Protein Intake for the Dieter

You’ve been eating healthy, watching your portions, and exercising regularly.  Yet, you have reached a road block in your weight loss and are confused by what it could be that is going wrong.  It could be one thing or it could be a combination of things that are the reason for not being able to lose anymore weight.  It’s up to you to figure out what is going wrong and how to fix it.

Have a Plan

Instead of winging it, you should plan your diet focusing on your nutrient intake (carbs, protein, fat, calories) each day in advance.  You don’t have to be a nutrition expert to figure this out.  Simply trial and error will work.  My previous post mentioned that women need a minimum of 1200 calories per day and men need a minimum of 1800 calories per day.  I personally find these to be true and have had great results using 1800 calories as my base calorie intake.

Planning doesn’t just include focusing on nutrient intake but also preparing food in advance for the week.  By making food in advance you set yourself up for success.  Ever find yourself in a time crunch without food prepared?  We all do and the closest and fastest way to get food is through a drive through or munching on snacks that contain very little nutrient quality.  By preparing your food in bulk, you control what you will be eating each day throughout the week.  I prefer choosing a day on the weekend to make food for the week.  One weekend I may grill chicken, roast veggies in the oven, and make a beef stew.  Another weekend I may make a chicken and veggie soup or a chili, stock up on fruit, and prepare some quinoa.  Each day I sit down when I have time to plan my next day so I can control my nutrients (how much I get to eat and how often).

I speak about nutrient timing a lot to clients and I know they understand but have a hard time connecting it to their lifestyle.  I personally follow a mixture of the Paleo Diet (lean meats, seafood, fish, veggies, fruits, nuts) and Carb Cycling (cycling days of higher carb intake with lower carb intake).

Before I begin to write about the details I want to touch base on nutrition basics and what it’s composed of.  Let’s start with Protein…

There are 6 essential primary functions of proteins:

1) Repair and Maintenance

Protein is termed the building block of the body.  It is called this because protein is vital in the maintenance of body tissue, including development and repair.  Hair, skin, eyes, muscles and organs are all made from protein.  This is why children need more protein per pound of body weight than adults; they are growing and developing new protein tissue.

2) Energy

Protein is a major source of energy.  If you consume more protein than you need for body tissue maintenance and other necessary functions, your body will use it for energy.  If it is not needed due to sufficient intake of other energy sources such as carbohydrates, the protein will be used to create fat and becomes part of fat cells.

3) Hormones

Protein is involved in the creation of some hormones.  These substances help control body functions that involve the interaction of several organs.  Insulin, a small protein, is an example of a hormone that regulates blood sugar.  It involves the interaction of organs such as the pancreas and the liver.  Secretin, is another example of a protein hormone.  This substance assists in the digestive process by stimulating the pancreas and the intestine to create necessary digestive juices.

4) Enzymes

Enzymes are proteins that increase the rate of chemical reactions in the body.  In fact, most of the necessary chemical reactions in the body would not efficiently proceed without enzymes.  For example, one type of enzyme functions as an aid in digesting large protein, carbohydrate and fat molecules into smaller molecules, while another assists the creation of DNA.

5) Transportation and Storage of Molecules

Protein is a major element in transportation of certain molecules.  For example, hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen throughout the body.  Protein is also sometimes used to store certain molecules.  Ferritin is an example of a protein that combines with iron for storage in the liver.


Protein forms antibodies that help prevent infection, illness and disease.  These proteins identify and assist in destroying antigens such as bacteria and viruses.  They often work in conjunction with the other immune system cells.  For example, these antibodies identify and then surround antigens in order to keep them contained until they can be destroyed by white blood cells.

Now that you know the functions of protein, how much and how often do you need protein throughout the day?

Your body can really only process about 20-30 grams of protein at each meal and it takes the longest time to breakdown and utilize than carbs or fats.  It has the highest thermic effect of any macronutrient.  In other words, it requires a large demand from your body to digest it.

Here is an article that sums up the thermic effect of food…

Mike Roussell, Ph.D.

What the heck is the thermic effect of food, how big of an impact does it have, and can I harness it to work for me as I try to build lean mass?

The thermic effect of food is the caloric cost of digesting and processing different macronutrients in your diet.  There is evidence that scientists have known about this phenomenon since the early 1900s.  Amazingly, despite what we could consider greatly antiquated methods, researchers over 75 years ago were able to accurately determine the different thermic effects of each of the different macronutrients.

“IF you eat 200 calories worth of protein, your body will use between 40 and 70 of them in digestion.”

Understand that there are no hard-and-fast values for the thermic effect of the different macronutrients, because research shows slightly different results from study to study. Granted that, here are some generally accepted parameters:

  • Protein: 20-35% of calories burned through processing
  • Carbohydrates: 5-15% of calories burned through processing
  • Fats: 0-5% of calories burned through processing

To put this in tangible terms, if you eat 200 calories worth of protein, our body will use between 40 and 70 of them in digestion.  The most common estimate for the total thermic effect of food is around 10 percent of your total caloric intake, but as your protein intake increases so does this number.

Put Information to Work

The thermic effect of food should be particularly of interest to hardgainers or anyone trying to add mass.  Hardgainers are generally metabolically inefficient, meaning their bodies burn off excessive amounts of calories as heat—and thus not for processes like muscle-building.  This requires them to eat even more than their non-hardgainer counterparts in order to put the same number of calories effectively to use.

A struggling hardgainer eating 3,300 calories per day on a 40/30/30 protein/carb/fat breakdown could be burning off as much as 365 calories due to the thermic effect of food. That is a significant chunk of calories.  Accounting for these caloric losses can make life less frustrating, because it provides a more accurate picture of the calories being directed toward muscle-building efforts.  Since protein has a thermic effect upward of five times greater than carbohydrates or fat, the additional calories you put into your diet to make up for this gap should come from carbohydrates, fats or both.  This will minimize the thermic consumption.

Thermic Effect of Food

The thermic effect of food is the caloric cost of digesting and processing different macronutrients. Protein has a thermic effect upward of five times greater than carbohydrates or fat.

Other factors affect the thermic effect of food in ways which could be of great interest to hardgainers and anyone else who tracks and strategizes their macro intake.  These are exercise and body composition.  People who are lean have been shown to experience a greater thermic effect, although there’s no clear consensus on how much.  Likewise, the thermic effect of food jumps post-exercise, but again, since this is tied to body composition, exercise duration, and intensity, it is difficult to give a clear estimate of how much.

So what’s the takeaway?  If you add extra calories during the post-workout window to take advantage of insulin sensitivity, it may work against you to some degree if your goal is to build mass.  To counteract this increase in the thermic effect of food, consider adding fat or carbohydrate calories strategically outside of the post-workout window.

Now for the recommended dietary allowance of protein….

Should You Double Up On Protein to Lose Weight?

A new study suggests you need more protein than you think to maximize fat loss

In the study, 32 men and 7 women followed a 31-day weight-loss diet that contained either the recommended daily amount (RDA) of protein, twice the RDA, or three times the RDA. At the end of the study, everyone had lost about the same amount of weight (an average of 2.7 to 3.5 pounds).  However, the people who doubled up on protein lost the most fat; it amounted to about 70 percent of their total weight loss.  For those who ate three times the RDA, 63.6 percent of their weight loss was due to fat loss. And the people who ate the recommended amount of protein fared the worst: Only 41.8 percent of their weight loss was from fat.

Researchers say that eating protein can boost the rate at which your body repairs and builds new muscle after you workout—and that’s a good thing since the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns at rest.  The thing is, eating too much protein (i.e., three times the RDA or more) seems to slow down this process.  No one knows exactly why, says Gerald Weissmann, M.D., editor in chief of The FASEB Journal and research professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.  (He was not involved in the research.)

So how much protein should you eat for weight loss?  Multiply your weight by 0.36 for the recommended daily amount of protein (in grams) that you should be consuming.  Then double that number.  That’s about 110 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person or slightly more if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, super-active, or elderly.  Just make sure you also cut back on carbs and fat while you’re at it.  Otherwise, you’ll eat more calories overall—a surefire recipe for weight gain.

Paleo Diet Meats

This is a list of paleo diet meats allowed on the diet.  Almost all meats are paleo by definition.  Of course, you’ll want to stay away from highly processed meats and meats that are very high in fat (stuff like spam, hot dogs are other low-quality meat), but if it used to moo, oink or make some other sound – it’s almost certainly paleo (and yes, that means you can still have bacon – although don’t do anything too crazy with it).  Here’s the full list below:

  • Poultry
  • Turkey
  • Chicken Breast
  • Pork Tenderloin
  • Pork Chops
  • Steak
  • Veal
  • Bacon
  • Pork
  • Ground Beef
  • Grass Fed Beef
  • Chicken Thigh
  • Chicken Leg
  • Chicken Wings (yum!)
  • Lamb rack
  • Shrimp
  • Lobster
  • Clams
  • Salmon
  • Venison Steaks
  • Buffalo
  • New York Steak
  • Bison
  • Bison Steaks
  • Bison Jerky
  • Bison Ribeye
  • Bison Sirloin
  • Lamb Chops
  • Rabbit
  • Goat
  • Elk
  • Emu
  • Goose
  • Kangaroo
  • Bear (good luck getting this!)
  • Beef Jerky
  • Eggs (duck, chicken or goose)
  • Wild Boar
  • Reindeer
  • Turtle
  • Ostrich
  • Pheasant
  • Quail
  • Lean Veal
  • Chuck Steak
  • Rattlesnake

Paleo Diet Fish

Fish are definitely on the paleo diet and they’re chock full of good stuff like Omega 3s as well.  If it swims and has fins, it’s definitely paleo.  Have at it!

  • Bass
  • Salmon
  • Halibut
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Tuna
  • Red Snapper
  • Shark
  • Sunfish
  • Swordfish
  • Tilapia
  • Trout
  • Walleye

Paleo Diet Seafood

Down in New Orleans and want to have a crawfish boil?  Paleo.  Swap it out for shrimp? Ditto.  Heck, even a stop at Red Lobster is good as long as you stay away from the rolls. Check out the tons of different seafood you can eat on the paleo diet.

  • Crab
  • Crawfish
  • Crayfish
  • Shrimp
  • Clams
  • Lobster
  • Scallops
  • Oysters

Table 2: Protein Content of Selected Vegan Foods

(gm) (gm/100 cal)

Tempeh 1 cup 31 9.6
Soybeans, cooked 1 cup 29 9.6
Seitan 3 ounces 21 17.5
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 18 7.8
Black beans, cooked 1 cup 15 6.7
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 15 6.8
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 15 5.4
Pinto beans, cooked 1 cup 15 6.3
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 15 6.8
Black-eyed peas, cooked 1 cup 13 6.7
Veggie burger 1 patty 13 18.6
Veggie baked beans 1 cup 12 5.0
Tofu, firm 4 ounces 11 10.6
Tofu, regular 4 ounces 10 10.7
Bagel 1 med. (3.5 oz) 10 3.9
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 8 3.7
Peas, cooked 1 cup 8 6.6
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), cooked 1/2 cup 8 15.0
Peanut butter 2 Tbsp 8 4.1
Veggie dog 1 link 8 13.3
Spaghetti, cooked 1 cup 8 3.7
Almonds 1/4 cup 8 3.7
Soy milk, commercial, plain 1 cup 7 7.0
Whole wheat bread 2 slices 7 5.2
Almond butter 2 Tbsp 7 3.4
Soy yogurt, plain 8 ounces 6 4.0
Bulgur, cooked 1 cup 6 3.7
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 6 3.3
Cashews 1/4 cup 5 2.7
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 5 13.0
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 4 6.7
Sources: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, 2011 and manufacturers’ information.
The recommendation for protein for adult male vegans is around 63 grams per day; for adult female vegans it is around 52 grams per day.
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