What Is a High-Protein Diet?

Is there such a thing as too much protein?

January 10, 2023

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Photo by: Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

Interested in trying a high-protein diet (HPD) for weight loss? This terminology is used frequently on social media and around the water cooler but is there any science out there to define it and more importantly, any evidence to support that it is safe and effective?

What Are the Goals of a High-Protein Diet?

There are several types of HPDs but most aim to have dieters eat large amounts of protein and fewer calories; some may include limiting other macros like carbohydrates and fat. Diet recommendations for amounts of protein will vary but will often exceed 25 to 35 percent of total caloric intake. The goals of most high protein type diets include weight and fat loss but also maintenance of lean body mass, which can be challenging if total calorie intake is cut too low. The National Institute of Health and most medical experts agree that diets below 1,200 calories are not sustainable and risk nutrient deficiencies if practiced long term.

How Much Protein Is Recommended?

According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, baseline protein recommendations for healthy adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is about 55 grams for a 150-pound person or 11 percent of total calories on a 2000-calorie diet. Athletes and active individuals may require a higher daily dose and folks at other stages in the life cycle (adolescents or the elderly for example, also have varied needs). Healthy adults following a HPD for weight loss may also aim for protein intake approaching 1.0 to 1.6 grams per kilogram. Instead of eating the majority of protein requirements with just one meal, protein rich foods should ideally be distributed throughout the day to help your body meet its various amino acids needs.

Can You Have Too Much Protein?

Many question whether there is such thing as too much protein in a diet. According to a review exploring clinical trials for HPDs, protein intake below 1.66g/kg was not associated with negative side effects in healthy adults when followed for 10 to 12 weeks, but more data is needed for longer periods of time. Dieters should also be aware that not enough carbohydrates and fats can contribute to low energy levels and constipation due to lack of adequate fiber. Those suffering from medical conditions including compromised kidney function may need lower doses of protein and should discuss with a medical professional before embarking on a high-protein diet.

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Photo by: mtreasure/Getty Images

mtreasure/Getty Images

What Foods Are Rich in Protein?

Protein is plentiful in both plant- and animal-based foods. Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs and low-fat dairy (like yogurt, milk and cheese) are robust sources of animal-based protein. Look to beans, lentils, whole grains, soy products, nuts and seeds for sensible plant-based options. Contrary to rumors, it is feasible to meet protein needs with plant-based foods, but it can be challenging. A few tips can help make it easier to achieve. Protein powders and ready-to-drink protein shakes are also options to help supplement the diet.

Do High-Protein Diets Help With Weight Loss?

Though there is a limited amount of research looking at HPD for weight loss, there is data to indicate that increasing protein intake above standard recommendations can be beneficial to help dieters lose weight and keep it off. Since there is a lot of variation in how these types of diets were executed in research studies, a one-size-fits all prescription for how much protein remains variable. Eating a higher amount of protein can help increase satiety, making high-protein diets easier to maintain. There is also some research to suggest high-protein diets may have an effect on gut health, particularly in obese patients.

Bottom Line: More long-term research is needed on high-protein diets, but there is some existing data to suggest that consuming extra protein does not cause immediate harm and may aid in weight loss when part of a balanced diet.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition.

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