If You Aren’t Talking Protein, I Don’t Want to Talk

Adam Plotkin
10 min readMar 9, 2021

Well if you have been following along, I hope you have caught on to a recurring theme: protein should be the star at every meal.

Briefly I am going to go over the magic of prioritizing protein.

Now if you are anything like me, and engage in some sort of daily physical activity, you are probably laughing at the abysmally low protein intake value based on the RDA (currently 0.8 g/kg BW/day; Fulgoni et al., 2008). Yet even with the bar set comically low, a recent examination of the National Health and Nutrtion Examination Survey (NHANES; n=11,680) by Krok-Schoen et al., (2019) demonstrated that roughly 1/3 of adults over the age of 50 are not meeting their daily protein requirement. I highly encourage you to read my two part series on why reductions in protein intake as we age is so detrimental (as I am going a different route with this one).

I personally believe that the RDA is far too low (if you haven’t picked that up already), and that the average person (especially those who exercise) need to significantly increase their daily protein intake. And I am not alone on this one! There are several studies that bring up a similar concern (Jäger et al., 2017; P. W. Lemon, 1991; P. W.R. Lemon, 1995; Peter W.R. Lemon & Proctor, 1991; Tarnopolsky et al., 2018; Wilson & Wilson, 2006). According to the Position Stand by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, intakes of 1.4–2.0 g/kg/d are needed for physically active individuals (Jäger et al., 2017).

Now I have always touted that if you are hungry and have not just worked out or are about to workout, then you should eat a meal primarily composed of protein (more on great protein sources later). Now, if you know me, you know that I do not make any claim without evidence to back me up. Yet, most people are scared to eat more (especially protein), but as I demonstrated above…we need more protein…especially if we are active, and especially as we age.

I am not going to discuss the common myth that high protein diets are bad for your kidneys (which has been proven inaccurate if you have healthy kidney function to begin with; Antonio et al., 2016; Levey et al., 1996). What I am talking about, is that most people are apprehensive in general to increase their daily caloric load, because they do not want to put on unnecessary body fat. Of course, we know that taking in excess calories (overfeeding) will result in fat gain (Claesson et al., 2009). But, how does protein play a role in this overfeeding? Well I have three great studies that may help us get an answer:

1) Bray et al., (2012) demonstrated that a relatively higher amount of protein does not contribute to an additional gain in fat mass. Subjects consumed a diet that exceeded their daily caloric maintenance by almost 1,000 calories (954 kcal/day) for 8 weeks. Individuals were randomized into one of three groups: low protein (5% of total energy from protein), normal protein (15%) and high protein (25%). With the conclusion of the trial, all three groups experienced similar gains in body mass (roughly 3.5 kg/8 lbs). Yet, lean body mass increased by 0.7 kg, 2.9 kg, and 3.2 kg in the low, normal, and high groups respectively. The authors concluded that excess calories by themselves will contribute to fat mass gain, but protein contributes to gains in lean mass, not fat mass (probably due to enhanced muscle protein synthesis).

Ok so that is pretty cool. But what happens if you have individuals solely overeat protein (no fat or carbs)?

2) Well this is the question that Antonio et al., (2014) set out to answer. Precisely, what would consuming 4.4g protein/kg of bodyweight per day do to resistance trained individuals (yeah you read that right…5.5 times the RDA). Over the course of 8 weeks, the high protein group consumed 307 ± 69 grams of protein (4.4g/kg/day) compared to 138 ± 42 (1.8 ± 0.4 g/kg/day) in the control. Neither group significantly changed their exercise protocols or their fat and carbohydrate intake. Thus, the only thing that changed was protein intake (and thereby the total caloric intake). Prior to the study, the control group was taking in 2295 ± 639 kcal/day and after the intervention they were taking in 2052 ± 532 kcal/day (so actually a decrease in caloric load). Whereas, in the high protein group, they originally were consuming 2042 ± 838 kcal/day, but at the end of the study they were consuming 2835 ± 865 kcal/day (which was statistically significant when compared to pre-intervention for both intra and inter group comparisons). Now here is the crazy thing: Despite eating 800 more calories per day for 8 weeks, the high protein group demonstrated no significant changes over time or between groups for body weight, fat mass, fat free mass, or percent body fat. The fact that one can be in a 800 calorie surplus via protein for 8 weeks and not gain any fat mass demonstrates the true power of prioritizing protein. Now granted, these individuals in the high protein group did not gain any significant fat free mass (muscle) either. This is most likely due to them being highly trained strength athletes (making it very hard to put on significant muscle mass regardless of diet composition). But the Bray study above shows that in non-exercise trained subjects, higher protein intake can in fact lead to significant gains in lean muscle! Major Takeaway: overeating protein alone does not seem to result in fat gain.

Those first two studies demonstrate the long-term impact of prioritizing protein, but what about its acute impact?

3) Oliveira et al., (2021) demonstrated that a high protein diet lead to higher total energy expenditure, increased fat oxidation, and negative fat balance when compared to the control diet over a 32 hr period. Forty-three healthy weight individuals participated in this randomized, controlled, crossover design (so each subject does both diet types with a break in between each diet, thus serving as their own control). The high protein diet was composed of 35% carbohydrate, 40% protein, and 25% fat (avg=211g pro/day) achieved through a nutritional supplement, while the control diet was composed of 55% carbohydrate, 15% protein, and 30% fat (avg=83 g pro/day). All subjects met these macronutrient ratios according to their maintenance caloric intake (assessed via direct calorimetry…highly precise). So, in essence, if they are eating at maintenance according to this super precise measurement, then there should be a net balance in all the body composition values the researchers were looking at. To throw some exact numbers at you, the high protein diet demonstrated increases in total and sleep energy expenditure by 81 ± 82 kcal/d and 17 ± 26 kcal/8-h night, respectively. Hence, while on the high protein diet, subjects were burning about an extra 80 calories per day after a meal (due to the thermic effect of food), and an extra 17 calories per 8 hrs of sleep when compared to the control diet. Also, while on the high protein diet, individuals were in a 20-calorie deficit (meaning the high protein diet induced a spontaneous negative energy balance despite eating the same number of calories per day when compared to the control diet…pretty gnarly huh?). In addition, while on the high protein diet, individuals experienced a fat balance of –20 ± 17g per day (hence they were losing more fat per day when compared to the control diet). Finally, the high protein diet was consuming 179g of sugar per day compared to 4.5g of sugar per day in the control diet (due to the nutritional supplement…darn sugar!). Yet the high protein diet still saw negative energy balance. So if you thought you cannot lose weight/fat while eating sugar (especially almost 200g per day…sheesh) it might be time to rethink that notion (more on this in a later article).

Now I know what you are thinking, “But Adam those numbers are quite small.” And I would completely agree with you. Yet, I do not know about you, but I am playing the long game here. There is no such thing as a quick-fix, and if anyone offers you one, you better turn and run the other way. So of course, this study merely demonstrates a daily investment we can put into our health, and eventually cash in way down the road.

Sow what’s the bottom line from these three studies?

Excess protein does not appear to lead to fat gain, and in less-trained individuals, may lead to significant gains in lean mass. In addition, a higher protein diet may lead to acute changes in energy and fat balance that favor weight reduction.

So with all that in mind, how do we put rubber to the road?

Well, unless you have just trained or are about to train, your body probably does not need that many carbs and fats (as those are your energy sources). Now of course you can still eat carbs and fats outside of your periods of physical activity, but as we have just seen, it may be best to prioritize that protein (plus protein is more satiating!).

So you should try prioritizing foods that are predominately protein (and very low in carbs and fats). Here are some of my favorites:

1) Egg whites (1 large egg white=17 cals, 4g pro, 0g carb, 0g fat)

2) Shrimp/scallops/prawns (3.5 oz uncooked shrimp = 99 cals, 24 g pro, 0g carb, 0g fat)

3) Lean ground beef/turkey/chicken (99% lean ground turkey per 4 oz = 120 cals, 26g pro, 0g carb, 1g fat)

4) Plain Low fat Greek yogurt (per 1 cup of Fage, 160 cals, 23g pro, 7g carbs, 3g fat)

5) Low fat cottage cheese (150g of Good Culture brand, 120 cals, 19g pro, 2g carb, 3 g fat)

6) Whey isolate protein powder (1 cup of MyProtein plain, 93 cals, 23 g pro, 0g carb, 0g fat)

7) Low fat tuna (1 cup Albacore tuna, 60 cals, 13 g pro, 0g carb, 1 g fat)

8) Tilapia (per 4 oz, 100 cal, 20g pro, 0g carb, 3 g fat)

The cool thing about all these foods is that they can literally all be prepared in under ten minutes (actually most of them are under five minutes or no prep at all…so don’t give me that “I don’t have time” excuse). Oh yeah…and they aren’t processed garbage either…would you imagine that.

I will leave it at this: If you ever look at what a bodybuilder eats while he/she is prepping for a show, you will realize that they prioritize protein over everything. We all know what I am talking about…egg whites, chicken breast, tilapia, broccoli, repeat. There is a reason they look the way they do when they finally step on stage.

Now this method is obviously not sustainable (if you have ever seen a bodybuilder in the offseason, you know exactly what I am talking about). But, maybe we use their principles, add a bit of carbs and fats to fuel our performance, sprinkle in some variety, use Pinnacle Supplementation’s MultiVitamin and BOOM you’re already better off than about 90% of the population. And I would bet my bicycle that your health would improve (that’s my most prized possession, so you know I am serious).

So maybe the next time you are thinking about that donut or pizza for lunch, just imagine an angry Adam Plotkin staring at you and reach for the darn egg whites instead 😊

Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Tamayo, A., Buehn, R., & Peacock, C. A. (2016). A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in Resistance-Trained Males. In Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism (Vol. 2016). https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9104792

Bray, G. A., Smith, S. R., Rood, J., Martin, C. K., Most, M., Brock, C., & Mancuso, S. (2012). Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating. In Biomedical Research (Vol. 307, Issue 1, pp. 47–55). http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/307/1/47.short

Claesson, A. L., Holm, G., Ernersson, Å., Lindström, T., & Nystrom, F. H. (2009). Two weeks of overfeeding with candy, but not peanuts, increases insulin levels and body weight. In Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Investigation (Vol. 69, Issue 5, pp. 598–605). https://doi.org/10.1080/00365510902912754

Fulgoni, V. L. (2008). Current protein intake in America: Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. In American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Vol. 87, Issue 5). https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1554s

Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and exercise. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 14, Issue 1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

Krok-Schoen, J. L., Archdeacon Price, A., Luo, M., Kelly, O. J., & Taylor, C. A. (2019). Low Dietary Protein Intakes and Associated Dietary Patterns and Functional Limitations in an Aging Population: A NHANES Analysis. In Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging (Vol. 23, Issue 4, pp. 338–347). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12603-019-1174-1

Lemon, P. W. (1991). Protein and amino acid needs of the strength athlete. In International journal of sport nutrition (Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp. 127–145). https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsn.1.2.127

Lemon, P. W.R. (1995). Do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids? In International Journal of Sport Nutrition (Vol. 5, Issue SUPPL.). https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsn.5.s1.s39

Lemon, Peter W.R., & Proctor, D. N. (1991). Protein Intake and Athletic Performance. In Sports Medicine (Vol. 12, Issue 5, pp. 313–325). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-199112050-00004

Levey, A. S., Adler, S., Caggiula, A. W., England, B. K., Greene, T., Hunsicker, L. G., Kusek, J. W., Rogers, N. L., & Teschan, P. E. (1996). Effects of dietary protein restriction on the progression of moderate renal disease in the modification of diet in renal disease study: Modification of Diet in Renal Disease Study Group. In Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (Vol. 7, Issue 12, pp. 2616–2626).

Oliveira, C. L. P., Boulé, N. G., Sharma, A. M., Elliott, S. A., Siervo, M., Ghosh, S., Berg, A., & Prado, C. M. (2021). A high-protein total diet replacement increases energy expenditure and leads to negative fat balance in healthy, normal-weight adults. In The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Vol. 113, Issue 2, pp. 476–487). https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa283

Tarnopolsky, M. A., Atkinson, A., Duncan, J., Sciences, B., Education, P., & Duncan, J. (2018). Protein requirements and muscle mass / strength during intensive training in novice bodybuilders (Issue 18).

Wilson, J., & Wilson, G. J. (2006). Contemporary Issues in Protein Requirements and Consumption for Resistance Trained Athletes. In Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Vol. 3, Issue 1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-3-1-7



Adam Plotkin

Post-Baccalaureate research assistant in the Molecular and Clinical Nutrition Lab at the National Institutes of Health