Increasing your protein during weight loss could help maintain muscle mass, a new study suggests.
Even a small increase, from 18% of daily calories from protein to 20%, was linked to benefits.
Higher-protein dieters were also more likely to eat healthier, with more veggies and fewer processed foods.
If you're trying to lose weight, eating more protein may help you maintain muscle and keep a healthier diet overall, according to a study published May 22 in the journal Obesity.
Researchers from Rutgers University and Drexel University looked at data from 207 people with overweight or obesity who participated in clinical trials at Rutgers. The participants were aiming to lose weight by eating in an energy deficit of about 500 calories a day fewer than they burned off during daily activities.
The researchers found that a modest increase in protein — from 18% of total calories to 20% — was linked to significantly healthier eating habits and more lean muscle mass among participants.
People who ate more protein lost the same amount of weight as their peers (about 5% of their body weight over six months), but they were more likely to maintain their muscle mass during the diet.
Higher-protein dieters were also more likely to incorporate foods like leafy greens, and eat fewer refined grains and sugars, than the lower protein participants. It's not clear exactly how eating more protein led to better choices in other food groups, although cutting out low-protein junk food and eating more whole foods may have played a role, according to researchers.
The most common protein sources on the diet were poultry, red meat, seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds, according to the data.
In total, higher-protein participants ate about 79 grams of protein a day, which is a moderate amount by most recommendations.
Dietitians recommend you should get a minimum protein intake ranging from .36 - 7. grams per pound of your body weight per day, up to a gram per pound of body weight daily for athletes and active people. For example, an adult woman who works out for 2-3 hours a week and weighs 130 pounds should eat between 70 to 118 grams of protein a day.
It is possible to eat too much protein, if you're getting more than 35% of your calories from protein and have digestive issues or kidney problems, but most people don't need to worry, according to dietitians.
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