Protein often gets a health halo when it comes to diet and nutrition. Eat more protein to stay fuller longer, says so much of the advice we hear. But exactly how much protein should you be eating? 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 a higher amount of 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, adults should consume 0.8 grams of protein daily per kilogram of body weight. In a balanced diet, that means protein should account for anywhere between 10 and 35% of all calories consumed.
For an adult who weighs 150 pounds that comes out to just over 54 grams of protein a day to meet that recommended intake. Getting more protein than that per day would be considered a higher-protein diet, Zeratsky explained. “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), it would be 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 professional 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 noted that the high end of that range would be considered a very high-protein diet. “It’s quite honestly a challenge to eat that much protein in a day,” she said.
For that same 150-pound person, that 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. If you had an egg and two egg whites (each with 7 grams of protein), a glass of milk (8 grams of protein) and some fruit (no protein), you’d still need 16 additional grams of protein to hit that mark, said Zeratsky.
There are some other medical reasons someone might need to go on a high-protein diet, including undergoing treatment for cancer or wound healing. People with kidney problems who are on dialysis may also need to go on a high-protein diet because the 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. It takes longer to digest in the body compared with carbohydrates, 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 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.”
Are there other risks associated with a high-protein diet?
Athletes will likely be adding in calories from protein to increase overall calorie intake to make up for the higher 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) tend to have a lot of essential nutrients. 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:
- Meat, poultry and eggs (look for lean cuts of beef and pork and choose skinless poultry to keep saturated fats down)
- Fish and seafood
- Dairy (choose low-fat or fat-free varieties to keep saturated fats low)
- Legumes (including soybeans)
- Nuts and seeds
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.