Protein: The Key To Sustained Weight Loss

I hear and see constant confusion over what type of diet is best for weight loss. Low carb, fat-free, gluten-free, high fat, high protein. You can find it all these days with a quick Google search. Each and every diet out there promises a large and quick weight loss with hardly any effort. I am writing to all of you new moms out there to tell you that all of these diets will probably work for you. You will likely shed the pounds pretty quick and feel good about yourself for a short while. But here is the kicker. It’s short lived.


You see, the problem with all of these “diets” out there is that they are difficult to maintain for the rest of your life. They are so restrictive and unrealistic for real life eating, you can’t keep up and end up going back to your old habits. So expect to pack on the baby weight again.


At this point, you are probably asking, “well what does work?” I have worked with hundreds of clients trying to lose weight. The most successful “diet” change that leads to sustained weight loss is a diet high in lean protein.


The last two weeks I have discussed two of the three major macronutrients: carbohydrates and fats. This week I would like to end with the third macronutrient: protein. All of the macronutrients are essential. We need all three for our bodies to function properly. Choosing to go carbohydrate-free or fat-free is not only very difficult, it’s tough on the body. To lose weight and keep it off as you watch your baby grow, choose a diet high in lean protein with moderate fat and carbohydrates.


Proteins have several important functions in the body. Proteins are made up of twenty different amino acids. These amino acids assist in building and repairing muscle and skin cells, fighting off viruses and bacteria, and acting as messengers for your body’s hormones. Proteins also function as enzymes which are important in many different reactions that occur in the body. In short, protein is really important for us to function from day to day.


Your body makes some of the amino acids necessary for us to function, but 9 of the amino acids that make up proteins are essential, which means we need to consume them from food. Our body will not make these amino acids itself. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of foods that have all of these 9 essential amino acids. Animal products like chicken, red meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are all “complete” sources of protein. If a protein is considered “complete” it has all 9 essential amino acids. The only known plant sources of “complete” proteins are soy and quinoa. Nuts, beans, whole grains, and seeds are all great sources of protein, but they are incomplete. They do not have all of those 9 essential amino acids. They each have a few, but not all.


So listen up vegetarians and vegans! In order to get all of the 9 essential amino acids in your diet, you must consume a wide variety of plant-based protein sources throughout the day to make sure you are not missing out on any amino acids. If you consume plenty of soy and quinoa, you have nothing to worry about, but if you don’t, you want to make sure you vary it up. For example, hummus is considered a complete protein when made with sesame and beans. A peanut butter sandwich on whole grain would be another example. Beans and rice are another complete protein.


Now that you have learned the basics of proteins and amino acids, let’s talk food. If you read my last two posts, you can guess that protein has a good and a bad side, just like carbs and fats. The good protein is lean. "Lean" means low in fat. Examples of lean proteins include:

  • Chicken breast
  • Turkey breast
  • Fish
  • 90% or more lean ground turkey or beef
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Soy
  • Whole grains


The good protein is also quality. Many of the above lean protein sources can be very low quality and overly processed. The nutrients have been stripped from them and they have more additives and preservatives than you want to know about. A good quality protein source should be free of antibiotics, hormones, nitrites, nitrates, and non-GMO. This is especially important in your meat and egg products. Start reading your labels and know which brands you can trust.


The bad protein is the type that is high in saturated fat, highly processed, loaded with salt, preservatives, hormones, and/or antibiotics. Think fast food. Processed meats like burgers, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, pepperoni, deli cuts, and even some ground meats (remember pink slime?) are the types of proteins you want to avoid and limit as much as possible in your diet overall. They are high in calorie, saturated fat, sodium, and preservatives. This will make losing weight more difficult. You also want to watch your intake of high fat cuts of red meat like prime rib and ribeye. And of course, watch out for fried meats like fried seafood/fish and chicken. These are all high in saturated fat.


To lose weight, vegetarian, vegan, or meat-eater, you want to increase your intake of lean protein. A high protein diet will help keep you full and energized throughout the day so you have plenty of stamina to chase after your growing baby. Who wants to be starving and tired all day long? No one. So boost up your protein intake, cut back on those processed carbs, and eat a moderate amount of healthy fat. Don’t fear food. That is the key to weight loss that lasts.

Samantha McCarthy is a registered dietitian and fitness professional who specializes in helping people lose weight. She has a comprehensive approach to health that includes counseling in healthy eating, exercise, stress management, and behavior change. She lives in southern New Hampshire with her husband and enjoys cooking, spending time outdoors, and staying active.