I can categorically say that switching to a high-protein diet has had a hugely positive effect on my body composition. I count my macros pretty strictly using the Fitocracy Macros app—macronutrients being the fat, protein and carbohydrate content in my foods. Now I know that not everyone can be faffed to count their calories, let alone dig deeper and count the macros too. But the biggest takeaway I can let you in on is that calculating my macros so a higher proportion of my calories comes from protein has enabled me to eat fewer calories but not feel hungry.
I know, *mic drop.* I'll let that sink in a moment. I'm eating less, losing weight, building lean muscle and I'm not hungry. Well, okay I still snack, but I don't often get those ravenous must eat chocolate now hunger cravings I used to get come 4 p.m. Here's why protein curbs appetite and how much protein you should be eating to get your fix.
The Hunger Quasher
Numerous studies have shown that meals high in protein help curb hunger and increase satiety between meals. Why? Well, in our bodies we have a hormone called ghrelin that is produced by cells in our gut to encourage us to eat. On the other hand, there is leptin produced by our fat cells and known as the satiety hormone. Eating a high-protein diet keeps these hormones in check.
The Metabolism Booster
Protein uses up more calories to digest. According to Precise Nutrition, "Protein takes the most energy to digest (20-30% of total calories in protein eaten go to digesting it). Next is carbohydrates (5-10%) and then fats (0-3%)."
Now if you're eating too many calories, you're still going to put on weight. But since your body needs more energy to digest protein, it means you can eat more before you'll start storing it. The aim should be to ensure each meal has a good portion of lean protein (chicken, cod, or whey, for example); some "good carbs," like whole grains or vegetables such as sweet potato, and a serving of good fat like avocado, coconut oil or oily fish.
The Lean Muscle Builder
I go to the gym regularly and lift heavy weights, which means I need a lot of protein to help me build that lean muscle. (Note: There are very few women out there that will bulk up from lifting heavy weights; we just don't have enough testosterone to lay down that much muscle mass.) But if you don't go to the gym, you can still reap the muscle-building benefits of protein, and since muscle burns more calories than fat, it will help keep your metabolism working efficiently. According to Mark's Daily Apple, every pound of muscle you have in your body burns six calories at rest, while every pound of fat just burns two calories.
So how can you build muscle without stepping foot in the gym? Eat protein! If you're not ever going to be one of those people to count calories, then make sure your protein intake is at a good level. A study found that when they put 16 individuals on high-calorie diets with different percentages of protein (5%, 15%, and 25%) for eight weeks, everyone gained weight (unsurprisingly). But it was the participants on the higher protein intakes that stored those excess calories as muscle while the lower percentage group stored them as fat.
Calculating How Much Protein You Need
By now you've got the drift that eating more protein is a good idea. But how much should you eat exactly?
There's no set guideline, but since the amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle, if you're exercising a lot, then you could eat up to 1.5 grams for every pound of bodyweight. If you're fairly active, make it between 1 to 1.2 grams; if you're inactive, aim for 0.8 grams per pound.
Most packaged food has the protein in grams on the nutritional info, and you can find out the amount of protein in natural foods by checking out the food search tool at calorieking.com. If you find it hard to meet your protein requirement with food, you can supplement with a protein shake, just make sure it's a great quality powder like Neat Nutrition's Lean Protein ($39), which contains matcha green tea to help boost your metabolism further. The rest of your calories should come from fat and carbohydrates.
You know your own body, and whether it feels good on higher carbs or more good fats takes a bit of trial and error. But the key is to really start listening to your body. Remember to load up on plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruits (which are all mostly carbs), and I promise you'll be less hungry and less likely to snack.