What is the buzz about high-protein foods and weight loss really about? You’ve probably heard about one of the many extreme high-protein, low-carbohydrate plans (like keto or paleo) and how proponents claim they yield quick and effective weight loss. Maybe you’ve even tried one — but didn’t achieve the results you wanted (um, why am I gaining weight on a diet?).
If you’ve ever wondered what protein has to do with weight loss, we’ve got good news: Finding the right balance of nutritious foods that include healthy servings of protein might be just what you need to start losing weight. Even better: You don’t have to cut out entire food groups or only eat meat to reach your goals. Here’s how protein can be a helpful tool throughout your weight loss journey.
Of those 20 amino acids:1
- 9 are essential for good health and come from the food you eat,
- 5 are created by your body, and
- 6 amino acids are only needed during specific times in your life or in the presence of disease.
When you eat protein-rich foods, you’ll help your body in three key ways:3
1. Promote a healthy metabolism. Your metabolism is a series of natural processes that turn what you eat and drink into energy.4 The protein you eat can be broken down into certain enzymes, which then help create specific chemical reactions within the body.5 Most of these reactions are initiated by proteins.5
Photo by grki on iStock
2. Repair damaged cells and tissues. Every part of your body, from your hair and skin to your nails and muscles, contain protein and need it to thrive.2 Including protein in your meals is especially important after physical activity. When you exercise, your muscles naturally tear and rebuild, leading to stronger and more resilient tissue. A 2015 review of exercise-induced injury studies suggested eating too little protein could impair the body’s ability to heal wounds and aggravate muscle loss.6
3. Improve oxygen levels in the blood. Hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells, carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of your body.7 Iron is a nutrient found in many protein-rich foods, including eggs and lean red meat, and binds with protein to create hemoglobin.8 When you don’t have enough iron in your body, it’s possible to develop anemia, which may lead to fatigue, chest pain or shortness of breath.9 Making changes to the foods you eat may help ease those symptoms.10
5 health benefits of adding protein-rich foods to your meals
Eating protein-packed foods may have a variety of benefits when combined with other healthy habits, like exercise. By including moderate amounts of lean protein in your meals and enjoying plenty of fresh, non-starchy vegetables, you can:
1. Feel more satisfied. In one study, researchers found eating a high-protein breakfast caused participants to feel the least hungry when compared to high-fat or high-carbohydrate meals.10 And in a separate study,11 a high-protein breakfast helped reduce the amount of ghrelin (an appetite-stimulating hormone) released into the body12 and increased cholecystokinin, a hormone that can promote feelings of satiety.13
2. Be less likely to reach for late-night snacks. In another study, compared to dieting men who received 14 percent of their energy from protein-rich foods, those who ate a slightly higher amount (25 percent) felt more full throughout the day and had less of a desire to eat late at night.14
3. Have less belly fat. A weight loss plan that includes protein-rich foods and exercise may contribute to having less central abdominal fat, one study found.15 Study participants who ate high-quality sources of protein, like milk, eggs, and beef and also incorporated weekly aerobic exercises and strength training had smaller waists, suggesting physical activity and protein may help regulate visceral fat around the abdomen.15
4. Maintain your muscle as you lose weight. During weight loss, you may risk losing muscle mass if you’re not eating enough protein.16 A review of multiple studies suggests a combination of protein-rich foods and strength training may help limit the loss of muscle mass.16
5. Boost your metabolism. Briana Rodriquez, Jenny Craig’s registered dietitian nutritionist, says eating a moderate amount of protein and including physical activity into your day may help promote a higher basal metabolic rate (the minimum number of calories your body needs to function while at rest17) and resting metabolic rate (the number of calories your body actually uses while at rest18). In fact, enjoying protein-rich meals may help you to increase your metabolic rate by 15 to 30 percent.18
How much protein should you eat?
Rodriquez emphasizes the importance of including a moderate amount of protein in your meals to support weight loss. She recommends making protein 20 to 30 percent of your daily caloric intake to benefit weight loss and retain lean muscle.
Great sources of protein to support weight loss
Not sure how to start including protein in your meals? We’ve rounded up some of our favorite protein-packed foods in this list. If you’re following a Jenny Craig program, these delicious meals have anywhere from 15 to 29 grams of protein in each entrée!
Chicken breast: A single 3-ounce serving of chicken breast will give you about 27 grams of protein19, making it a great choice for lean protein.
Beef: Three ounces of a trimmed beef tenderloin delivers just over 25 grams of protein.20 Try to choose more lean cuts of meat to avoid unneeded saturated fat.
Pork: Like beef, a less fatty cut of meat is better. A 3-ounce serving of pork tenderloin provides about 22 grams of protein.21
Try this: Slow-Cooked Carnitas & Peppers
Try this: Fish & Chips
Photo by Maëliss Demaison on Unsplash
Beans and lentils: These protein-rich foods are great at taking on the flavor of whatever you cook them with – spices, vegetables, garlic and onions are classic pairings. A ½-cup serving of cooked black beans provides just over 7 grams of protein24, while the same amount of boiled lentils packs in almost 9 grams.25 (If you’re following a Jenny Craig program, a ½-cup serving of beans or lentils is equivalent to 1 protein and 1 starch.)
Try this: Southwest Style Chicken Fajita Bowl
Try this: Cheesy Egg & Sausage Scramble
Nonfat Greek yogurt: Creamy and delicious, nonfat plain Greek yogurt has almost 20 grams of protein per serving.27 Add a splash of vanilla extract, a sprinkle of cinnamon, or your favorite spice for extra flavor.
Including protein in your meals isn’t just important when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s also filled with powerful nutrients your body needs to thrive. Remember: Balance is key! Enjoying a moderate amount of protein-rich foods, a variety of fresh vegetables and small amounts of fresh fruit, healthy fats, and carbohydrates will all help support a healthy lifestyle.
Ready to learn more about how protein-rich meals can support your weight loss goals? Get started today.
Stephanie is a copywriter for Jenny Craig and has written for the health and wellness, tech, and environmental industries. Stephanie graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Media Studies. They employ an “eat first, write later” approach to food blogging and enjoy the occasional Oxford comma. Outside of writing, you can find Stephanie photographing a muttley crew of rescue pups, brewing kombucha, or exploring San Diego.
Favorite healthy snack: Green apple slices with sunflower butter
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!).
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.
Edited by Stephanie E - Jenny Craig