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When it comes to losing weight, most people are aware of the basics — i.e. you have to reduce your calories, exercise, etc. However, fewer people have a clear understanding of just how important dietary protein is when it comes to achieving healthy weight loss outcomes.
That’s why in this article we’re going over everything you need to know about a high-protein diet, from how protein can aid in the weight loss process, to how to incorporate high-protein, low-calorie meals into your daily diet.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the 3 calorie-providing macronutrients found in the foods we eat and it plays several important roles in the human body.
On top of aiding in the synthesis of a number of different enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters, protein also serves as the primary structural element in all of your body’s tissues — that includes your muscles, which we’ll talk about in more detail in the following section.
In order to support all of your body’s tissues, as well as, the various biological processes that your body relies on to function optimally, you’ll absolutely need to be consuming an adequate amount of protein in your daily diet.
Some of the best places to get protein from include things like eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and fish, as well as several, low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt, milk, and whey protein powder.
On top of animal-based protein sources, there are also several healthy plant-based sources, including things like beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, along with several different soy products.
What Are The Benefits of a High-Protein Diet For Weight Loss?
When it comes to achieving real, measurable weight loss outcomes, nothing is more important than a calorie deficit, which happens when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
The total number of calories your body uses up in a day is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and, in essence, it represents how much energy your body requires to maintain your current weight.
You can easily calculate your TDEE using an online calculator. From there, you simply apply a calorie restriction to your TDEE — a moderate restriction of somewhere around 30% is a good starting point for most.
While reducing your calorie intake will certainly help you to lose weight, it’s only half the battle. When your calories are restricted, your body ultimately must turn to itself to make up for the calories that have been removed from your diet.
The good news is that when this happens, your body starts targeting stored fat to be burned up and converted into energy. However, the bad news is that your body isn’t picky when it needs energy; it’s just as happy converting lean muscle tissue into usable calories.
The issue is that when most people say they want to lose weight, what they really mean is that they want to shed stored body fat, not lean muscle mass.
In the long run, the ultimate goal of a weight loss program is to improve your body composition (and your health) through reducing your ratio of fat to muscle — i.e. when we’re trying to lose weight, we want to lose as much body fat as possible while maintaining as much lean muscle mass as we can.
Maintaining your lean muscle mass during your weight cut is the key to looking lean and fit once the weight comes off. However, if you’re not consuming an adequate amount of protein in your daily diet, you’re at serious risk of losing significant amounts of muscle mass over the course of your weight loss journey.
That’s because your muscles are, themselves, made up of proteins that are constantly at risk of being broken down, especially when you’re in a calorie deficit.
However, having an adequate amount of protein in your daily diet will help to preserve your lean muscle mass, assuring that most of the weight you lose ultimately comes from stored body fat, not muscle.
How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Day?
So then how much protein should you be consuming each day if you want to make sure you’re shedding fat and not muscle during your weight cut?
While there is no one magic number that’s going to work for everyone, organizations like the National Institute of Health recommend that adults get somewhere between 10 – 35% of their total daily calories from healthy protein sources.
When it comes to being on a calorie-restricted diet, where you’re particularly vulnerable to muscle loss, it’s commonly recommended to shoot for somewhere closer to the upper limits of that range.
So for example, if you’re eating 1,000 calories per day and are shooting to have 30% of those calories come from healthy protein sources, you’d be looking to get 300 calories per day from protein.
Because protein contains 4 calories per gram, that means, you’d want to take in at least 75 grams of protein per day in order to maintain your muscle mass over the course of a calorie-restricted diet.
While eating that much protein every day may seem like a challenge for some — for example, 3 oz of chicken contains somewhere around 26g of protein — one of the easiest ways to make sure you’re hitting your protein target day in and day out is through supplementing with whey protein.
Most high-quality whey products contain 20+ grams of protein per serving, mix easily with water, and are almost effortless to drink. So, by simply adding a protein shake or two into your daily routine, you can make hitting your daily protein target feel like far less of a challenge.
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Sample High-Protein Weight Loss Diet
When it comes to achieving real measurable improvements in your body weight and composition, a large part of the battle is finding healthy foods that you actually enjoy eating.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that traditional weight-loss diets tend to be pretty bland and boring, which can make long-term adherence relatively difficult.
On top of that, many traditional weight-loss diets also don’t prioritize protein, which means that even if you do stick with it, you may be at an increased risk of losing significant amounts of muscle mass over the long term.
In order to address some of these limitations, we’ve put together what we call the 7-Day Quick Start Diet. The goal of this diet is to come in under 1000 calories per day, while still providing you with tasty food options, as well, as plenty of protein.
For the average person, this approach will usually lead to somewhere in the vicinity of 1 – 2 pounds of weight loss over the course of a 7-day period, although people’s experiences may vary.
If you follow the recommend breakfast, lunch, and dinner options listed below, you’ll come in under 1,000 calories each day while also consuming a healthy distribution of protein, carbs, and fat.
Additionally, you won’t just be eating boring and bland food on the Quick Start Diet. With the dinner recipes listed below, you can actually make meals that aren’t just nutritious, but also delicious. And better yet, each dinner recipe makes multiple servings, which is perfect for meal prepping.
- 1 CLA with breakfast (optional)
- 1 scoop grass-fed whey protein (GFWP) mixed with water (134 calories) plus one of the following:
Option 1: 8 ounces of plain Greek yogurt and 6 sliced strawberries – 280 calories
Option 2: 2 cups frozen mixed berries blended with protein shake – 275 calories
Option 3: 4 ounces plain Greek yogurt, 1 tbsp peanut butter (blended with protein shake) – 300 calories
- 1 CLA with lunch (optional)
- 1 Scoop GFWP shake mixed with water (134 calories) plus one of the following:
Option 1: 15 almonds – 100 calories
Option 2: 20 strawberries – 100 calories
- 1 CLA with dinner (optional)
Option 1: Tangy Chicken Breast
- Serving Size: 1 medium chicken breast
- Sides: 2 cups green vegetables
- Calories: 260 + 70 = 330
- Garlic lime boneless chicken breast you can grill, broil or sauté in the mixture.
- 2 tsp garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- 16 oz boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp dried mustard
- Worcestershire sauce
- Mix together all the marinade ingredients.
- Place the chicken breasts in a re-closeable plastic bag.
- Pour the marinade over the chicken, close the bag.
- Toss well to coat the chicken with the marinade.
- Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
- Drain and discard the marinade.
- Grill, broil, or sauté as desired.
Option 2: Pork Tenderloin
- Serving Size: 8 ounces of pork tenderloin
- Sides: Mixed salad greens and sliced tomato with 2 Tbsp balsamic vinaigrette dressing (be careful and measure)
- Calories: 310 + 140 = 450 calories. If you want to cut 70 calories use apple cider vinegar and siracha on the salad.
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp coarse kosher salt
- 2 tsp Splenda brown sugar
- 2 tsp chili-garlic sauce
- 1 1/2 lbs pork tenderloin, trimmed
- 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- It’s important to brown the meat before roasting since this cut cooks too quickly for the surface to brown and caramelize in the oven. (Grill enthusiasts may omit the stovetop browning and grill the tenderloins over medium heat, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes
- Preheat oven to 375° F (190° C). Line a baking sheet with foil.
- Mix Splenda, coriander, cumin, salt, chili sauce, and 1 teaspoon olive oil in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Rub the paste over the pork.
- Heat remaining teaspoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork; cook, turning occasionally until browned on all sides, about 3 minutes. Transfer to the baking sheet
- Roast the pork until just cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes (an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center should register 155° F (70° C)). Let stand, loosely covered with foil, for 5 minutes.
- Note: the chili-garlic sauce, a blend of ground chiles, garlic, and vinegar, is commonly used to add heat and flavor to Asian dishes. It can be found in the Asian section of large markets (sometimes labeled as chili-garlic sauce or paste) and keeps up to 1 year in the refrigerator.
Option 3: Beanless Turkey Chili
- Makes 4 servings.
- Add a side salad or steamed vegetables.
- Calories: 300 per serving plus 70 + dressing
- Chili with ground turkey and bell peppers.
- 15 oz canned whole peeled plum tomatoes
- 1 lb 99% lean ground turkey
- 2 tbsp avocado oil
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 cup onions, chopped
- 3 large bell peppers
- 6 oz tomato paste
- Dice onions and bell peppers. Sauté in avocado oil until softened with crushed garlic.
- Add ground turkey and cook until turkey is browned.
- Purée whole plum tomatoes with tomato paste in a blender.
- Add tomato mix to turkey mix, adding a little water until the consistency is right.
- Season to taste with salt, pepper, cumin, and chili powder.
Option 4: Thai Chicken and Rice
- This is a very tasty Asian-inspired dish made with chicken and broccoli in a spicy peanut sauce.
- Makes 4 servings.
- Calories: 400
- 3/4 cup green onions, chopped
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup dry & roasted salted peanuts
- 4 tsp minced garlic
- 1 medium red bell pepper
- 2 tbsp natural creamy peanut butter
- 2 1/2 cups broccoli florets
- 3 tbsps soy sauce
- 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breast
- 2 cups cooked brown rice
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- Cook rice until tender. In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce, peanut butter, vinegar, and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
- Heat oil in a skillet or wok over high heat. Add cut chicken, garlic, and ginger, and cook, stirring constantly, until chicken is golden on the outside, about 5 minutes.
- Reduce heat to medium, and add green onion, broccoli, red pepper strips, peanuts, and the peanut butter mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, or until broccoli is tender, and chicken is cooked through. Serve with rice.
- Note: if you like it mild, use less cayenne, like it spicy, use more. If you’re salt conscious, use low sodium soy sauce.
Option 5: Parmesan Crusted White Fish
- Serving Size: 6 ounces of Tilapia (or white fish of different breed)
- Mixed vegetables
- Calories: 182
- 4 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
- 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
- 1 cup white cornmeal
- 1/4 cup self-rising flour
- 2 large egg whites
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tbsp basil
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 6 oz tilapia
- Pre-heat oven to 450° F (220° C).
- Sift flour, salt and pepper, and 1/2 parmesan together in one container.
- Sift cornmeal, bread crumbs, basil, and other 1/2 of parmesan together in another container.
- Beat egg whites until frothy.
- Dip tilapia into the flour mixture, then into egg whites, then into cornmeal mixture.
- Lay fillets flat on a baking sheet or broiling pan sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.
- Place in oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes.
Option 6: Chicken Enchilada
- 6 Servings
- Calories 352
- 2 1/4 cups quinoa
- 4 oz chopped green chilies
- 15 oz reduced-sodium black beans
- 2 cups red enchilada sauce
- 1 1/2 cups chicken breast
- 1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey jack cheese
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1/2 small onion, finely chopped
- Using 1 1/4 cup of water, cook quinoa according to package directions. Rinse and drain the black beans.
- Heat oven to 350 °F (175 °C). Spray an 8″ baking dish with Pam.
- Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onion, cook for 5 minutes or until onion is soft.
- Reduce to low. Add quinoa, chicken, black beans, green chiles, chili powder, and enchilada sauce, stir to combine. Remove from heat.
- Stir in 1/2 cup of cheese. Transfer quinoa mixture to baking dish. Top evenly with remaining cheese.
- Bake 10-15 minutes.
- Turn oven to broil. Placing baking dish about 5 inches from broiler, broil 1-2 minutes or until cheese is golden and bubbly.
- Remove from broiler and serve.