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Are You Eating Enough Protein for Sustainable Weight Loss?

Jan 03, 2022

By: Tedi Nikova MPH, RD

When finding the right eating regime for weight loss, and sustainable weight management, I always tell my clients to focus on what foods to include to support their metabolism, rather than thinking about what food to cut out. Today I am going to share with you the most important nutrient for weight loss, and that is.. protein! Protein is the most metabolically active macronutrient as compared to fat, and carbohydrates, and plays a large role in regulating overall food intake due to its large effect on satiety (i.e fullness).                                           

What is protein?

Protein is made of of 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. This means that our bodies cannot produce these essential amino acids, and we need to consume these essential amino acids from our diet.

Is the protein from chicken the same as the protein from beans?  The answer is no! There are two types of proteins, complete, and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids. Complete proteins include animal-based products including meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and cheese. Quinoa and soy are plant based complete proteins,  however, you would need to consume 6 cups of quinoa to get the equivalent  amino acids of 1 chicken breast. Therefore,  it is more difficult to get the same complete amino acid composition from plant based proteins. Incomplete proteins are mainly plant based sources of protein including beans/legumes, grains, nuts/seeds, and vegetables,

Role of protein in metabolic health and weight loss

Largest satiety effect. Protein has the largest satiety effect as compared to fats and carbohydrates.  This means that protein is very efficient in shutting off hunger hormones, and increasing fullness hormones after a meal.  Additionally, protein does not cause the same spike in dopamine (the pleasure hormone), as does refined carbohydrates and fatty foods such as sweets, and baked goods. This makes protein hard to overeat, as it does not overproduce over desire to eat past the point of physical fullness. For example, if you just had a piece of steak and someone were to offer you another piece of steak you would probably say no as you are physically full. However, if they were to offer you a delicious chocolate cake for dessert, there is suddenly enough room for dessert! This is called hedonic eating, or eating for pleasure/reward.

Largest TEF. Protein has the largest Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) as compared to carbohydrates and fat. This simply means our bodies require the most energy to metabolize protein, as protein has the most complex structure to break down and metabolize. You can think of this as protein has a very expensive price to be broken down. 

Preservation of lean body mass. Consuming a high protein diet will ensure you are preserving as much lean muscle mass as possible during a period of weight loss. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, this means that muscle burns more calories at rest, as compared to fat, therefore it helps with weight management. Lean muscle mass does not only play a role in making sure our metabolism is active,  but is essential as we age to keep us mobile and independent and able to do daily activities such as walking up the stairs, and living independently. 


Distribution matters most  

I know what you may be thinking.. well how much protein should I be have a day for weight loss? What the research actually shows is that distribution of protein is more important than focusing on a daily number goal. Let's take a look at the distribution of protein in a typical North American diet. The most common meal pattern is a very low protein high carb breakfast, such as a bagel or baked good, a moderate protein lunch, maybe a turkey or tuna sandwich, and a very high protein dinner, potentially consisting of meat or poultry. You can still reach your protein requirements for the day with this meal pattern without the actual benefit of protein on satiety throughout the day, or activating an anabolic (building state) for muscle. 

Research shows that 30 g of protein per meal is the magic number to trigger protein synthesis (i.e muscle synthesis) and promote weight loss!1Let’s get down into the research... the essential amino acid leucine needs to reach a threshold (this is typically done with 30 g of complete proteins) in order to activate a system called mTOR that triggers muscle synthesis.1Therefore, if you are having a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast (4-5 g protein), a turkey sandwich for lunch (15-20 g protein), and a 6 oz steak for dinner (49 g protein), you have only activated this protein synthesis process once during the day!

The most important meal of the day for weight loss

I typically recommend your first meal of the day to be at least 30 g of protein! In the morning your body is in a catabolic (muscle breakdown state), as you likely have fasted overnight. Therefore, breakfast is essential to get you in the anabolic (muscle synthesis) state to support the preservation of your lean muscle mass. Additionally, prioritizing protein at breakfast sets the tone for increased satiety and reduced cravings for later in the day. 

Examples of high protein breakfasts:

Turkey hash with 5 oz of cooked ground turkey (35 g protein)

Recipe inspiration:

Egg omlette with 2 eggs + ½ cup egg whites + 1 slice of cheese (34 g protein)



  1. Protein is one of the most important macronutrient for weight loss due to its impact on satiety, preserving lean muscle mass, and metabolic health.
  2. Distribution matters most. Aiming for at least 30 g of protein per meal is essential to activate muscle synthesis.
  3. Your first meal is the most essential in weight management as it sets the tone for your hunger levels, and muscle synthesis for the rest of the day 


*Disclaimer: Please consult a Registered Dietitian for your individual protein requirements. The following information is for educational purposes only, and does not reflect your individual nutrition requirements.  




1. Stuart M Phillips, Douglas Paddon-Jones, Donald K Layman, Optimizing Adult Protein Intake During Catabolic Health Conditions, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 11, Issue 4, July 2020, Pages S1058–S1069,

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