IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What is a high-protein diet and will it help you lose weight?

Can you eat too much protein? While the macronutrient is an essential part of any diet, dietitians say quality is just as important as quantity.
Rice black bean avocado tomato burritos
A black bean burrito is a smart way to serve up a healthy dose of protein.nata_vkusidey / Getty Images/iStockphoto
/ Source: TODAY

From protein bars to high-protein breakfast plans, it seems like protein is a perennial buzzword. And for good reason — protein is a crucial element of nutrition. And since eating protein can help you feel fuller longer, it's also often trending in diets. Lately, there have been a lot of popular high-protein diets — protein is central in both Keto and paleo diets. But if you’re considering starting a high-protein diet, dietitians want you to know a few things.

What is a high-protein diet?

A high-protein diet is one where you’re eating more protein each day than is recommended by dietary guidelines, Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told TODAY.

According to the Institute of Medicine’s dietary reference intake recommendations, healthy adults should consume 0.8 grams of protein daily per kilogram of body weight. What that mean is that, in a balanced diet, protein should account for anywhere between 10 and 35% of all calories consumed.

For an adult who weighs 150 pounds, that's about 54 grams of protein a day. Getting more protein than that per day would be considered a higher-protein diet, Zeratsky explained and added that it's dependent on the individual and their body size.

Some versions of the popular Atkins, paleo and keto diets, among others, can be high-protein diets —depending on the specific foods you’re choosing to eat in a day and your weight. If the total amount of protein you eat ends up being more than 35% of your day’s calories (the upper limit of that normal range recommendation), then it would be considered a high-protein diet, Zeratsky said.

Who is a high-protein diet good for?

There are a number of reasons a doctor, dietitian or other medical professionals who might recommend a high-protein diet. One is for athletic performance. If you’re an athlete or tend to get a lot of physical activity, you may need anywhere from 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, said Zeratsky.

She also noted that the high end of that range would be difficult to reach for most people. “It’s quite honestly a challenge to eat that much protein in a day,” she said.

For that same 150-pound person, a very high-protein diet (2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight) would have that person eating 136 grams of protein per day — or about 45 grams of protein per each of the three meals in a day. For context, if you had an egg and two egg whites (each with 7 grams of protein) for breakfast, a glass of milk (8 grams of protein) and some fruit (no protein) for a snack, you’d still need 16 additional grams of protein to hit that mark by dinner, said Zeratsky.

There are some other medical reasons someone might need to go on a high-protein diet. People undergoing treatment for cancer or wound healing may be prescribed a high-protein diet. People with kidney problems who are on dialysis may also need to go on a high-protein diet because dialysis treatment filters protein from the body along with other waste. And sometimes a medical provider might recommend a high-protein diet (around 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight) to older individuals because it can help maintain muscle mass, which deteriorates with age, Zeratsky said.

Is a high-protein diet good for weight loss?

If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to be eating protein at every meal and as part of any snacks, too, Zeratsky said. Compared to carbohydrates, protein takes longer to digest in the body , so it will help keep you satiated (feeling full) longer and can help people manage hunger, she explained.

But you certainly don’t need to go on a very high-protein diet to lose weight, according to Zeratsky.

One problem with using a high-protein diet to lose weight is that if you're increasing your protein intake on a weight-loss diet, you will likely end up limiting other foods that have health benefits (like whole grains, fruits and vegetables) in order to reduce your overall calories, she explained.

Another problem is that any diet that's too exclusionary or restrictive can become difficult to stick with over the long term. “We see people lose weight on them,” she said, “but they’re not really sustainable.” The truth is that most of us don't want to eat just one kind of food all the time.

Are there other risks associated with a high-protein diet?

Athletes will likely be adding in calories from protein to increase their overall calorie intake and to make up for the high number of calories they’re burning in a day. But if you’re not burning extra calories, you can end up gaining weight if you just start consuming more calories.

For anyone adding extra protein to the diet, pay attention to where your protein is coming from. Protein sources that are leaner (like poultry and fish) and plant-based (like legumes and nuts) are nutrient dense and tend to have a lot of the essentials. But higher-fat meat and dairy, which provide a lot of protein, deliver a lot of saturated fat, too. “We worry about long-term health because there’s concern about cardiovascular disease with too much intake of saturated fat,” Zeratsky said.

If you’re swapping protein in for fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, you could be missing out on a lot of healthy carbohydrates, fiber and other micronutrients, Dr. Neal D. Barnard, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., who researches the effect of diet on diabetes, body weight and chronic pain, told TODAY.

And finally, even though people undergoing dialysis for kidney problems might need more protein, for people in the earlier stages of that disease, they might actually make the problem worse by eating too much protein, so they would want to avoid this type of diet, unless otherwise directed by their doctor.

What science says about eating a high-protein diet

Everyone needs protein in their diet. Protein is important for satiety, minimizing feelings of hunger, preserving lean body mass and helping protect against muscle loss as you age (assuming you’re eating enough calories overall), Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian based in Atlanta, Georgia, told TODAY. “While many people use high-protein diets for weight loss, the results are often short-term,” she said.

Scientific evidence suggests that rather than total amount of protein in your diet, it’s the type of protein you’re consuming that really matters for long-term health. Research suggests that eating large quantities of red meat is linked to higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death, but replacing these foods with other protein sources, like nuts, seeds, legumes and fish can reduce these risks. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that consuming higher amounts of animal protein (compared to plant protein) may be linked to increased risk of premature death.

Similarly, when it comes to weight loss, research suggests that the type of protein that's being consumed is more important than overall quantity when trying to lose weight and keep it off. Researchers at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health found that people who tend to eat leaner and plant-based protein sources (legumes, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy and poultry) have better weight-loss outcomes than those who eat more red and processed meat, chicken with skin and full-fat cheese.

And it’s worth noting that in the U.S., adults generally consume more than enough protein, Barnard said.

What will you eat on a high-protein diet?

Foods that are high in protein include:

  • Beef
  • Black beans
  • Cashew butter
  • Chicken
  • Chickpeas
  • Cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • Hemp seeds
  • Lentils
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Peas
  • Peanut butter
  • Salmon
  • Spirulina
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Yogurt

High-protein meals

According to Zeratsky, for an adult who weighs 150 pounds and is eating a high-protein diet (where they are aiming to eat 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight), a day of eating might look like this:

  • Breakfast: 2 eggs (or 1/2 cup egg substitute, cooked), 2 slices toasted whole-grain bread, 1 tablespoon nut butter, 1 medium nectarine
  • Snack: 6 ounces yogurt (no sugar added) with 2 tablespoons low-fat granola
  • Lunch: Black bean burrito (a 10-inch whole-wheat tortilla filled with 1/2 cup low-sodium black beans, 1/4 avocado, 2 tablespoons diced onion, 1/4 cup chopped tomato and 1/2 cup shredded lettuce) and 15 grapes
  • Dinner: 4 ounces sautéed chicken breast, 2/3 cup whole-grain couscous, 1/2 cup acorn squash, 1/2 cup spinach (cooked with 1 tablespoon olive oil) and 1/2 cup vanilla ice cream with 3/4 cup blueberries

The bottom line

While protein is an essential part of any diet — many dietitians and health experts recommend consuming some protein as part of every meal and snack — the health benefits of a high-protein diet may be overblown unless you’re an athlete or it’s recommended for another health reason. If you are considering a high-protein diet, you’ll want to consult with your doctor first and make sure you’re still leaving plenty of room for essential vitamins and nutrients and choosing healthy protein sources that aren’t too high in saturated fat.

Learn More About Diets & Find What's Right For You