I bet you've heard about the benefits of high protein diets for weight loss.
I don't like the "usual suspect" fad diets that try to exclude carbs in favor of fats and protein.
Those diets are perfect for professionals who need to look amazing for a competition or a photo shoot.
That's great! But they're not sustainable long term. And they call for sudden, dramatic diet changes.
But I think reducing carbs and increasing protein is a great idea for sustainable weight loss.
What's more, this approach has amazing health benefits.
We'll be looking at 13 health benefits of high protein foods that will amaze you.
Suddenly the benefits of the low carb approach in doubt.
Protein And Bad Science
Sadly, the fitness and weight loss world is no stranger to bad science.
Actually, that's quite an understatement.
But just lately there's been a lot in the media to suggest protein's not so great after all. And maybe we should eat more carbs?
Of course, this suggests quite a conflict of interest.
Especially since soft drink sales have been declining in recent years. Recent soda bans in schools means the cradle to grave romance with soft drinks is finally broken.
So that's the bad science: what's so great about high protein food?
So, Why Should You Eat More High Protein Foods?
So let's take a look at the benefits of including more of these amazing foods in your diet.
#1 Because it's as good as giving up smoking or getting more exercise.
That's right – high protein foods rich in amino acids improve heart health as much as giving up smoking, or doing exercise.
And this isn't a dinky little research project. The study involved 2000 participants who are twins. (You know what I mean, 2000 women who have a twin. They weren't all related!)
Using twins in the study allows researchers to study how different habits affect people who are genetic copies.
Of course the habits they studied were eating high protein foods, smoking and exercising.
The study found that eating high protein foods from plant sources reduced blood pressure.
High protein foods from animals improved hardened arteries. Hardened arteries are associated with heart attack and stroke.
So this is great, right?
Giving up smoking and taking up exercise: two very difficult behavior changes.
But some extra steak, tofu or nuts in your life? Not so much.
#2 You'll feel less hungry
Hey, why does everyone hate dieting?
Hunger. No one wants to feel hungry.
Fortunately, it's avoidable.
The best way to do this is to increase the protein you eat while reducing carbohydrates.
Eating more protein reduces your appetite. And you'll end up eating less calories.
Isn't that the holy grail? Reduce calories and never feel hungry?
Because of the way that protein reduces your appetite, that's exactly what you can do.
#3 Your bones will be stronger
Bone strength is really important, especially as we get older.
There's a few ways to do it. We can exercise by doing high impact sports or weight training.
Lucky for us eating quality lean protein will also do it.
For a long time people believed eating lots of protein reduced bone strength, by introducing acidity into our bodies.
#4 You'll be stronger
Even if you don't do any weights!
Extra protein in your diet keeps your stores of amino acids stocked up. When amino acid stocks are up, your body will opt to add to your muscles, rather than break down the proteins in your muscles
When this happens, we get more lean muscle.
Of course, you can pair strength training with proper protein supplements. Because if you do, you'll see muscle growth that goes way beyond just eating protein.
#5 You'll be leaner
More lean muscle is great, not just because you look better but because that muscle burns calories.
The more you have, the more you burn. Even while you're just sitting around!
This means that there will be fewer calories available to add to your fat cells, which means you end up leaner.
#6 It makes your brain better
I don't know about you, but I'll take all the help I can get in this department 🙂
In this case, it's not the protein so much as what you also get when you eat high protein foods.
Some incredibly important brain functions require nutrients we can only get from animal protein. These include regulating alertness, optimizing cognition and managing hunger signals.
These nutrients include Omega 3 fatty acids, creatine and vitamin B12.
So if you want to make the most of your mind, you either need to eat lean animal protein, or undertake a supplementation program.
#7 You'll sleep like a baby
Related to the previous point, increasing your protein improves your sleep.
We've already mentioned how many of the nutrients found in animal proteins help your brain function.
Another incredible benefit is that people on high protein diets have better sleep. In this case, better sleep means that the study subjects woke up less during the night.
But just because your mind is enjoying a long, restful snooze doesn't mean your body isn't doing something useful.
People who've exercised during the day and take protein before bed grow muscles in their sleep.
One study found that people who take protein before bed made have 22% more protein synthesis (ie muscle growth) than those who don't.
#8 You'll be more robust
By robust, I mean stronger tendons and faster recovery from injury.
I am close to fanatical when it comes to injury prevention.
Why? Because I've seen many people get to the stage in their exercise where they really start to enjoy it.
And then get injured.
Now they can't do the thing they've really started to love, get demoralized and turn to food for comfort.
Suddenly they're inactive and eating more again.
So I really don't want to see people injured. Once someone's fit, I think learning to deal with injury is an important life skill. But they need to be ready for it.
So that's my injury sermon over! What's that got to do with protein?
Just like it builds muscles, protein also builds tendons. Strong tendons prevent injury.
They're obviously less likely to tear or break if they're strong, but they also improve overall joint strength. This reduces risk to other connective tissues like cartilage.
And if you do get injured. Well, that extra protein helps you recover more quickly than you would otherwise.
But just don't, OK?
#9 Your belly will shrink
Yeah, we've all heard you can't target weight loss, right?
Like so often in the health and fitness world, this is a bromide that's mostly true.
This study found that quality protein contributes significantly to reducing "Central Abdominal Fat".
(That's "Belly Fat" to you and me.)
This is a great thing. Why?
Because belly fat is a very strong indicator for disease and early death.
That's another great reason to concentrate on getting some quality protein in your diet.
#10 Triglycerides go down
When we measure triglycerides, we're measuring the fat swimming about in our blood.
That's why your doctor gets worried when your blood tests return high triglyceride levels.
High triglycerides are another indicator of potential trouble for your heart. And we're not talking about Cupid, by the way.
No, this is the nasty heart problem of the medical kind.
Exercise and diet are the two most powerful ways we can control our triglycerides.
Fortunatlely, when we swap out carbs for protein, the amount of fat in our blood drops.
#11 Good cholesterol goes up
Well, it's what we call good cholesterol. Question: is the cholesterol wreaking havoc in our body, or doing something useful?
Wreaking havoc? That’s the bad, LDL cholesterol.
Doing something useful? That's good HDL cholesterol.
LDL and HDL refer to the proteins that carry cholesterol around our body.
This is another case where a high protein food carries an extra goody to help your health. Eating a lot of fish will introduce very beneficial Omega-3 fats into your diet. These fats do a great job of increasing HDL cholesterol.
What reduces HDL cholesterol? Refined carbs, once again.
So less refined carbs and more fish will have you on the road to excellent cholesterol.
#12 It'll reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes
Studies has found that people with a high protein intake have:
- More insulin sensitivity
- Lower blood sugars
The opposite of that is metabolic syndrome, or type 2 diabetes. There are so many health complications that come with type 2 diabetes that I won't even bother listing them.
This is the main point:
If you want to live longer and stay active for longer, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Which brings us to the last point.
#13 You can live longer and happier
Look at the list of benefits associated with eating more high protein foods. You'll:
- Be stronger
- More active
- Maintain healthy cognition for longer
- Be less dependent on medication (through avoiding health complications).
What does all this add up to?
Living longer, and living happier.
I hope it's obvious by now why you'd live longer.
What about happier?
Modern medicine is superb at extending our lives. We can be maintained in an unhealthy state for a very long time.
It's harder to get us back health so we can enjoy our lives.
It's better that you maintain your health now, rather than hope the medical system will fix you in the future.
That way, you'll be free to enjoy your life for so much longer. And great health can start by replacing some carbs (especially refined carbs) with protein.
That's Great, But How Do I Eat All This Protein?
I know. We can't just go rabbiting on about how great protein is without some great ideas for applying it to your diet.
Right, so here we go:
High Protein Breakfast
Breakfast is a killer.
Cereal, toast, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles. The list goes on. Carbs on top of even more carbs.
Breakfast is often just a very very late dessert.
Because breakfast is hard, I'm presenting some options here.
I'm avoiding the usual suspects like bacon, sausages and smoked salmon. While there are high-quality and healthy versions of all three, they're difficult to find. And expensive.
Eggs are great for a high protein breakfast. They're incredibly nutritious, affordable and you can find them everywhere.
What's the catch? A lot of people are intolerant of eggs. Some people are even allergic to them!
So read on for my multi-protein breakfast.
Mexican-ish Breakfast Base
So this is the base for our breakfast. We'll present the different protein options at the end.
This the breakfast we used to eat in Mexico. I followed the advice of Mexico City stallholders to make the classic cilantro and tomato base, and went from there.
I like this breakfast because it has complex carbs, lots of nutrition and is pretty quick to make.
- 1 small onion
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1/2 cup cilantro, lightly chopped
- 1/2 cup baby spinach
- 1 cup cooked beans (cook them ahead of time, or canned is fine).
- 4 medium tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- Salt and pepper to season.
Dice your onions and garlic, and fry them lightly in the oil until they start to turn transparent. (Note: if you're using chicken, check out the "Protein option 2: Chicken" section below. Your chicken needs to go in here).
While you wait for the onions, dice your tomatoes. They go in next. Lightly fry everything until the tomatoes start to break down (ie, they get mushy).
Add the well-drained beans and stir gently. Add the cilantro and baby spinach and stir them through. Season with salt and pepper. All done.
Breakfast protein option 1: Eggs
Poach the eggs (Google the best method, if you're not a pro. Seriously, my poached eggs went from embarrassing to near-pro with one easy tip).
Drain them, and add them to the top of the breakfast base. All done.
Breakfast protein option 2: Chicken
Cut the chicken into thin strips and brown it with the onions and garlic when you cook your breakfast base. It'll be cooked through by the time everything else is done. Easy!
Breakfast protein option 3: Sardines
I know: some people love sardines, and some people don't want to be on the same planet as sardines. Or the people who eat them.
So the trick here is to find good sardines.
The difference between good and bad sardines is the different between eating cat food and fine dining.
It's not always obvious what's "good" and what isn't.
Go to a fancy deli and see what they sell there. Then track down the same brand at your favorite supermarket 😉
Anyway, get your sardines, preferably in spring water. Drain them and add them to your breakfast after everything else is ready.
If you like eating little fishies whole, leave them on top of the simmering base to heat them through. Otherwise stir them through to turn them into anonymous fish bits.
Bonus! No time to cook breakfast? Try this:
(Ok, it's eggs. Sorry about that if you can't eat them.)
If you're really rushed in the morning, hard boil a couple eggs the night before. Peel them in the morning, slice them and add to diced avocado and a diced tomato. Add salt and pepper. Olive oil optional if you like it with eggs. Mix it all about.
Not quite as fast as a bowl of cereal, but close.
High Protein Lunch
Tragic as it is, food has become a problem that needs to be solved.
Why? Because we're really busy, and most of the options out there are either:
- Time consuming
If you don't pack a lunch for work, I'm sure you've noticed that lunch options get more expensive as they get healthier. (If not, you're in luck!)
Here's my solution to a healthy, high protein lunch.
Chicken Salad Lunch
Yes, you're going to brown-bag a home made chicken salad.
I really like this option because it gives you an opportunity to use up any leftover fresh vegetables.
You can even add roast vegetables if you have any.
I've included basic salad ingredients below, but you should use whatever you have available.
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
- 1 Chicken Breast
- Green leaves (your choice: lettuce, baby spinach etc)
- 1 Tomato
- 1 Red Bell Pepper
- 6 Capers (getting fancy now, totally optional)
- 1/2 a carrot
- 1/2 a lemon
Preparation starts the night before, but it's quick.
If you've got the skills, butterfly the chicken breast to make it thin and even. If not, just chop in into bite-size pieces.
Smear 1 tablespoon of oil all over the chicken. Sprinkle the chicken with as much salt and pepper as you think you'd like and rub it in.
Leave the chicken for a few minutes and get a pan medium-hot.
Without using any more oil, put the chicken in the pan and fry it until it's done. Let it cool a little, then cover it and put it in the fridge.
In the morning: chop up your vegetable into salald-sized bits. Some people are fanatical about chopping vegatables into itty-bitty pieces for salads. Just do whatever pleases you.
If you butterflied the chicken, chop it up now. Add your chicken to the salad.
Dress the salad with the other tablespoon of olive oil and the lemon juice. Toss it and put it in an air-tight plastic container.
Once you get to work, find a cool place to store your salad until lunch time!
All done 🙂
High Protein Dinner
We tend to have more control over dinner. It's the meal we're most likely to cook ourselves. So let's make it good!
I'm presenting a beef soup here.
Why soup? Because it's another way to get rid of leftovers, it's seriously filling and is easy to make.
You don't have use beef here. You can also use lamb. White meats like chicken, pork and fish also work, but you should use chicken stock instead of beef.
When you choose your protein (I'll assume beef from now on), you don't need anything too fancy.
Be aware if you buy something labeled 'casserole' or 'soup' it's probably tough. I just buy chuck steak and cut it up.
This is another opportunity to add a small amount of carbs. I'll throw a small amount of rice or oats into the soup. It thickens the soup and the carbs will help you sleep.
I'm also assuming you have a pot big enough for your soup! If you're not sure, chop everything up and put it in your pot to see if it fits 🙂
- Beef for soup
- 1 Small brown onion
- 1 Clove of garlic
- 1 Small sweet potato
- 1/2 cup green beans
- 1 Small carrot
- Beef stock (1 cube if dry, otherwise a half quart/16oz/500ml of liquid)
- 1 Tablespoon of olive oil
- Salt and pepper to season
Put your pot on a medium heat with the oil in it. Dice your onion and garlic and put it in the hot oil. Stir it around and cover the pot. This stops the onion and garlic burning. Turn the heat down if they start to burn anyway.
Cut your beef into bite size pieces, and put it in the pot too. Mix it around on the heat until it browns, then add your stock. If using dry stock, pre-mix it into a half-quart of water. Chop the carrots into rounds and add them too.
If you have more ingredients than stock, just add hot water from a kettle until you liquid covers the ingredients.
Once everything's boiling turn it down to a simmer. Chop up your sweet potato and add that too.
Once your carrot's done (you can easily stick a fork all the way through it), put in your roughly chopped green beans.
Let your soup return to a simmer and then turn it off. Taste, and add a little salt and pepper to season. It's important to leave this to the end because some stocks are salty, and there's no such thing as anti-salt.
And you're done!
And there we have all the reasons to up your protein and reduce your carbs, PLUS three great recipe ideas with lots of protein and no or low carbs.
If you have any ideas about how to include more protein in your diet easily and cheaply, I'd love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments!
References not linked in the article.
1. Pasiakos, S., et al. Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. 2013. 9, 3837-3844.