01 Aug Setting Up a Fat Loss Diet: Protein
Welcome to part one of our four part ‘setting up a fat loss diet’ series.
The majority of our clients initially come to us for fat loss, so in the spirit of our highly transparent education section, we’d like to share how we typically approach setting up the different macronutrient and calorie targets to help reach this goal.
As we know, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Everyone is different, and will require specific modifications to make it suit their lifestyle as easily as possible.
But what you’ll gain from this series is the ability to create your own general starting point to start melting away body fat, which you can then tweak accordingly depending on your progress.
To kick it off, we’re going to talk all things protein, where we’ll be diving into the following:
- Why we need protein
- How much protein we need
- The best sources of protein
Why Do We Need Protein?
For body composition improvements, protein is arguably one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle.
In fact, a little known fact is that protein derives from the Greek language, and stands for Of first/primary importance.
Those Greek Gods were definitely onto something, right?!
Unfortunately though, when we look at the modern Western diet, it appears that we’re actually doing the opposite!
Instead of protein being ‘of first importance’ it’s now become ‘of little importance’. Way down on the pecking order.
Let’s look at how a typical Western diet looks like for most now:
Cereal / Toast / Skipped (carbohydrate based)
Sandwich / Salad / Crisps (carbohydrate / fat based)
Meat or Fish with Rice or Potatoes / Spaghetti Bolognese / Indian Takeaway (carbohydrate / fat based)
If we were to break down the macronutrient ratios of the above example, it’d likely show something like this:
As you can see, protein only makes up a small part of the total calories. If our goal is maximum results in minimum time with body composition, this low protein diet creates three problems.
1) Muscle Growth / Retention
If you look through any of our transformations, you’ll notice that not only are our clients looking lean at the end, but they’re also carrying significantly more muscle tissue on their frame.
This is the ideal situation. Yet is still rarely spoken about in the dieting world, where calories are dropped indiscriminately. Of course, if you have a large deficit where both calories and protein were low, you will lose weight. There’s no debate. But the real issue that the ‘weight’ will come from everywhere, and that includes muscle tissue. Which is when the ‘after’ in a transformation looks unhealthy, skinny and gaunt, as opposed to healthy, lean and muscular.
When we’re transforming bodies, our goal is maximum fat loss. Not just weight loss. Reaching a minimum protein target while staying within a maximum calorie allowance is an essential part of the process.
When new clients start with us, one of the most common pieces of feedback we receive at the beginning is just how full and satiated they always are.
This is because of an increased protein intake, and it’s associated effect on an appetite reducing hormone called peptide YY, which is found in the ileum and colon.
The example we always use is to compare the way you feel after eating a quick sandwich vs 3 to 4 whole eggs, or a steak.
When you have a sandwich, you gain some temporary fulfilment, but you’re ready to eat again in an hour or so.
But if you have a protein dense meal such as 3 to 4 whole eggs, or a steak, you’re set for another 3 to 4 hours at least.
3) Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
Another overlooked benefit of protein in a fat loss diet is the high TEF value it holds, which does play a small but useful role in the calorie balance equation.
TEF refers to the caloric cost of processing and digesting different micronutrients in the day.
Unsurprisingly, protein comes out on top here again with the following calorie cost percentage values:
Protein = 20-30%
Carbohydrate = 5-6%
Fat = 2-3%
What this means is that if you were to eat 100 calories from protein alone, around 20-30 calories have already been used up.
On the other hand, if you ate 100 calories from fat alone, only 2-3% are used for processing, leaving 97-98% for storage or utilisation.
This all sounds relatively minor in the grand scheme, but when you stack 12,16, 20 or 24 weeks in a row of dieting together, it certainly adds up!
Protein isn’t only important for creating physique transformations. It’s also critical in a number of everyday roles in the body. Before protein can aid in muscle growth, it needs to help the body with all of the following:
- Energy – if carbohydrate / fat isn’t sufficient (gluconeogenesis)
- Hormones – proteins helps synthesise certain hormones such as insulin, secretin, growth hormone
- Enzymes – made from proteins
- Transportation and storage – the transportation of oxygen relies on the protein molecule haemoglobin
- Growth and repair – hair, nails, organs… not just muscle!
How Much Protein Do We Need?
There was a time when anyone with muscle building goals thought you needed insane amounts of protein to get the job done.
200g protein was considered low, 300g was normal for a skinny guy, and 400g if you were a bit bigger.
These wacky recommendations are now becoming a thing of the past with more emerging scientific and anecdotal evidence pointing to 0.8-1.2g/lb as being the sweet spot for protein requirements.
Where you fall on this spectrum depends on two main factors.
Generally speaking, females will have lower protein requirements compared to men.
Why is this?
Higher levels of androgenic hormones such as testosterone means that men tend to process and utilise protein more efficiently and at a faster rate.
So if you’re female, you may want to aim on the side of 0.8-1g/lb, whereas men may want to push towards 1-1.5g/lb.
2) Bodyfat %
That being said, your body composition will also play a part in determining protein requirements.
Someone who is 80kg lean with well-trained muscle will utilise protein far more effectively compared to someone who is 80kg untrained with high levels of body fat.
The former will lean towards the higher end of the spectrum, whereas the latter will fall to the lower end.
The continuum below will help see it visually:
Note: That being said, we are having recent success with focusing entirely on the 0.8-1g/lb region, and in some cases, in the 0.6-0.8g/lb. With the latter groups, we’re seeing better digestion, less ‘need’ to constantly eat protein, and most importantly, no drops in muscle mass or strength.
On the other end, we also have clients who like to eat more protein and prefer higher targets. So even if it may be higher than necessary, they feel better on it, are more satiated, and are more likely to comply. Which is the most important reason. This of course only works if calories are kept in control (if fat loss is the goal).
What Are The Best Sources Of Protein?
Below is a small sample list of foods that are great sources of protein:
- Whey Protein
- Greek Yoghurt
- Haloumi Cheese
- Protein Bars (not ideal, but can useful for convenience at times)
There’s no real ‘best’ or ‘worst’ sources of protein. As long as you’re including some variety in your choices, and not only using one food group, you’ll be fine.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may be wondering what sources of protein you have available to you, so we’ve put together this table for you.
While we may have spoken before about combining protein sources for plant base dieters, we’re finding more and more that so long as you’re eating a varied number of protein sources in the day, you’ll be fine.
What About Meal Frequency?
Finally, we need to decide how to split our protein requirements into our day.
This is an area of research that’s continually evolving and breaking the rules. What we’ve found is that the biggest determining factor for meal frequency is lifestyle.
As long as you get your protein in over 24 hours (which is the key priority first), how you split it up will depend on factors such as appetite, hunger, schedule and preference.
For most people, this tends to fall in the region of 3 to 5 meals a day.
We deal with busy people who have a million things going on in their lives, so forcing them to eat 6 times a day at a potential extra 0.05% benefit (which is questionable now…), makes very little sense.
In some cases, they may only eat twice a day. Maybe not the most ‘optimal’, but provided they hit their minimums from those two meals, they’re going to be mostly covered!
Key Points to Consider for Protein
Protein intake has been debated for years in the research, as well as in the physique development circles.
But as coaches who deal with real, everyday people living real lives, we’ve found our recommendations to be extremely simple:
- Focus on a minimum protein target, and maximum calorie target for fat loss.
- Set the minimum protein in the 0.8-1.2g/lb region (up to 1.5g/lb in rare, extreme diet circumstances)
- Split it up into 3 to 5 meals, depending on your schedule and lifestyle.
For the next part on dietary fat, click here.