This high-protein diet guide will give you the full high-protein lowdown—protein benefits and risks, the high-protein foods to eat and how to get started on a high-protein diet in a healthy and sustainable way.
From the bodybuilder who seemingly lives off steak to the fitness influencer who gulps down protein shakes, high-protein diets have been the talk of the health industry in recent years. And considering the benefits of a high-protein diet include weight loss, muscle gain, a boosted metabolism and decreased appetite, it’s not exactly hard to see why the high-protein-hype has exploded.
But while it’s clear that eating adequate amounts of protein is essential for good health, is it worth cranking your protein intake up to the next level to aid weight loss? And if so, is there such a thing as too much protein? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is a high-protein diet?
A high-protein diet is a diet that includes between 0.6–1g of protein per pound of body weight per day.
If you’re on a high-protein diet, you can gain protein from animal-derived protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs and whey protein and/or plant-based protein sources such as tofu, beans, legumes and vegan protein powders.
In addition to tracking your protein intake, a high-protein diet often includes:
- Eating 1–2 servings of protein with every meal
- Snacking on high-protein foods
- Eating fewer processed carbohydrates
- Using protein powders to top-up protein intake
You can use a high-protein diet to gain lean muscle or to lose weight, as consuming plenty of protein can make you feel fuller, which makes it easier to consume fewer calories overall.
While there are no set-in-stone rules, many people on a high-protein diet for weight-loss choose to eat more lean protein, but fewer refined carbohydrates and sugars, in order to maximise their results and improve their health.
How much protein on a high-protein diet?
While recommendations vary, a high-protein diet normally includes at least 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, for example:
- 9 stone: 76g protein
- 10 stone: 84g protein
- 11 stone: 92g protein
Some experts recommend an even higher daily intake of protein that meets or exceeds 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day, for example:
- 9 stone: 126g protein
- 10 stone: 140g protein
- 11 stone: 154g protein
In comparison, the ‘normal’ recommended daily intake of protein for a healthy adult is 0.35g protein per pound of body weight per day, for example:
- 9 stone: 45g protein
- 10 stone: 50g protein
- 11 stone: 56g protein
Source: The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition by Precision Nutrition
Why is protein important?
Protein is found in every single cell in your body—in your muscles, skin, hair, bones, tissues—and plays numerous essential roles. As a key ‘building block’ of the body, it contributes to the growth and repair of tissues, bones, muscles, cartilage, hair and skin.
Protein also helps to make hormones and enzymes, carries oxygen and nutrients through the body and provides the body with approximately 10 to 15% of its dietary energy. Protein is especially important for healthy growth and development during pregnancy and childhood.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients, alongside carbohydrates and fats. These are the three major nutrient groups that your body needs to survive and perform its basic functions. Your body needs fairly large quantities of these three macronutrients in order to perform its basic functions; hence the name ‘macro’, which means large.
Protein is made up of 20+ building blocks called amino acids, nine of which are referred to as ‘essential amino acids’:
Your body cannot synthesize (make) these nine amino acids on its own, meaning you must obtain them through the high-protein foods you eat.
Benefits of a high-protein diet
While protein is an important building block of any healthy diet, committing to a high-protein diet comes with several science-backed benefits:
1. Reduces your appetite
Protein can help you to feel fuller for longer and reduce your appetite; a key benefit of a high-protein diet.
Your appetite is regulated by your brain, which is influenced by several satiety hormones. These tell your brain when and how much you should eat. Studies show that a high-protein diet increases the levels of 3 appetite-reducing hormones, whilst reducing the levels of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry.
Protein also takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, adding to its appetite-reducing effect. Together, these factors can lead to a reduction in hunger, which can help you to eat fewer calories and lose weight.
2. Helps you to burn more calories
Protein has the highest TEF (thermic effect of food) of all three macronutrients, which means it can help you to burn more calories.
The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy that your body needs to digest and metabolize the food you eat. When you eat protein, 20–30% of the calories you consume are burned during digestion. This is significantly higher than carbs (5–10%) and fat (0–3%).
For perspective, if you were to 300 calories worth of protein, your body will use between 60 and 90 of them during digestion. This increased energy expenditure can help you to lose or maintain weight naturally.
3. Increases your muscle mass and strength
One of the key benefits of a high-protein diet is muscle growth. In those trying to lose weight, it can also help to promote fat loss whilst decreasing muscle loss.
When you lose weight, you’re likely to lose muscle as well as fat. This is because your body may transform muscle mass (as well as fat) into energy when you’re in a calorie deficit. But by providing your body with extra protein, you can ensure that there is enough to support both muscle health and your energy requirements.
In a 2012 study, two groups of adults were put on a low-calorie diet. However, one included high-protein, while the other was low. At the end of the study, both groups lost a similar amount of weight, but the high-protein diet group managed to preserve significantly more lean muscle mass.
4. Strengthens your bones
A high-protein diet can help to strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis.
Protein makes up 50% of your bone structure, aids in calcium absorption and provides key nutrients for bone health. For this reason, high-protein diets are increasingly linked with greater bone mass and fewer fractures, when combined with adequate calcium intake.
The British Association of Dietetics states that eating enough protein—at least 2 servings per day—can help to safeguard your bones.
5. Helps you to sleep better
One of the lesser-known benefits of a high-protein diet is that it can help to induce and improve your sleep.
Tryptophan, an amino acid found in most protein foods, boosts the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Tryptophan is found in most high-protein foods, especially dairy products, poultry, eggs and peanuts.
Studies show that consuming a serving of protein before you go to bed is associated with better sleep quality and can help you to wake up less through the night.
6. Promotes weight loss
Ultimately, eating a high-protein diet of 0.6 grams+ of protein per pound of body weight can be an effective weight-loss technique. Numerous factors sway heavily in protein’s favour when it comes to weight loss and maintenance, including:
- Protein reduces the levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, which can help to reduce hunger.
- Protein has a high thermic effect (TEF), which means you’ll naturally burn more calories whilst processing your meals.
- Protein helps you to lose body fat but reduces muscle loss (particularly when combined with strength training).
- Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, which means you’ll feel fuller for longer and experience fewer food cravings.
“High-satiety protein fills us up and keeps us full, so we have no room for low-quality food. Our fat metabolism system will burn body fat instead of muscle. As researched D.K. Layman tells us: Use of higher protein diets reduces lean tissue loss to less than 15%. When combined with exercise, they can halt the loss of lean tissue during weight loss.”– Jonathan Bailor, Health & Fitness Researcher: The Smarter Science of Slim
Risks of a high-protein diet
In otherwise healthy people, it’s clear that high protein diets come with many benefits and can be an effective tool in your weight-loss journey.
But any ‘diet’ or eating plan should be good for your health and sustainable in the long-run. It’s therefore highly important to be aware of the potential side effects and health risks involved.
The following high-protein diet risks are typically correlated with a significant, long-term overconsumption of protein over an extended period:
- Kidney damage: Unhealthy kidneys may struggle to remove the extra waste from protein from the body, which can lead to further kidney damage. Those with kidney disease should avoid high-protein diets.
- Nutritional deficiencies: High-protein diets that limit fibre, fat and carbohydrate intake to the extreme can eventually result in deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals.
- Digestion problems: High-protein diets that do not include enough fibre can lead to digestion and bowel problems, such as constipation, cramping and bloating.
- Dehydration: High-protein consumption increases your body’s need to get rid of waste, which causes a diuretic effect (more frequent urination). If this isn’t balanced with extra hydration, there’s a risk of dehydration.
- Increased risk of osteoporosis: While studies are conflicted, some experts believe that a very (very) high-protein diet causes individuals to lose more calcium. This can increase the risk of osteoporosis.
- Increased risk of disease: Studies show that a high-protein diet that is particularly high in red and processed meat can result in an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. You can avoid this by balancing out your red meat consumption with plenty of poultry and plant-based protein options.
How much protein is too much?
Humans can safely tolerate up to 2kg of protein per pound of bodyweight, per day. The risks associated with a high-protein diet, such as kidney damage, nutritional deficiencies and digestion problems, are typically linked to eating an unsafe amount of protein (in excess of 2kg/pound) over the long term.
Thankfully, studies show that increasing protein intake to just 0.6—1 kg of protein per pound of body weight can be an effective strategy for weight loss. Eating 2kg/pound of protein per day is unrealistic for the average person and would likely be very hard to sustain.
“Studies prove that until we exceed two grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, we will get only healthier and slimmer by upping our protein intake. To put two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight into perspective, an inactive 150-pound person would not enter the protein danger zone until they ate eleven chicken breasts per day, every day.Jonathan Bailor, Health & Fitness Researcher: The Smarter Science of Slim
That would total two grams of protein per pound of body weight and would mean that 60% of their total calories were coming from protein. That is a terribly imbalanced diet and an unnatural amount of protein.”
How to eat a high-protein diet
Keen to get started on a high-protein diet? It’s not as simple as loading up on steak and chicken. It’s essential to focus on the wider quality of your diet and ensure you’re still gaining adequate amounts of fibre, healthy fat and essential micronutrients on a daily basis.
Here are our must-know tips for eating a healthy and balanced high-protein diet:
1. Do your calculations
First things first, you need to know what to aim for. We’d suggest starting on the lower end of a high-protein diet (0.6kg of protein per pound of body weight). First, weigh yourself. Then, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.6—this will give you your daily protein goal in grams. For example, someone who is 10 stone (140lbs) should calculate 0.6 x 140, which equals 84g of protein per day.
If you lose weight whilst eating a high-protein diet, you should re-calculate your protein requirement regularly to ensure you’re still consuming a safe amount for your bodyweight.
2. Track your protein intake
While we don’t necessarily advocate for strict nutrition tracking, the high-protein diet risks listed above means it’s important to make sure you don’t overdo it on the protein. It can be useful to track your food via a nutrition app (try MyFitnessPal or Chronometer), at least for the first couple of weeks. This way, you’ll gain a better idea of the quantity of high-protein foods you’ll need to eat to meet your daily protein goal, whilst ensuring you don’t get overly protein-happy.
3. Pick your protein wisely
Rather than focusing solely on quantity, focus on the quality and quantity of your protein. Processed meats like chicken nuggets, breaded meats and lunch meats are often loaded with salt and additives. Instead, opt for natural, unprocessed protein sources such as fish, lean meat, eggs, nuts, seeds, grains, tofu, beans and lentils whenever you can.
4. Include animal and plant protein
It might be tempting to load up on animal proteins alone, but don’t underestimate plants. Plant-based proteins are typically higher in fibre and essential vitamins than meat. Adding them to the mix will help you to keep your diet in balance. We’ve included a full list of healthy animal and plant-based high-protein foods below, to help you get started.
5. Consider your carbs
If you’re looking to lose weight on a high-protein diet, paying attention to your carbohydrate and sugar intake could help to speed up your progress. Fibrous carbs, such as fruit and vegetables, are more nutrient-dense and filling than starchy and sugary refined carbs, which can further help to reduce your appetite and prevent overeating. You can find out more in our lowdown on carbs and low-carb alternatives articles.
6. Don’t neglect fibre and fat
If you suddenly increase the protein content of your diet, it’s all too easy to let your fibre and fat intake take a hit. Make sure to eat a generous portion of fibre (vegetables, as well as plant-based proteins like chickpeas and lentils etc) and a small portion of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, cheese, fatty fish, eggs etc) with every meal to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
7. Plan your meals
Planning high-protein meals and snacks ahead of time will make it easier for you to make healthy food choices and consistently work towards your goals. It can also save you time and money. You’ll only buy what you really need—and instead of dressing out in front of your fridge wondering what to eat after a busy day, you’ll already have a high-protein dish planned.
Sit down once a week (or every few days—whatever suits your lifestyle) and use recipe books or websites to plan out your meals and create a high-protein shopping list. It might seem a faff at the time, but you’ll thank yourself later!
Need some high-protein brekkie inspo? You’ll find loads of recipes in our guide to high-protein low-carb breakfasts.
8. Consider protein powder
If you work full-time or lead a particularly busy lifestyle, you might find it difficult to reach your protein goals on a daily basis. In these instances, you might consider adding a protein powder to your routine for a convenient dose of protein, with minimal prep time.
But don’t settle for any old protein shake. Most of them are chockablock with sugar and artificial sweeteners, as well as an endless list of additives, gums, preservatives and emulsifiers that you can barely pronounce. While these types of protein powders may provide a good amount of protein, they typically have a distinct lack of other essential nutrients, like fibre and healthy fats.
That’s where Purition comes in. Purition takes protein powder ‘back to basics’ by providing extra protein from real, whole foods, rather than highly processed, artificial ingredients. Our wholefood protein powders are made from 70% seeds and nuts, combined with a premium vegetarian (grass-fed whey protein isolate from British milk) or vegan (cold-pressed pumpkin, sunflower and hemp proteins) protein.
One glass of Purition offers 16-20g of protein, alongside 12-15g of healthy fats and 6-8g of fibre, for an easy high-protein breakfast or snack. It’ll help you to boost your protein intake with ease, whilst also keeping your wider nutritional needs in check!
If you’re following a high-protein diet for weight-loss, find out how Purition can help in our weight-loss guide.
High-protein diet foods list
When it comes to getting protein in your diet, meat and dairy aren’t the only options. Plant-based protein sources like beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are packed with fibre and essential micronutrients to keep your wider health in check. For the best results, try to incorporate a range of plant-based and animal-derived high-protein foods into your daily high-protein diet.
Animal-derived protein foods
- Red meats
- Greek yoghurt
Plant-based protein foods
- Beans & legumes
- Soy milk & yoghurt
- Nuts & seeds
Following a vegan high-protein diet? You can find out more about plant-powered protein in our best vegan protein sources guide.
High-protein diets: The bottom line
High-protein diets can be an effective strategy for weight loss, muscle growth and optimal health. If you stick to it consistently, it also offers numerous science-backed health benefits, including a reduced appetite, stronger bones, better sleep and, of course, a healthier body weight.
If you’re just starting out, it’s best to start on the lower end of a high-protein diet—0.6kg of protein per pound of body weight)—and see how you feel. Make sure to track your food intake for the first couple of weeks, so you can accurately gauge how much protein you’re actually getting.
For better long-term health and wellbeing, focus on including whole, minimally-processed protein sources in your diet, such as eggs, lean meat, fish, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. And to make reaching your protein targets even easier, consider adding a high-quality natural protein powder, such as Purition, into your day-to-day routine.
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