How Protein Helps in Weight Loss?
Catarina Lynn, Nutritionist, Nutrition Society of Malaysia 1 August 2023
During any meal of the day, protein-based dishes are often the highlight on the plate or table. But did you know that having the right amount and type of protein, alongside balanced carbohydrate and fat, can also help you to achieve healthy weight loss and maintenance?
What is protein?
Protein is one of the three types of macronutrients that we consume from our diet, other than fat and carbohydrate. It is made up of 20 amino acids that bind together in various combinations to form different types of protein that serve diverse functions in our body. These functions include:
- Tissue growth, maintenance, and repair
- Immunity against infections (antibodies)
- Energy supply
Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet and has also been shown to be beneficial for healthy weight management. To promote weight loss, it is important to pay attention to the type and quality of protein consumed.
How can protein help with weight management?
1. Reduce hunger and increase satiety
Protein provides satiety and tends to promote a feeling of fullness and helps us to curb overeating. In the 2021 APAC Generation Gap Breakfast Habits Survey conducted by Herbalife, 50% of Malaysians think that a higher-protein breakfast helps with weight management. Among these Malaysians, 66% agree that protein helps keep you fuelled up until your next meal or snack.
This happens because protein intake reduces the level of the hunger hormone ghrelin, while at the same time, boosting satiety hormones (e.g. GLP-1, cholecystokinin) that reduce hunger and appetite.
2. Boost metabolism and burn more calories
Protein has a high thermic effect of food (20%-30%), which refers to the percentage of calories used for digesting and metabolizing the food. Therefore, calories from protein are burned more efficiently.
Adequate protein intake also tends to boost overall metabolism, while a high-protein diet makes you burn an extra 80-100 calories per day.
3. Prevent muscle loss and metabolic slowdown
When you lose weight, you also tend to lose some muscle mass leading to a decreased metabolic rate. Consuming adequate protein can help build muscle, prevent muscle loss and boost metabolism even as you lose weight, especially when combined with strength training exercises.
4. Reduce stress
Increased and prolonged stress can affect sleep, sugar and hormone levels and lead to emotional eating, which can result in weight gain. Consuming protein-rich foods is crucial to produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that can help improve mood, reduce stress, and prevent depression. A diet rich in protein also helps you avoid foods high in sugar, which can trigger anxiety and depression when taken in excess.
5. Keep blood sugar from climbing up
Consuming only carbohydrates can cause blood sugar to spike up. High blood sugar levels may lead to insulin resistance, causing less sugar to be taken up by the body. You’ll also have higher levels of insulin in the blood. These factors can prevent fat from your adipose tissue from being mobilised and used as fuel source. Having a combined meal with some protein and fats can keep blood sugar from climbing up.
How to get enough protein?
Daily recommended protein intake may vary depending on age, sex, how active you are and other factors. In general, Malaysian Recommended Nutrient Intake 2017 has advised that an average adult should aim to get 1.0 gram protein per kilogram of body weight daily to maintain good health. If you’re exercising for weight loss, an intake of 1.0-1.2 grams protein per kilogram of target body weight daily may be beneficial to build muscle. Discuss with a dietitian to know your individual requirement.
The protein sources you include in your diet will make a big impact on your health. Get high-quality, minimally processed proteins whenever possible. You can get protein from:
- Animal sources: This is a typical source of protein, which include fish, shellfish, meat and poultry, eggs, milk, and dairy products. Choose lean animal protein and limit intake of organ and processed meats.
- Plant sources: Plant sources such as soybean and soy products (e.g. tofu, tempeh), legumes, nuts and whole grains are also good sources of protein. For comparison, here are the amount of protein in different food sources:
Protein is an important macronutrient that serves multiple key roles in our body, including as building blocks of tissues and muscles. No matter what your fitness goal is, protein should be taken sufficiently during all meals, including during breakfast.
Malaysian Dietary Guideline 2020 / RNI Malaysia 2017