Does protein make you gain weight?
You probably already know just how important protein is for your health. It increases muscle mass and strength, is required for the production of enzymes & hormones, stabilizes blood sugar levels, promotes healthy brain function, maintains bone health and slows down aging.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight or 0.8 grams per kilogram.
However studies suggest that the amount of protein an individual should consume depends on various factors, such as how active they are, their physical goals and their age.
Granted, the protein requirements of an athlete are going to be much higher than those of a sedentary individual.
But can eating protein make you gain weight, and if so, how much should you be eating?
What causes weight gain?
Weight management comes down to a simple equation: calories in – calories out.
The first number in the equation is based on the food that you eat.
All foods have calories, but the numbers can vary greatly, depending on what a particular food is made up of.
There are 3 macro-nutrients: protein, carbs & fat and they provide you with 4, 4 and 9 calories per gram respectively. Therefore foods that have a lot of fat tend to be the most calorie dense.
The second number in the equation is based on the number of calories you burn throughout the day.
At minimum, this is your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of energy that you expend whilst at rest. The more active you are throughout the day, the more calories you burn.
If the result of the equation is a positive number, you will gain weight over time. This is because the excess calories that are not used up are stored as fat around the body.
The opposite is also true; if you consume fewer calories than you burn, your body will use its fat stores as a source of energy and you will end up losing weight.
The number of calories that a person needs to consume in order to maintain their weight can vary greatly and depends on their age, gender, weight, height and how active they are.
You can use the calculator on this page to estimate how many calories you should be consuming.
This calculator will never show a number below 1000 calories per day. Please speak to a qualified health professional before attempting to eat less than that.
For example, a 35 year old lady who weighs 125 pounds (57 kg), is 5 feet 6 inches tall and exercises 4 times a week will need to consume approximately 2000 calories per day in order to maintain her weight. If she were to consume 2500 calories per day, she would gain weight over time.
Therefore, all foods (including those that are rich in protein) if eaten in abundance will lead to weight gain. This can prove to be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the outcome that you are trying to achieve.
The type of weight that you gain is important
When protein is consumed, it will either be utilized to build muscle tissue or be converted into fat. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle, then any excess protein that you eat will simply be converted into fat and stored in various areas around your body.
On the other hand, leading an active lifestyle brings with it a number of advantages. Firstly, you use up more energy, which means that your body will require more calories in order to maintain your current weight and so less fat is stored. Secondly, provided that you workout strenuously enough and lift weights, protein that you eat will be used to build and repair muscle tissue.
If you are trying to lose weight, it may have come to your attention that even though you have been exercising regularly, you are not seeing a significant difference when you step on the scale. You may have also increased your protein intake and are wondering if that is to blame.
However just like fat, muscle has mass, but it is much more compact. So whilst it may seem as though you haven’t lost any weight when you step on the scale, you will definitely notice changes when you look in the mirror and when you measure your waist. As you increase muscle mass your body will begin to have a much more ‘toned’ look.
If you are trying to gain weight, increasing your protein intake is also highly recommended. You want to essentially gain as much muscle and as little fat as possible, and protein can help you achieve this. Exercise and protein go hand in hand when trying to gain healthy weight.
Protein is also great for weight loss
Provided you stay in a calorie deficit, protein is highly beneficial when it comes to losing weight. This is because it increases satiety (how full you feel) and boosts metabolism.
This study showed that increasing protein intake to 30% of total calories resulted in 441 fewer calories being consumed per day. This is because protein satisfies the appetite better than fat or carbs, so you end up eating less.
Another study found that higher protein intake reduced obsessive thoughts about food and late night desire to eat in overweight men.
Other studies have shown that protein consumption can increase the number of calories burned by as much as 100 per day. Additionally, it can help prevent weight regain once it is lost, as seen in this study.
And as mentioned in the previous section, protein can help prevent muscle loss, thereby giving you a more ‘toned’ look when you start to lose weight.
The best protein sources
Not all protein sources are created equal and some are better than others. You ideally want to consume a complete protein, which is a protein source that provides the body with all 9 essential amino acids. These are the ones that the body cannot produce on its own and need to be obtained from the diet.
Foods obtained from animals are complete proteins, but you can also get some great plant based proteins as well. Here are some of the best sources of protein that you should try and include in your diet.
- Eggs – not only are they a complete protein source, they also come with a wide range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin B12, iron, phosphorus and selenium. A large egg will provide you with roughly 6 g of protein.
- Fish – especially oily types such as salmon are great. They promote bone, brain, heart, eye and skin health. A 135 g fillet of salmon has 25 – 30 g of protein.
- Legumes – beans and lentils are high in both protein & fiber and are excellent sources for vegetarians and vegans. A cup of boiled kidney beans has 15 g of protein.
- Nuts & seeds – again, these are great for vegetarians and vegans. Nuts are high in fat, so they should be eaten in moderation; a handful a day is fine.
- Meats – lean meats such as chicken and turkey are some of the best protein sources available.
The consumption of excess calories is what leads to weight gain and these calories can come from protein, carbs or fat. Protein consumption can be beneficial to individuals who want to gain weight as well as those who want to lose it, provided the correct amount of total calories are consumed.
In the former, when combined with a strenuous exercise plan, it will build muscle mass. In the latter, it will satisfy appetite faster and help create a calorie deficit.