1/3 cup spinach and 1/2 cup brown rice): 428 calories, 25% tat (12 g; 1 g saturated), 42% carbs (45 g), 33% protein (35 g), 4 g fiber 68mg calcium, 4mg iron.

Egg-White Frittata With Smoked Salmon and Dill

Serves 4

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Nonstick cooking spray

2 8-ounce containers refrigerated

egg whites

1/3 cup nonfat sour cream

8 ounces smoked salmon, diced

2 green onions, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat broiler. In a large bowl, whisk together egg whites and sour cream.’ Fold in salmon, green onions, dill, salt and pepper.

Coat a large ovenproof skillet with nonstick cooking spray and set pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add egg mixture and cook 3 minutes, frequently lifting around the edges to allow uncooked egg mixture to slip underneath the cooked portion. When egg is cooked almost to the surface (about 1/4 inch of the surface will still be uncooked), set pan under the broiler and cook 1-2 minutes, until surface is golden and cooked. Cut frittata into 4 wedges and serve with whole-grain toast and all-fruit preserves on the side.

Nutrition Score per serving (1/4 of frittata, 1 slice unbuttered toast and 2 teaspoons all-fruit preserves): 234 calories, 12% fat (3 g; 0.5 g saturated), 42% carbs (24.5 g), 46% protein (27 g), 3 g fiber 145 mg calcium, 2 mg iron.

Susan M. Kleiner, R.D., Ph.D., is a Seattle-based sports nutritionist and the author of Power Eating, second edition (Human Kinetics, 2001).

“Power eating is all about empowering yourself and freeing yourself of limits,” says Susan Kleiner, R.D., Ph.D., author of “The Truth About Protein and Weight Loss” on page 176 and a member of Shape’s editorial advisory board. As nutrition consultant to the Seattle SuperSonics, Kleiner witnessed a basketball pro in tears over a losing battle with his weight. He had fallen into the trap of eating too little protein and too few calories to build muscle and crank up his metabolism. As for following her own advice about protein, Kleiner says eating at least five servings of fish a week is easy in the Pacific Northwest, where she lives.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weider Publications

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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