3 Ways Protein Supports Your Body Goals

Protein shakes and bars have long been popular with the fitness crowd. But that doesn’t mean that protein is only important for athletic types. Whether you’re looking to build muscle, lose weight, or maintain strength and mobility as you age, eating more protein can help. Here are three ways that protein supports your health and fitness goals.

1. Protein Helps Build Muscle

There’s a reason protein shakes are so common at the gym. Protein is a vital building block for your muscle tissue. Working out stresses your muscle tissue, causing it to break down a little. This increases your body’s demand for protein to help rebuild those tissues.

When you consume protein just after exercise, your body incorporates those amino acids into the muscles to replace what was lost. Every time your body rebuilds your muscle tissue, it makes it a little stronger and more resilient. This is how regular exercise, combined with adequate protein, can help build muscle strength and mass.

Multiple studies have shown that higher protein intake, combined with physical activity, can help increase muscle mass and improve physical performance.[1][2] Whey protein is often recommended for a post-workout protein snack, because it contains a high amount of leucine, an essential amino acid that plays a key role in muscle synthesis.

 2. Protein Supports Weight Management

If you are changing your diet to lose weight or improve your body composition, eating more protein may help support the process. While protein does not directly influence your weight, it does influence your metabolism and appetite in ways that can support your goals.

If you want to consume less calories without feeling hungry, try eating more protein. Protein is especially filling and takes longer to digest than most foods, helping you feel fuller longer. Protein also influences hormones that regulate your appetite and helps reduce cravings.[3][4] Studies have shown that when overweight subjects increase their protein intake, they tend to consume fewer calories overall and have fewer cravings for snacks.[5][6][7] 

Eating more protein can also boost your metabolic rate. That’s because digesting and metabolizing protein takes more energy and burns more calories than other foods. Studies have shown that eating more protein can significantly increase your daily calorie burn, especially when the extra protein is replacing carbs in your diet.[8][9][10]

Since those who eat more protein tend to consume fewer calories while burning more calories, without increasing their hunger, it’s easy to see how higher protein intake can support healthy weight. Research confirms that a higher protein diet supports weight management[11][5] and that eating more protein can improve weight loss and fat loss for those on a weight reduction diet.[12][13]

One of the downsides of weight loss through dieting is that it can come with muscle loss. But research suggests that eating more protein can help preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss.[14][15] Another study showed that a higher protein diet can help maintain weight loss after dieting and support a healthy body composition, with lean mass regained rather than fat.[16]

 3. Protein Helps You Stay Active as You Age

Our muscles and bones maintain their strength by constantly rebuilding themselves. But as we get older, the rate of tissue breakdown begins to outpace the rate of tissue rebuilding. As a result, our muscles and bones gradually lose mass and strength as we age. This happens to everyone, but it can happen much more quickly if we don’t get enough exercise or protein.

Age-related muscle deterioration can seriously limit your mobility. Simple movements become harder and take more energy. Without the muscle strength to stabilize joints and bones, there’s an increased risk of falling and injury. Weakened bones are also more vulnerable to fracture. This physical decline makes seniors more frail and less independent.

The good news is that we can slow our physical decline by staying active and getting the right nutrition. Strength training and weight-bearing exercises, including aerobic fitness and walking, have been shown to help preserve and increase muscle mass and strength[17] and slow bone loss[18] in older adults.

But getting enough protein is also crucial, especially as you age. In fact, there’s growing evidence that older adults need more protein than younger adults, because their bodies process protein less efficiently.[19] For instance, it takes more protein to stimulate muscle growth in older adults, because their muscles are less responsive to protein intake.[20][21]

The standard recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. But many health experts now recommend a daily minimum of 1-1.2 grams per kilogram body weight for adults 65 and older, to help preserve muscle mass.20 That’s a 25-50% daily increase.

However, because of changes in appetite and digestion, many older adults eat less protein. One recent survey found that 1 in 3 adults over 50 aren’t getting enough protein.[22] It’s not helping their mobility. Studies show that low protein intake is correlated with increased frailty in older adults,[23] while higher protein intake is correlated with better physical function and mobility.[24]

Not only is protein necessary for healthy muscles, it’s important for bone health as well. While calcium is the most important bone building nutrient, we now know that protein helps increase calcium absorption.[25] Studies have linked higher protein intake with better bone density and a reduced risk of fractures in older adults.[26]

Getting Enough Protein

Getting enough protein in your diet doesn’t have to be complicated. One simple tip is to make sure you include some protein in every meal, starting with breakfast. Greek yogurt, nut butters, eggs, oats, milk, and soymilk are all great sources of protein. Starting the day with protein should also help keep you full and satisfied for longer.

When you reach for a snack, choose a protein snack, not just empty carbs. Nuts, cheeses, smoked salmon, edamame, or hummus will fill you up more than chips and crackers, while providing valuable protein and nutrients. Protein bars and protein shakes also make a good snack and can provide a quick protein boost when you’re on the go or just after a workout.

Meat is a reliable source of protein, but you don’t have to rely on it. Beans and lentils are great sources of plant-based protein and easy to add to salads, wraps, and grain bowls. You can also swap out white rice for whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, which have a higher protein content. As long as you’re eating a variety of different protein sources throughout the day, you should have no trouble meeting your protein needs.

References:

[1] Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic and anaerobic power in healthy adults: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2015 Jan;45(1):111-31. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2. PMID: 25169440.

[2] Bosse JD, Dixon BM. Dietary protein to maximize resistance training: a review and examination of protein spread and change theories. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Sep 8;9(1):42. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-42. PMID: 22958314; PMCID: PMC3518828.

[3] Batterham RL, Heffron H, Kapoor S, Chivers JE, Chandarana K, Herzog H, Le Roux CW, Thomas EL, Bell JD, Withers DJ. Critical role for peptide YY in protein-mediated satiation and body-weight regulation. Cell Metab. 2006 Sep;4(3):223-33. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2006.08.001. PMID: 16950139.

[4] Blom WA, Lluch A, Stafleu A, Vinoy S, Holst JJ, Schaafsma G, Hendriks HF. Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):211-20. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/83.2.211. PMID: 16469977.

[5] Weigle DS, Breen PA, Matthys CC, Callahan HS, Meeuws KE, Burden VR, Purnell JQ. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1):41-8. doi: 10.1093/ajcn.82.1.41. PMID: 16002798.

[6] Hoertel HA, Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese "breakfast skipping", late-adolescent girls. Nutr J. 2014 Aug 6;13:80. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-13-80. PMID: 25098557; PMCID: PMC4249715.

[7] Leidy HJ, Tang M, Armstrong CL, Martin CB, Campbell WW. The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Apr;19(4):818-24. doi: 10.1038/oby.2010.203. Epub 2010 Sep 16. PMID: 20847729; PMCID: PMC4564867.

[8] Halton TL, Hu FB. The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Oct;23(5):373-85. doi:10.1080/07315724.2004.10719381. PMID: 15466943.

[9] Johnston CS, Day CS, Swan PD. Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002 Feb;21(1):55-61. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2002.10719194. PMID: 11838888.

[10] Veldhorst MA, Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Westerterp KR. Gluconeogenesis and energy expenditure after a high-protein, carbohydrate-free diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Sep;90(3):519-26. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27834. Epub 2009 Jul 29. PMID: 19640952.

[11] Paddon-Jones D, Westman E, Mattes RD, Wolfe RR, Astrup A, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1558S-1561S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S. PMID: 18469287.

[12] Skov AR, Toubro S, Rønn B, Holm L, Astrup A. Randomized trial on protein vs carbohydrate in ad libitum fat reduced diet for the treatment of obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999 May;23(5):528-36. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0800867. PMID: 10375057.

[13] Evans EM, Mojtahedi MC, Thorpe MP, Valentine RJ, Kris-Etherton PM, Layman DK. Effects of protein intake and gender on body composition changes: a randomized clinical weight loss trial. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012 Jun 12;9(1):55. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-9-55. PMID: 22691622; PMCID: PMC3407769.

[14]  Pasiakos SM. Metabolic advantages of higher protein diets and benefits of dairy foods on weight management, glycemic regulation, and bone. J Food Sci. 2015 Mar;80 Suppl 1:A2-7. doi: 10.1111/1750-3841.12804. PMID: 25757894.

[15] Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2010 Feb;42(2):326-337. DOI: 10.1249/mss.0b013e3181b2ef8e. PMID: 19927027.

[16] Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Lejeune MP, Nijs I, van Ooijen M, Kovacs EM. High protein intake sustains weight maintenance after body weight loss in humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Jan;28(1):57-64. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0802461. PMID: 14710168.

[17] Thorpe, Matthew. “How to Fight Sarcopenia.” Healthline, 2017.

[18]Slowing Bone Loss with Weight-Bearing Exercise.” Harvard Health Publishing, 2021.

[19] Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, Cesari M, Cruz-Jentoft AJ, Morley JE, Phillips S, Sieber C, Stehle P, Teta D, Visvanathan R, Volpi E, Boirie Y. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013 Aug;14(8):542-59. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2013.05.021. Epub 2013 Jul 16. PMID: 23867520.

[20] Phillips, Stuart M. “Nutritional supplements in support of resistance exercise to counter age-related sarcopenia.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 6,4 452-60. 15 Jul. 2015, doi:10.3945/an.115.008367

[21] Paddon-Jones D, Short KR, Campbell WW, Volpi E, Wolfe RR. Role of dietary protein in the sarcopenia of aging. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 May;87(5):1562S-1566S. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1562S. PMID: 18469288.

[22]Study: U.S. Adults Over Age 50 Not Eating Enough Protein.” Abbot Health, 2018.

[23] Coelho-Júnior HJ, Rodrigues B, Uchida M, Marzetti E. Low Protein Intake Is Associated with Frailty in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients. 2018 Sep 19;10(9):1334. doi: 10.3390/nu10091334. PMID: 30235893; PMCID: PMC6165078.

[24] Adela Hruby, PhD, MPH, Shivani Sahni, PhD, Douglas Bolster, PhD, Paul F Jacques, DSc, Protein Intake and Functional Integrity in Aging: The Framingham Heart Study Offspring, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 75, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 123–130, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/gly201

[25] Wallace, Taylor C. PhD Optimizing Dietary Protein for Lifelong Bone Health, Nutrition Today: 5/6 2019 - Volume 54 - Issue 3 - p 107-115 doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000340

[26] Inge Groenendijk, Laura den Boeft, Luc J.C. van Loon, Lisette C.P.G.M. de Groot, High Versus low Dietary Protein Intake and Bone Health in Older Adults: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal, Volume 17, 2019, Pages 1101-1112, ISSN 2001-0370, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.csbj.2019.07.005.