Protein For Weight Loss: 5 Science-Backed Benefits + Foods

No magic wand guarantees weight loss because our bodies are all so different. But your food choices, especially the balance of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates), can make a significant impact.

protein rich foods including fish, eggs, meat, and nuts
by
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN
— Signos
Health & Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 19, 2024
May 25, 2022
— Updated:
November 30, 2023

Table of Contents

Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in our bodies' growth, repair, and maintenance. It’s a building block for your muscles, hormones, cells, and enzymes, but it also plays an essential role in weight management.

No magic wand guarantees weight loss, but your food choices, especially the balance of macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates), can make a significant impact. Of all these macronutrients, protein comes in first for weight loss.

Protein has many health benefits. It keeps you satisfied, helps with cravings, preserves muscle mass as you're losing weight, and may even make your body work harder to digest, so you burn more calories without even trying.

Let's take a deep dive into why dietary protein is essential for weight loss and how you can easily incorporate more protein-rich foods into your diet.

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How Protein Helps With Weight Loss

According to some research, protein may help with weight loss even without changing anything else in your diet (like cutting calories). One study found that eating a higher protein diet (thirty-five percent total calories) divided into six meals a day decreased body fat and abdominal body fat.

A higher-protein diet may also help you maintain weight loss because it’s easier to follow than other diet patterns, like very low-carb diets.

Here are some of the reasons protein is so effective for weight loss.

Protein Keeps You Satisfied For Longer Time Periods

Protein is effective for weight loss because it keeps you satiated (full and satisfied), reducing appetite throughout the day. 

Unlike low-calorie diets that often lead to a cycle of restriction and overeating, consuming more protein induces a feeling of satiety. Protein takes longer to digest than other nutrients and helps maintain stable blood sugar levels.

If you’re satisfied, it may mean you’re less likely to overeat during the day or reach for snacks between meals or late-night when cravings often are the hardest to resist.

Protein may also impact hormones that impact the appetite, like ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry. Studies show protein can help regulate these hormones and keep hunger at bay.

Some research also suggests a protein-specific appetite exists where people will want to eat more food if they don’t have enough protein in their diet, but if protein needs are met, they will naturally eat less. For example, one study found that when protein was increased from 15 to 30 percent of total calories (but carbohydrates remained the same), people naturally decreased their total calorie intake and lost weight and fat mass.  

Another study found that women who ate a protein-rich yogurt snack reported less hunger and stayed satisfied longer than those who snacked on foods with more carbs or fat.

It Takes More Energy to Break Down Protein

Another reason protein helps with weight loss is because of its high thermic effect.

A high thermic effect means the body has to work harder to digest and metabolize protein, so you burn more calories. The thermic effect of protein likely only provides a slight boost, but it could contribute to the overall benefits of eating protein for a healthy weight.

One study showed that individuals who ate a high-protein diet had a higher energy expenditure than those who ate a low-protein diet. Another small study found that eating a high-protein meal led to a twofold higher energy burn than a high-carb meal.

Protein Keeps Blood Sugar Balanced

While protein has a minimal effect on lowering blood sugar, it can help keep blood sugar levels balanced by slowing the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream. This is beneficial because it can help minimize blood sugar and insulin spikes that play a role in fat storage.

Studies show the benefits of high protein diets for weight loss and blood sugar balance for people with type 2 diabetes, but anyone can see the benefits. Pairing other foods that may raise blood sugar, like whole grains or fruit with protein, can help minimize the spike.

Protein Preserves Lean Body Mass as You Lose Weight

Protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass. If you cut calories and drop weight, you could lose muscle mass instead of fat. This is one reason calorie-restricted diets aren't always the best idea.

Protein helps preserve lean body mass as you lose weight, even when calories are restricted. Several studies found that individuals who increased their protein intake had more fat loss and maintained muscle mass than those who didn't increase protein.

Lean muscle is also metabolically active compared to fat tissue (meaning it burns more calories), so preserving muscle can positively impact your metabolism and improve body composition.

How Much Protein Do You Need for Weight Loss?

woman standing in a kitchen eating a bowl of berries and yogurt

Each person will require a different amount of protein depending on factors like age, weight, activity level, or medical conditions. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for sedentary adults to prevent deficiency is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (kg). Usually, this is between 15 and 20 percent of total calories. 

However, some research suggests that the ideal range for healthy adults is a higher protein intake, closer to 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram.   This is especially true if you are active or trying to build muscle.

To see what works best for your body, you can also experiment with the different macronutrient percentages—like increasing your protein and dropping your carbohydrates.

How to Increase Your Protein Intake for Weight Loss

  • Add protein powder to shakes and smoothies. Protein shakes are an easy way to get extra grams of protein daily. Make sure your smoothie includes fiber and healthy fat to avoid blood sugar spikes.
  • Snack on high-protein foods like nuts, seeds, hard-boiled eggs, or yogurt.
  • Eat more protein at breakfast. Eggs, oatmeal with protein powder, and Greek yogurt are great options. Try making protein pancakes for breakfast by mixing together some eggs, oats, and protein powder for a great way to start your day with a healthy dose of protein.
  • Use high-protein condiments like hummus, tahini, or peanut butter.

Are Protein Powders and Supplements Good for Weight Loss?

Gone are the days when protein powders were only used by bodybuilders to gain muscle. Protein supplements are helpful for anyone to use as a quick and easy way to get additional protein into your diet.

Whey protein is the most popular type of protein powder. It's easily absorbed and has a lot of beneficial research behind its use for satiety, weight loss, and lean muscle. 

One study found that daily whey intake led to weight loss without any other dietary changes. Several studies also point to whey protein and satiety, which can lower overeating or food cravings.

If you can’t tolerate dairy or prefer plant-based protein, you can try vegan versions like pea, hemp, or pumpkin seed protein, which include all the essential amino acids.

Soy protein is heavily processed so other options may be a better choice. Recent studies have found that brown rice is heavily contaminated with arsenic from the soil, so you may choose to avoid this option.

Protein supplements like protein bars also can be a convenient way to add to your protein intake. Just make sure to double-check the nutrition label for added sugar or preservatives. Look for bars that use real foods, such as nuts and seeds. While high in protein, many bars contain a surprising amount of sugar or excessive sugar alcohols that could upset your stomach. 

18 High Protein Foods for Weight Loss

woman lifting weights at the gym

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Wild salmon
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Cod
  • Tuna
  • Shrimp
  • Quinoa
  • Tofu
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Edamame
  • Black beans
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Pistachios

People often think of protein as something that comes from animal sources. Animal protein like chicken breast or thighs, lean meats, turkey, and fish are excellent protein sources, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of protein that can be just as beneficial for weight loss. One study compared two diets that either emphasized plant or animal-based protein sources, and both led to comparable amounts of weight loss.

Quinoa, tofu, lentils, legumes, and edamame are excellent protein sources. The trick is to learn how your body responds because although they are high in fiber and protein, they can spike blood sugar for some people.

Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and eggs are also high in protein. One study found that eating eggs for breakfast increased satiety (feelings of fullness) significantly more than eating a bagel for breakfast.

In addition to containing protein, nuts, and seeds are a great source of healthy fats and fiber. Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are all delicious choices for snacks or toppings on meals.

Using a CGM to See How Protein Affects Your Blood Sugar

Using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) lets you see exactly how a high-protein diet impacts your glucose levels. A CGM can show how your blood sugar rises and falls throughout the day in response to what you eat. With this info, you can monitor trends and track your appetite or weight to see what healthy eating habits work best for you. 

You can also share your CGM info with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) for even more individualized support. Pairing your CGM with the Signos app can also give personalized feedback to help you reach your weight loss goals.

The Bottom Line: Protein Supports a Healthy Weight

Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a role in weight loss, muscle growth, satiety, and more. If you want to increase your protein intake, there are a few easy ways to do so. Adding protein powder to shakes and smoothies, snacking on high-protein foods, and eating more protein at breakfast are great ways to increase your daily protein intake.

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About the author

Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.

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