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Overweight? Add Protein to Subtract Pounds

By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

Diet books touting the benefit of everything from high protein to low fat can perplex even those who are dedicated to shedding excess pounds. New research suggests this confusion may result from differences in the way each person responds to a particular diet.

Nutrition experts have long suspected that people who carry excess body fat may not burn fat and calories as effectively after a meal as normal-weight individuals. This latest research provides evidence to support this notion and points the way toward helping the overweight and obese obtain a more effective post-meal fat and calorie burn.

Burning fat

These findings come out of an Australian study of 18 adults who ranged from normal weight to obese. On three different visits, participants ate a meal and spent eight hours in an indirect calorimeter, which allowed researchers to measure total calories burned in response to eating and the portion of calories burned that came from fat.

The three test meals contained 14% of calories as protein (control), 33% of calories as protein, or 35% of calories as protein. Researchers examined how normal weight, overweight, and obese people responded to the different levels of protein in a meal.

For the control meal, the more overweight or obese a participant was, the fewer fat calories he or she burned in response to eating. However, when participants consumed either of the high-protein meals, the relationship between higher body fat and lower fat burning disappeared. After eating a high protein meal, overweight and obese participants burned fat in a manner more typical of a normal-weight person.

The researchers note that these differences in how obese and overweight people burn fat compared with normal weight individuals may explain why previous studies on this topic have shown conflicting results.

Putting it into practice

Before jumping on the high-protein band wagon, remember this study is small, very short-term, and preliminary. Larger, longer-term studies are needed to confirm these results, but in the meantime, replacing some of the carbohydrate or fat in your meals and snacks with protein may improve your odds of fat-loss success.

  • Make the first meal of the day protein-rich. Health experts note that people who eat protein at breakfast have an easier time sticking to a healthy diet throughout the day.
  • For breakfast, try including hard-boiled or scrambled egg whites, yogurt, or cottage cheese. A sprinkle of ground flaxseeds or nuts on your cereal can add protein too.
  • Try plant-based protein such as beans or tofu. You get the benefit of protein with the added bonus of fiber and healthy nutrients that are not found in meat.
  • Plan ahead to have protein on hand for snacks. Carry nuts, soy nuts, low-fat string cheese, or single serving sizes of yogurt or cottage cheese in your briefcase or gym bag.
  • Experiment with canned tuna or chicken for a snack. Mix with low-fat mayo or non-fat yogurt, pepper, pickle relish, and a bit of mustard. Enjoy on whole grain crackers.
  • Avoid adding unnecessary and unhealthy saturated fat to your diet with too much red meat. Instead chose lean protein sources such as beans, fish, and chicken.
  • No matter how much protein you eat, keep portion sizes in check. Too many calories lead to excess body weight, no matter what their form.

(Nutrition & Dietetics 2008;65:24652)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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