How does protein affect weight loss?

When the goal is to intentionally lose weight, eating more protein can help both reduce body fat and maintain lean mass. The amount of protein tends to be more imporant than the source.

Our evidence-based analysis features 12 unique references to scientific papers.

Written by Kamal Patel
Last Updated:

Protein and Intentional Weight Loss

When weight is lost through caloric restriction, a higher protein intake is usually seen as a good idea due to preserving lean mass during the weight loss period.

A study that stratified gender found that a 500kcal dietary restriction for one year resulted in 9.9-11.2% weight loss in overweight persons with no difference between gender and overall weight lost did not differ between the high protein group (1.6g/kg) and the low protein group (0.8g/kg); when measuring only fat mass, the high protein group lost significantly more fat (14.3 ± 11.8%) than did the low protein group (9.3 ± 11.1%) when calories were kept equal.[1] This study found that higher protein benefited both men and women, although men inherently lost more weight as a percentage of body fat.[1]

Protein and weight loss is also important for postmenopausal women and older men, as caloric restriction-induced weight loss appears to inherently reduce lean mass, with more lean mass being lost when dietary protein is lower despite caloric deficit being similar.[2] When investigating older (65.2 ± 4.6) women who are either overweight or obese and given a diet consisting of 1,400 calories (with a set amount of calories from each type of macronutrient) the addition of 50g whey protein twice a day to this calorically restricted diet induced more weight loss (-8.0% ± 6.2%) than did adding 50g carbohydrate (-4.1% ± 3.6%) despite calories being the same.[3] The protein group lost slightly more muscle as an overall percentage secondary to weight loss, but gained when measured relative to body fat losses.[3] Another study comparing 15% protein (in relation to overall calories) against 30% protein found that the low protein group lost more weight (11.4 +/- 3.8kg) with 37.5% of it being lean mass, while the higher protein group had a slightly lesser rate of weight loss (8.4 +/- 4.5kg) with approximately half as much lean mass lost (17.3%).[4] These results are repeated in various trials with similar results, with higher protein reducing losses in lean mass associated with diet regardless of source.[5][6][7] Even a small trend towards greater consumption of protein and dairy foods is associated with more favorable body composition changes during weight loss in the older population.[8]

Some studies do note that high protein diets induce more weight loss overall, but these diets tend to be conducted in obese persons as well as not being too plentiful in the literature.[9][10]

Consumption of protein in the higher range, usually seen as around 1g/lb of lean mass (if you know your body fat percentage and can calculate lean mass) or 25-30% overall calories, is more protective of lean mass during periods of intentional weight loss when calories are controlled for

What about health?

One study conducted over 12 weeks comparing low (1.1g/kg) against high protein (2.2g/kg) found that the high protein group not only lost more body fat mass (with no significant differences in overall weight, due to muscle retention) but the high protein group also experienced a reduction in LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol not seen in the low protein group.[5] A high protein diet (34% of calories) against a high carbohydrate diet (17% protein) also appears to be more effective at reducing triglycerides, and is seemingly more effective for both health and body fat reduction in those obese persons with high baseline triglycerides.[6][7]

What type of Protein?

The above studies tend to control for overall protein intake, rather than sources. They can be used to argue that protein per se helps with fat loss and muscle preservation with little to no difference when comparing one source to another.

When looking at the quality of protein sources in other studies, those that tend to have a higher percentage of essential amino acids tend to be more well correlated to inducing fat loss;[11] this appears to extend to bone health as well.[12] These sources tend to be animal sources; meat, fish, eggs and dairy. It should be noted that the protein supplements of whey and casein are two common protein supplements and are both derived from dairy (specifically, dairy protein is about 80% casein to 20% whey).

Overall, protein per se takes precedence. Beyond that, animal sources tend to be better than plant sources due to a higher percentage of essential amino acids

For a more detailed analysis, see our article on ideal levels of protein consumption based on your goals.

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  1. ^ a b Evans EM, et al. Effects of protein intake and gender on body composition changes: a randomized clinical weight loss trial. Nutr Metab (Lond). (2012)
  2. ^ Bopp MJ, et al. Lean mass loss is associated with low protein intake during dietary-induced weight loss in postmenopausal women. J Am Diet Assoc. (2008)
  3. ^ a b Mojtahedi MC, et al. The effects of a higher protein intake during energy restriction on changes in body composition and physical function in older women. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. (2011)
  4. ^ Gordon MM, et al. Effects of dietary protein on the composition of weight loss in post-menopausal women. J Nutr Health Aging. (2008)
  5. ^ a b Treyzon L, et al. A controlled trial of protein enrichment of meal replacements for weight reduction with retention of lean body mass. Nutr J. (2008)
  6. ^ a b Noakes M, et al. Effect of an energy-restricted, high-protein, low-fat diet relative to a conventional high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet on weight loss, body composition, nutritional status, and markers of cardiovascular health in obese women. Am J Clin Nutr. (2005)
  7. ^ a b Clifton PM, Bastiaans K, Keogh JB. High protein diets decrease total and abdominal fat and improve CVD risk profile in overweight and obese men and women with elevated triacylglycerol. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. (2009)
  8. ^ Josse AR, et al. Increased consumption of dairy foods and protein during diet- and exercise-induced weight loss promotes fat mass loss and lean mass gain in overweight and obese premenopausal women. J Nutr. (2011)
  9. ^ Labayen I, et al. Effects of protein vs. carbohydrate-rich diets on fuel utilisation in obese women during weight loss. Forum Nutr. (2003)
  10. ^ de Souza RJ, et al. Effects of 4 weight-loss diets differing in fat, protein, and carbohydrate on fat mass, lean mass, visceral adipose tissue, and hepatic fat: results from the POUNDS LOST trial. Am J Clin Nutr. (2012)
  11. ^ Loenneke JP, et al. Quality protein intake is inversely related with abdominal fat. Nutr Metab (Lond). (2012)
  12. ^ Loenneke JP, et al. Short report: Relationship between quality protein, lean mass and bone health. Ann Nutr Metab. (2010)