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The truth about the protein in your diet

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

High-protein diet?

Ever wonder how what you eat is helping or hindering your quest to lose weight, burn fat or get fit? Wendy Chant, MPT, SPN, certified personal trainer and a specialist in performance nutrition has just the book for you! In Crack the Fat-Loss Code: Outsmart your metabolism and conquer the diet plateau, Chant gives you a scientifically-designed plan to help you outsmart your body's natural affinity to store fat. Rejoice, this isn't a deprivation diet - according to Chant, you need to eat to lose fat and stay fit. Here are six facts on dietary protein that Chant wants you to know.

Woman Eating Steak

1. Protein for muscle maintenance, repair and growth

Your body responds differently to protein, fats and carbohydrates. According to Chant, there is even a very specific order in which your body uses protein.

Maintenance: "The first amount of protein you [digest] goes to maintenance, to support muscle and body functions," she says. "Throughout the day, our bodies perform routine duties (such as exercise, standing in long lines at the store, cleaning house, etc.) that create wear and tear on muscles and joints…[which] require maintenance so we can use [them] again tomorrow."

Repair: Your body is always breaking itself down to build itself back up. "Trainers tell you that you're building muscle when you lift weights, but what you're really doing is ballistic; you're actually tearing down muscle tissue," explains Chant. Your body uses protein to repair the torn or worn muscle tissue, which then helps you build muscle.

Promote growth: The protein you eat helps your body grow – not just your muscles. Protein is the major building material for muscle, blood, skin, hair, nails and internal organs. Protein is also necessary for the formation of hormones, enzymes and antibodies.

2. Protein burns more calories

Chant asks, "Did you know that protein can literally heat up your metabolism?" The digestion of protein actually burns calories.

Chant explains, "Protein has something known as thermic effect of food (TEF), [which] is .25 times the total number of protein calories ingested." Carbohydrates and fat have a TEF of only .04 and .06. That means eating protein will burn 36 percent more energy than consuming carbs or fat.

Example: For every 500 calories of protein (about 125 grams of protein) you eat, you expend 125 calories through protein's thermic effect. If you were to eat 500 calories of carbohydrates (125 grams of carbs) or fat (55 grams of fat), your body would only burn about 30 calories for that intake.

3. Eat one gram of protein for every pound of lean body weight

How much protein do you need? Chant says you should consume one grams of protein for every pound of lean body mass. This means you need to know your body fat percentage.

Example: If you weigh 160 pounds and have 30 percent body fat, your lean body mass is 112 pounds - 160 (your weight in pounds) x .70 (your percentage of lean body mass). You should consume about 112 grams of protein, or about 450 calories of protein, over the course of each day.

"What is adequate for a women is three to four ounces [of protein] at any given meal," says Chant. "Above and beyond that amount is excess to the body. The body can't use it all at once. Even protein, when you eat too much, can turn to fat."

Buy yourself a kitchen scale so you know how much protein you are eating and, when eating out, figure a four-ounce piece of meat, poultry or fish is the size of a deck of cards.

4. Protein helps you keep your muscle around the clock

Protein helps you maintain a positive nitrogen balance day and night. What is that important? "Simply put, nitrogen is a by-product of protein's breakdown in the body. Nitrogen is literally the thing that makes you muscles hard and firm," explains Chant. Lifting weights or resistance training is key, as well.

When your body has a negative nitrogen balance (usually due to poor protein intake), your muscle is unhealthy, soft and less likely to be used by your body for energy. To keep your nitrogen balance positive, be sure to consume enough protein (but not too much) at every meal.

5. You need quality proteins at every meal

According to Chant, not all proteins are created equal. In fact, proteins are rated on a scientific scale that measures their bioavailability (the availability of protein for your body to use).

The protein that is, hands down, the most bioavailable is the egg (read Crack an egg for heart-health for more reasons to eat eggs). Eggs rate a 100 percent biovalue, meaning that 100 percent of the egg's protein can be used by your body to help maintain a positive nitrogen balance.

Beef, poultry and fish are in the 90th percentile while dairy products range in the 80th percentile. Chant warns, "Pork is one of the poorest biovalues of any protein; it's in the 60th percentile."

It's ideal to get a variety of proteins in your diet but aim for the proteins with the highest biovalues for optimal nitrogen balance as well as maintenance, repair and growth of your muscles.

6. Eating protein helps you burn fat

There is a hormone in your body called glucagon. Chant likes to call glucagon your "fat burning hormone potion." Exercise can boost your body's glucagon levels, as can eating protein. In fact, protein is the only food that aids in releasing and unlocking fat, making it usable for your body. "As you take in protein, you're increasing glucagon levels," says Chant.

The secret to fat-loss

Chant says that protein is of ultimate importance in losing fat. Protein counters the body's natural hypoglycemic effect, which is key in how your body uses – and stores – fat.

So, does this mean its time to jump on a protein-only diet? No, not even close. The healthiest and most body fat-resistant diet, according to Chant, contains protein and carbohydrates and fats.

To learn more about the role of carbohydrates and dietary fats in your fitness and fat-loss quest, pick up Crack the Fat-Loss Code: Outsmart your metabolism and conquer the diet plateau.

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