Protein for Dieters
Do you eat enough protein to offset your daily losses? Some of you do not. True, in the United States, we often eat more protein than we need with our large portions and meat-eating ways. Still, low-calorie dieters may be falling short on protein, and it's time for a protein check-up.
Protein “R” Us
Every cell of your body is made of protein - skin, hair, muscles, organs, enzymes, hormones, blood, antibodies, body fluids - name 'em. Protein also provides energy when calories are in short supply. When you are in the weight-loss mode, some of your protein is wasted as fuel.
Dietary protein comes from animal foods like eggs, meat, poultry, and fish. Protein is also in legumes (dried beans, lentils and soy), dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, and whey), and in nuts, seeds, grains, and a bit in vegetables too. Animal proteins are "high-quality", meaning they provide all the raw materials needed for cell synthesis. Plant proteins are not high quality because they are missing component amino acids here and there. But the quality of plant protein improves when eaten as part of a balanced diet with enough calories for weight maintenance. Vegetarians must make an effort to get enough high-quality protein.
For adults, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day. (2.2 pounds = one kg) The requirement is enough to offset protein loss in a healthy adult on an adequate calorie intake. It also assumes that high-quality protein is consumed.
Low calorie dieters are advised to eat 1.0 grams per kg to offset protein that is wasted for fuel. Furthermore, people who engage in significant endurance and strength-training activities need 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kg/day.
How much protein does a 154 lb (70 kg) person on a weight loss diet with a cardio- and strength-training program need?
Answer: At 1.0 g – 1.2 g per kg per day, our reference person needs a daily intake of 70 to 84 grams of protein.
Grams vs. Percents
The Calorie Count Nutrition Report displays protein in actual grams and as a percent of total calories. Expert groups like the National Academy of Sciences and the USDA recommend energy nutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat, and alcohol) in terms of percent of total calories. The usual recommendation for protein is 10 to 35 percent of total calories. That is quite a range but it shows how the body is capable of burning different combinations of fuel.
But is a protein intake of 10%, 15%, or 20% of total calories right for you? Let's check again:
At 1600 calories a day (recommended for our reference person to lose one pound per week), protein as a percent of total calories translates into these grams: (Consider one gram of protein provides 4 calories.)
- 10% of total calories = 40 grams of protein
- 15% of total calories = 60 grams of protein
- 20% of total calories = 80 grams of protein
- 25% of total calories = 100 grams of protein
- 30% of total calories = 120 grams of protein
And so, our 154 lb (70 kg) person on a 1600 calorie diet with exercise needs at least 20% of calories from protein to satisfy protein requirements. In fact, recent research from the University of Illinois-Champaign showed that, when combined with exercise, a diet with 30% of calories from protein enhanced weight loss and maintained lean tissue better than a diet containing 15% protein. (See the abstract from the Journal of Nutrition.)
The bottom line
A good distribution of total calories for a dieter is 20% from protein, 50% from carbohydrate and 30% from fat. Low carbohydrate dieters aim for 30% from protein, 40% from carbohydrate and 30% from fat because they burn more protein (and fat) than carbohydrate for fuel.
Realize that one gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories, one gram of fat provides 9 calories, and one gram of alcohol provides 7 calories. Use those numbers, along with your Calorie Count Nutrition Report, to see if you are meeting your protein needs.
Do you meet your personal protein requirements?