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Increasing protein intake in one’s diet has been linked to many health benefits. Marta Mauri/Stocksy
  • Protein is an essential component of a healthy diet, including among people working through weight loss programs.
  • According to a new study, increasing one’s protein intake may improve people’s food choices and decrease the amount of sugar and refined grains they consume.
  • Researchers found that among people seeking to lose weight, increased protein intake can also reduce the loss of lean body mass.

Eating a variety of nutritious foods is essential to health and well-being. What makes up people’s diet will impact multiple areas of health, including maintaining a healthy weight. Protein is a critical component of the diet.

A recent study published in the journal Obesity found that increasing protein in the diet may be helpful for people involved in weight loss programs. Specifically, it may impact food choices and reduce the loss of lean body mass.

Proteins are nutrients that allow the human body to function appropriately. Protein helps the body maintain its structure and controls functions in the body and its cells. People can get protein from various sources, including meat, dairy, some vegetables and grains.

One challenge for people who are working toward weight loss is maintaining lean body mass while getting rid of excess fat. Lean body mass (LBM) has to do with the body’s mass that is not made up of adipose tissue or body fat. Part of this amount is made up of the muscles, or the muscle mass.

Dr. Anastasia Kalea with the University College London Division of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, explained to Medical News Today:

“While several dietary, lifestyle, [behavioral], pharmacological or combination weight-loss interventions are promising, they often face the challenge of loss of lean body mass, which has multiple negative health implications. It affects one’s quality of life, [and] the ability to conduct activities of daily living, has effects on neuromuscular function, emotion and psychological states, and it also affects the sustainability of weight loss because it is linked to metabolic decline.”

“The holy grail of a successful weight loss intervention is to find a way to maintain LBM. Therefore, weight loss strategies that protect lean body mass are of value.”
— Dr. Anastasia Kalea

Researchers are still working to understand how protein intake impacts lean muscle mass and how to best implement protein into weight-loss diets.

In this study, researchers sought to examine how “the change in self-selected protein intake during caloric restriction (CR) alters diet quality and lean body mass (LBM).”

The study used pooled data from multiple trials and included participants who met specific eligibility criteria. Researchers evaluated 207 adults before and over six months of diets that restricted calorie intake.

All participants were either overweight or obese. All participants went through a weight loss intervention lasting six to twelve months. They all had weekly counseling sessions for the first eight weeks and follow-up visits with a registered dietitian nutritionist.

Researchers evaluated both body composition via dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry and dietary intake. They also looked at components like protein sources and diet quality. Based on the intake data, they divided participants into two groups: lower and higher protein intake.

Study author Dr. Sue Shapses, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, told MNT: “In this study design, we split the participants in half based on how much protein they consumed during the 6 months of weight reduction.”

Researchers found that the amount of weight loss was similar for both groups. However, among the high protein intake group, there was less loss of lean body mass.

Participants in the high protein group also made more healthy food choices, such as an increased intake of green vegetables and decreasing consumption of refined grains and added sugar.

Prof. Shapses explained:

“One surprising aspect of this study is that while all subjects were instructed to consume enough protein and a healthy diet during the weight reduction trial, it was unexpected that those who ingested less protein had fewer desirable outcomes.”

“We found that those who consumed less protein also ate foods of lower quality (like more refined grains and added sugar and fewer green vegetables).”
— Dr. Sue Shapses

This study overall indicates that increasing the protein component of diet can be beneficial for people working to lose weight. However, it has a few limitations.

For example, participants self-reported their dietary intake, so there is a possibility for errors in data collection. However, the participants received counseling about how to record food intake, and food intake data collection happened at multiple intervals, which decreased the risk for errors.

In addition, the type of protein may also impact the benefits. In this study, much of the protein participants consumed was from lean meat or plant sources. The study authors note that the study mainly included white female participants and was completed within one primary location, so the results cannot necessarily be generalized.

The methods the researchers used to measure lean body mass also didn’t differentiate between mass from organs and mass from muscles. Therefore, we cannot assume that the loss of lean body mass in the lower protein group was only from muscle loss.

As research moves forward in this area, more people may choose to incorporate healthy protein options into diets as they work toward reaching healthy weight levels. This concept and continued research may also help people maintain lean body mass, even as they seek to lose weight.

Prof. Shapses noted:

“At any time, greater loss of LBM is not a good outcome, but it is particularly unfavorable for middle-aged and older persons who are trying to lose weight for health reasons.”

“The higher protein group lost just as much fat as the lower protein group but were able to minimize the loss of LBM (suggesting an attenuated loss of muscle mass),” she stressed.

Dr. Kalea said that there were still knowledge gaps to cover regarding this area of research.

“We have progressed in understanding aspects of protein quality and digestibility but we need to understand better how to preserve LBM when we restrict energy for weight loss purposes, we need to understand whether a combination of different protein sources within a dietary pattern affects LBM, and how to personalize our interventions and efficiently define sufficient intake for each individual,” she said.