A side effect of the obesity crisis is an obsession with protein. This makes sense because high-protein diets can be helpful for reducing body fat when done the right way.
High-protein foods are also essential for health and well being, but only when balanced with other beneficial foods and an approach that promotes well being.
This of course is the reason there’s so much backlash and confusion about high-protein diets: Unhealthy behaviors, such as sedentariness and diets composed of processed proteins but lacking plants are the norm. These are high-protein diets done wrong.
This article will give you signs that you could benefit from increasing your protein intake and tell you how to do so safely.
#1: You’re Trying To Lose Body Fat
Increasing your protein intake is the best place to start if your goal is fat loss because it protects muscle mass, increases energy use, and is sustainable because it reduces hunger.
The amount of protein you need will be a result of activity levels, goals, and preferences, but a general recommendation is 1.6 to 2.2 g/kg (0.75 to 1 g/lb) of bodyweight. Athletes may need to go higher if they are in a severe calorie deficit.
Plan meals around the biggest bang for your buck protein sources (meat, eggs, dairy, fish) because studies show that people who eat a threshold dose of 10 grams of essential amino acids per meal are leaner and have less belly fat. Be sure to balance protein intake with high-fiber vegetables to reduce inflammation and improve gut function.
#2: You Have Constant Food Cravings
Food cravings, especially the desire for high-carb foods like bread, chips or sweets are often an indication of unstable blood sugar. Compared to carbs, eating foods high in protein leads to more moderate elevations in blood sugar to keep cravings at bay.
High-protein foods also result in the release of gut hormones that blunt hunger and keep you satisfied. For example, when people go on high-protein, low-carb eating plans, they naturally eat fewer calories because hunger is eliminated.
In addition, animal protein provides a number of nutrients that help prevent obsessive thoughts about food. For example, carnitine is an amino acid that is responsible for the transport of fat into the cells to be used for energy in the body. Without adequate carnitine, your body will be slow to burn fat. Energy levels will drop, increasing your desire for high-carb foods that raise blood sugar quickly.
Most people can eliminate cravings by eating at least 20 grams of protein at every meal and avoiding high-carb processed foods. However, if you find yourself hungry between meals, have a high-protein snack: Try an egg, a small piece of fish, a few or a slices of turkey to kick cravings to the curb.
#3: You’re Tired In The Afternoon
Many people make the mistake of reaching for a high-carb snack when they feel that afternoon drowsiness coming on. Bad choice: Research shows that protein, not carbs or sugar, stimulates the brain cells responsible for keeping us alert and burning calories.
Wakefulness, energy expenditure, and the desire to eat are all dependent on a network of transmitters called orexins/hypocretins that work in the brain. They respond to the macronutrients you consume and make you sleepy, hungry, or energized.
For example, if you eat bread, cookies, or any high-carb food that contains glucose, the orexin network will be blocked, making you feel sleepy and slowing your body’s use of calories. In contrast, reaching for a high-protein snack will provide amino acids, which will stimulate the orexin network and make your brain work better, while increasing metabolism and energy use.
#4: Trouble Sleeping
There are a number of ways that getting adequate protein can improve sleep. First, sleeping through the night requires the body to burn fat rather than glucose. But when you eat a higher carb diet, your body is not metabolically flexible. It will be only accustomed to burning carbs (glucose) and you’ll end up waking up every few hours in search of a carb fix.
A recent study illustrates this: people with a high-protein intake slept better and woke up less frequently during the night compared to those with a high-carb intake.
It should be noted that higher carbohydrate diets allowed subjects to go to sleep much faster after turning off the light, but they were more wakeful during their sleep. This may be because carbs help reduce the stress hormone cortisol and they raise the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is calming and makes people sleepy.
Therefore, try eating more protein during the day but be sure to include whole complex carbs at dinner or in a bedtime snack so you get the best of both worlds—quick sleep onset and a restful night.
#5: Muscle & Joint Soreness
The amino acids in protein are necessary for the body to repair damaged tissue—both muscle and connective tissue that surrounds the joints. This is why athletes need more protein than your average sedentary person who experiences little muscle damage.
Best results will come from eating animal proteins because they contain all the essential amino acids and are high in leucine, the most important amino acid for protein synthesis. They also contain collagen and other nutrients that are used by the body to repair and build cartilage, tendons, and ligaments.
Solve muscle and joint pain by getting one of these top protein sources at every meal: Eggs, beef, poultry, or fish.
#6: Brain Fog
Protein is a vital brain food. For instance, the omega-3 fat DHA, carnosine, creatine, 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, and as we age.
Most important is to have a high-protein meal for breakfast to set up your neurotransmitters, acetylcholine and dopamine, for a productive the day.
#7: You Get Sick A Lot
Protein provides a variety of compounds that are necessary for immune function and healing. For example, glutamine is an amino acid that is critical for wound healing and immune function. Stress, intense exercise, or nutrient deficiencies can deplete the body’s stores of glutamine and compromise your immune system.
If you have poor immunity, try increasing your protein intake with whey protein. It is a superior supplemental protein source that has antimicrobial and inflammation-fighting properties. It provides glutamine and has been shown to improve gut function during critical illnesses. Whey will also improve metabolic function by increasing insulin sensitivity and moderating blood sugar tolerance.
#8: You’re Constantly Stressed.
A high-stress lifestyle raises the hormone cortisol, which leads to cravings for indulgent foods high in fat and sugar. Eating protein can lower cortisol and reset your entire hormonal cascade.
After you eat a protein-rich meal, cortisol is reduced, as is the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin. A hormone cascade follows a few hours later, and you get a decrease in insulin and an increase in leptin, blunting hunger.
#9: You’re Anxious or Depressed.
Amino acids in protein provide the building blocks for production of dopamine and acetylcholine that prevent depression. In addition, animal protein provides taurine, which is an inhibitory amino acid that reduces anxiety and promotes a sense of calm. A major pitfall to vegan diets is the lack of taurine, which often leads to anxiety issues in non-meat eaters.
Vegans (and anyone who suffers from anxiety) will benefit from supplementing with taurine—up to 500 mg a day is indicated by the research.
#10: You’re A Vegetarian.
We know that the body can’t use vegetable-derived protein sources from beans, grains, and plants as efficiently as animal proteins. Simply, a higher total protein intake is needed to achieve the same physiological effects if you rely on plant-based proteins.
In addition, unless you eat dairy or eggs, you’ll be hard pressed to get optimal levels of the amino acid leucine, which we know is the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis. Seeds, soy, and some vegetables like watercress do contain leucine, but the concentration is small compared to whey protein or eggs.
If you’re willing, one solution is to supplement with a high-quality whey protein to pad protein intake and get extra leucine. Alternatively yellow pea protein has performed well in exercise studies and it appears to be a superior vegan protein for building muscle and strength.