Protein has been the darling of the strength and body building world for years, but it has only recently gained favor in mainstream culture. Hearing the word protein often conjures sentiments that reach beyond this macronutrient’s true meaning—fortitude comes to mind as does strength and power of will.
Yet a desire to wax lyrical about protein will make us lose sight of the scientifically proven benefits we’re after. Recall that proteins are chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of tissues in the body.
Proteins are used make bone, skin, nails, hair, muscle, cells, and they play a role in the production and action of enzymes, which are involved in nearly every function in the body.
Eating protein triggers protein synthesis and the building of muscle tissue, so it’s warranted that we think highly of it in the athletic world. And eating adequate amounts can improve body composition, eliminate hunger, and reduce body fat.
Protein lives up to its esteem by improving brain function and aiding many aspects of health, including blood pressure, cardiovascular health, disease prevention, sleep, and longevity, which are often unknown benefits within the general population.
Despite protein’s profound influence in sustaining health when consumed along with other beneficial foods, confusion surrounds it. People wonder if protein is safe, and get all muddled about whether it will help them lose weight.
This article will answer those questions and give you 12 reasons to eat more protein.
#1. Greater muscle mass and lean tissue.
Eating protein stimulates an increase in muscle protein synthesis and suppresses protein breakdown for several hours so that you end up with more lean tissue.
Based on the availability of amino acids, the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish that pool of building blocks by eating protein, it’s a good thing, promoting muscle development.
Studies consistently show that people who eat more protein have more lean muscle mass and a higher quality protein intake is most important. For example, in a recent study of young, active adults, those with a higher intake of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) from their diet, had greater lean mass and better insulin sensitivity.
BCAA content is an indicator of protein quality, and animal products are the highest BCAA-containing foods, while also providing other amino acids that are critical for health. The highest quality protein foods with the greatest BCAA content include chicken, beef, salmon, eggs, and whey protein.
#2. Less hunger and lower calorie intake.
High-protein diets are known for their fat-reducing benefits. One reason they work is that eating a lot of protein reduces hunger. Protein is filling and when people eat more of it they are more quickly satisfied and eat fewer calories.
For example, a review of the issue found that for every 1 percent increase in protein intake, people naturally decrease calorie intake by between 32 and 51 calories daily.
Now you may have heard of people being hungry on a high-protein, low-carb diet. It’s most likely their fat intake was too low, or that their carb intake was not ideal for their needs.
Getting the macronutrient ratios right can be a little tricky, but most people tend to get best results favoring whole foods, high-quality animal protein, a relatively high beneficial fat intake, and a low- to moderate-carb intake (below 150 grams a day) from low-glycemic carbs.
#3. Easier fat loss on a calorie-restricted diet.
A high protein intake not only keeps hunger at bay when trying to lose fat, it has the cool effect of increasing the amount of calories your body burns to digest it. This is called the thermic effect of food and protein requires nearly two times the calories to breakdown as carbs (fat requires the fewest calories to metabolize of all three).
The most powerful effect of protein for fat loss is on the preservation of lean muscle mass and your resting energy expenditure, which is the amount of calories your body burns at rest.
When you lose weight on the standard high-carb, low-protein diet by restricting calories, you will lose both body fat (good) and muscle mass (bad), causing the body to burn incrementally fewer calories. The amount of energy your body burns is reduced by a couple of hundred calories daily, but calorie intake rarely goes down to compensate, which is a common reason that fat loss plateaus and fat regain occurs.
Increasing the calories you get from protein is the only way to prevent the loss of lean muscle mass because the amino acids in protein stimulate protein synthesis to keep the muscle intact. Lifting weights enhances this effect.
The combination has a robust effect, allowing for no loss of muscle mass if protein intake is adequate (research suggests it should be above 1.6 g/kg of bodyweight from the highest quality protein sources).
#4. Less belly fat.
A high-quality protein intake of at least 10 grams of essential amino acids (EAAa) at every meal is associated with less belly fat in a variety of studies.
Scientists think the 10 gram threshold protects against fat gain because it is the amount needed to maximally stimulate protein synthesis, yielding more muscle mass, greater resting energy expenditure, and greater thermic effect of food.
#5. Greater muscle development when supplementing with protein.
Both strength training and consuming protein build muscle when done separately. Pairing them together has a synergistic effect producing superior muscle growth of an average of 0.7 kg when both young and old individuals are tested together.
Growth is more robust in young with muscle gains averaging between 2 to 2.5 g/kg following strength training with protein supplementation. A few factors promote maximal muscle growth:
• Increasing protein intake by about 65 percent over normal for a set period produces the greatest muscle growth.
Called the “protein spread” effect, it is illustrated with a study that found that pairing strength training with 3 g/kg/day of whey protein led to 2.2 kg larger increase in muscle mass compared to a control group that consumed 1.7 g/kg/day of protein (a large amount in itself).
• Older individuals require unique dosing over young individuals because protein synthesis is not as robust as we age.
Evidence suggests that better results come from consuming protein immediately after exercise compared to 2 hours, and larger doses in the 35 to 40 gram range are superior for muscle growth than 20 grams. A high content of the amino acid leucine is also important for the elderly.
• Dairy proteins such as whey and milk are superior to plant sources such as soy, pea, and rice for building muscle.
• Dosing with 20 grams of protein every 3 hours during the day also produces greater muscle development than consuming larger amounts less frequently, suggesting a similar “threshold” effect to that seen with lower belly fat when individuals confuse 10 grams of EAAs at every meal.
#6. Greater strength gains from training.
Protein supplementation will also increase the development of strength from training. For example, a study of college football players consuming 2 g/kg/day of protein over 12 weeks resulted in 14.3 kg greater increase in maximum squat strength.
A large analysis of the issue supports this, showing that getting extra protein produced a 13.5 kg greater increase in leg press strength over control groups.
The mechanism behind greater strength development is likely a combination of greater muscle growth (more mass means there’s greater muscle cross-sectional area with which to exert force) and faster recovery from muscle-damaging training.
#7. Better bone density and less risk of osteoporosis.
Research consistently shows that a higher protein intake increases bone density and decreases risk of osteoporosis. The rumor that a high-protein intake is bad for bones is a myth based on misunderstanding of bone metabolism.
It comes from the theory that protein increases acid in the body. The acid is neutralized when the body releases bicarbonate ions from the bone matrix, a mechanism that is accompanied by a loss of sodium, calcium, and potassium.
Although this may appear problematic, large-scale studies show that a higher protein intake actually strengthens bones because the amino acids in protein are used to build bone. A higher protein intake improves the action of the hormone IGF-1, which is a major regulator of bone metabolism, and you’re already aware that more protein increases muscle mass, which increases bone strength.
Note that it is indicated to eat a lot of antioxidant-rich plants such as vegetables and fruit to counter the acid load for optimal health.
#8. Better brain function.
Protein is a vital brain food. Eating high-quality protein that includes a variety of foods from animal sources provides the building blocks to make chemical messengers involved in energy production, wakefulness, hunger, motivation, and optimal cognition.
For instance, the omega-3 fat DHA, carnosine, creatine, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 are all nutrients that are only available from animal protein and are indispensible brain nutrients that can’t be attained from plants.
Extra protein may be most important in cases when cognition is failing for some reason, such as in the case of ADD, when we are sleep deprived, with schizophrenia and other brain disorders, and as we age.
#9. Better sleep.
High-protein diets have been found to allow people to sleep better and wake up less frequently during the night compared to high-carb diets. Scientists believe this is because protein may optimize chemical transmitter balance, making us wakeful and energized during the day, but sleepy and restful at night.
Although high-protein diets improve overall sleep, some people have trouble going to sleep at night with a higher protein intake. Try eating a meal of carbs in the evening to improve sleep onset because carbs elevate serotonin, which is calming and binds with neurons that make us tired.
#10. Lower blood pressure.
A higher protein intake has been found to reduce blood pressure in individuals with hypertension. A four-week study tested the effect of giving subjects an extra 60 grams a day of protein (boosting protein intake to 25 percent of the diet and reducing carb intake to 45 percent).
Compared to a group that didn’t increase protein intake, the protein group decreased the average systolic blood pressure reading by 4.9 mm Hg and the diastolic by 2.7 mm Hg, which is more than the 2 mm Hg amount that is considered clinically significant for hypertension drugs.
#11. Stronger tendons and faster recovery from injury.
Tendons benefit in the same way that muscle does from a high-protein intake. Greater protein synthesis accelerates the repair of tissue and strengthens connective tissue for less risk of injury.
In addition, a higher essential amino acid intake will prevent muscle atrophy due to immobilization if you are restricted from training, and this has also been found to decrease the time it takes to recover original strength levels after an injury.
#12. Greater lifespan and better quality of life as you age.
If you’re familiar with the qualities that increase longevity, you know that physical strength, muscle mass, leanness, bone health, lower blood pressure, and brain function are all principal players in keeping you alive.
Favoring protein and de-emphasizing carbohydrates will improve blood sugar tolerance, insulin health, and reduce diabetes and heart disease risk as well. On the other hand, low-protein intake is a strong predictor of death in aging people because it leads to functional decline, loss of muscle mass, and frailty.
Certain proteins, such as whey, have been found to improve longevity by elevating levels of the most powerful antioxidant that is produced by our bodies, glutathione. People with higher glutathione have less risk of disease and better quality of life as they age.
Animal studies that have tested the effect of a high amino acid intake on longevity suggest that adequate protein can increase lifespan in humans by nearly 10 years.
Practical Protein Take Away Points:
• Opt for variety of whole foods to meet your protein needs, including fish, eggs, beef, poultry, other animal products, dairy, beans, and nuts.
• A high protein intake can increase pro-inflammatory gut bacteria because bad bacteria feed off amino acids. The solution is to pair protein with foods high in indigestible fiber such as fruits, vegetables, and certain grains because this will optimize the health of anti-inflammatory good gut bacteria.
• Eat a large amount of plants that are high in antioxidants to counter the acid and oxidative stress produced from eating protein.
• Avoid cooking animal proteins at very high temperatures because this can lead to the production of cancer causing compounds. Use moderate heats and longer cooking times.
• If you’re trying to put on muscle with strength training, shoot for at least 2 g/kg/d of protein.
• For fat loss, opt for 1.6 g/kg of protein a day, which is double the RDA, and has been found to preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss and calorie restriction.