What are you losing when you lose ‘weight’?

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on September 5, 2013

speed up your metabolismWant to lose weight without starving or slowing your metabolism? Eat (or drink) your protein!

A newly published article provides further scientific proof that upping protein consumption while you cut calories protects your muscle mass and encourages greater fat loss.

As I’ve written elsewhere, protein is one of a girl’s (or a guy’s) best friends. It keeps you satisfied longer and reduces hunger—even when you’re eating less.

But today let’s focus on how this superstar nutrient helps prevent loss of muscle during calorie restriction.

This is hugely important because losing muscle has numerous devastating consequences.

  • It means creating a slower metabolism.
  • Becoming proportionately fatter even if you’re taking off “weight” on the scale.
  • Losing strength and balance.
  • Looking flabbier even if you end up smaller.
  • Finally, it means a much greater likelihood of regaining every pound you lose.

So how much protein do you need?

The value of increased protein consumption isn’t new to those who follow the research (or to the resistance-training community). But I hope this new study, published in the September issue of The FASEB Journal, will help silence the utterly incorrect notion that most people “get plenty of protein already.”

So let’s look at the typical recommendation, which is .8 grams of dietary protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. In traditional units, that would be .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

According to that recommendation, a 150-pound person would need only 54 grams of protein a day.

I need to go into detail for a minute, so bear with me.

Let’s say this person’s daily calorie need is about 2,000 calories. Her 54 grams of protein would “cost” about 216 calories (54 grams x 4 calories per gram)—or about 10.8 percent of her total daily intake.

But according to noted protein researcher Dr. Heather Leidy of the University of Missouri, that 10 percent represents not an optimum intake but the bare minimum.

Take a look at the slide (below) she included in a July 18 web presentation on protein and satiety. As the slide indicates, the so-called recommended daily allowance is in fact the “minimal amount to prevent deficiencies.”



Most Americans are consuming this minimal amount: about 10 percent of calories from protein.

But the acceptable safe protein intake spans a huge range—from 10 percent to 35 percent. And as it turns out, higher percentages provide a lot of benefit.

Based on the research I’ve studied, I like to see dieters shoot for a minimum of 15 percent, and I prefer 20 to 25 percent.

But let’s go back to the newly published study I mentioned, which focused specifically on whether three groups of dieters would lose lean mass while consuming different amounts of protein.

One group ate the RDA of .8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. A second ate twice as much protein (1.6 grams per kilogram), and a third ate three times as much (2.4 grams per kilogram).

Here’s what the researchers found: the current recommended daily allowance (.8 grams per kilogram of body weight) was not enough to prevent significant muscle loss when dieters cut calories and exercised enough to take off two pounds a week.

In fact, 58 percent of that group’s “weight loss” came from muscle and only 42 percent from fat.

The results in the other two groups were significantly different. Both lost more fat and less muscle than the RDA dieters.

Their results weren’t perfect: about 30 to 36 percent of the weight they lost was muscle, and 64 to 70 percent was fat.

I believe they could have lost less—or no—muscle by making two tweaks:

Including higher intensity resistance training. The participants did only minimal low-intensity resistance training. That was a deliberate decision on the scientists’ part: they didn’t want the possible addition of muscle through training to confound the study results.

Taking a less radical calorie cut. The dieters cut calories by about 30 percent, which I consider a fairly aggressive restriction, given that they were not obese. Their body mass index (BMI) at the beginning of the study ranged from 22 (very healthy weight) to 29 (overweight but not obese).

The closer you are to your ideal weight, the more conservative you should be when cutting calories. In other words, large people are less likely to lose muscle; smaller people need to be more cautious.

What this study means for you

When you’re trying to lose weight, job 1 should be preserving your lean mass (muscle) while taking off fat. Simply put, muscle is your calorie-burning engine, and you don’t want to lose an ounce of it.

So yes, track calories to make sure you’re cutting enough to get results . . . but not so many that you create a slower metabolism.

And pay close attention to your protein consumption. Don’t be satisfied with the “minimal amount to prevent deficiencies.”

Instead, aim for for at least twice the RDA (1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight).

For a 150-pound woman, this would be about 110 grams of protein per day (about 22 percent of daily calories, if her calorie need is 2,000 per day).

pie-chartBallpark: Strive to get 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories from protein. (The free online tracking service tracker.dailyburn.com makes this easy by showing you a pie chart depicting your percentages of calories from carbs, fat, and protein. See the example at right.)

Lead author of the study, Stefan M. Pasiakos, Ph.D., says, “We believe that the RDA for protein should be based on a level to optimize health as well as prevent deficiencies, and our data demonstrate a potential inadequacy of the current RDA for sparing muscle mass during weight loss, which may affect a significant portion of the population” (emphasis added).

Amen, brother.

Let’s close with a juicy comment from Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor of the journal that published Dr. Pasiakos’ research: “This study essentially confirms what bodybuilders have shown us for a long time: a high-protein diet helps prevent muscle loss when trying to lose fat.”

Want to learn more about how protein can help you lose weight and transform your body? Sign up now for my free webinar, The Hot Body Formula: 5 Keys to Total Body Transformation!

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