One of the biggest downfalls I see with diet is the lack of protein across the course of the day. A typical pattern I see when I talk to people about their food intake and their appetite is:
“I’m ‘good’ all day, but can’t control myself come 5pm”
“I’m fine all day, but after dinner regardless of how full I feel, I’m not ‘satisfied’ ”
“I’m ‘good’ till Wednesday then it’s all downhill from there”
Any of this ring true? The reason I bring this up is that many people report being absolutely starving, constantly thinking about their next meal and (more often than not) their frustration with being unable to lose body fat as they view their diet as being pretty good. When we delve further, I see quite clearly that when people are “good” it generally means they are undereating during the day, and this leads to almost a binge-like pattern later in the evening, or just an inability to stop snacking. A typical pattern might be:
- Breakfast: cereal + fruit + trim milk (cos, you know, fat is bad)
- MT piece of fruit/trim latte OR nothing
- Lunch: chicken salad perhaps 50g chicken, no-fat dressing, no carbs (hey, we got rid of them back in the 90s!)
- AT: nothing, or a carrot or similar
- 5pm: a small handful of nuts, then a slightly larger one.
- 13pm: a carrot. And hummus
- 21pm: a few spoons of PB,
- 47pm: cheese while making dinner
- 10pm: leftovers off the kids plate,
- 32pm: dinner (full!)
- 20pm: piece dark chocolate
- 35pm: bite of icecream *well I’ve blown it now*
- 40pm: bowl of icecream *I’ll be better tomorrow*
- 10pm: 3 rows of chocolate…..
Does this look familiar? While they may be low calorie/fat/carb during the day, people with this dietary pattern will generally consume more calories than they realise in that pre-post dinner window. This isn’t just about calories and fat loss though. Many people also suffer from anxiety around their food intake, gut or digestive issues from consuming more food than what is comfortable, sleep issues due to an excess of food close to bedtime, and unhelpful self-talk related to their perceived lack of control. This last point can be particularly damaging to long term success, as for some this can perpetuate feelings of failure and subsequent behaviours which make it difficult to change in the long term. Other long term consequences of a low protein and low dietary energy early in the day include reduced muscle mass, reduced metabolic rate, low mood and a greater propensity for fat gain in the long run.
How to prevent this?
Eat more protein at the start of the day – it is more satisfying and is digested a LOT slower than other nutrients, and will prevent overeating later in the day. What you eat at the start of the day really impacts how you feel and what you eat at the end of the day. Many experts in the field of protein research view 0.8-0.9g protein per kilogram of bodyweight, based on nitrogen balance studies, are likely underestimating overall protein requirements. This is especially true for those in the older age bracket and for people wanting to drop body fat where studies such as this have found that 2.4g protein per kg bodyweight can help maintain metabolic rate and protect muscle mass. Clinically (which, to my mind, is as important as what the literature says), very few of my clients thrive on a lower protein diet. Athletes (FYI) are recommended around 1.7-2.2g per kg bodyweight and in general a higher protein intake will benefit mood, sleep, blood sugar and appetite.
So what does 2.4g per kilogram look like for the myriad of people out there wanting to drop body fat? IE if you weigh 75kg, your protein intake should be around 180g. If we consider the standard protein sources available, then it might look a little like this (amount of protein in brackets):
- Breakfast: 4 eggs (29.2g) – with vegetables, scrambled, cooked in butter, coconut oil or olive oil
- Lunch: Medium chicken thigh 146g (34g), sliced up into salad with olive oil dressing and lemon
- AT: ½ cup of cottage cheese (18g) with pesto mixed through
- Dinner: Medium steak (186g) with roast vegetables 57.3g
Well, that is 139.4g of protein per day, around 1.86g per kilogram body weight, leaving an additional 40g of protein being derived from plant sources. You can see that you have to eat a lot of food to get your protein in – which is completely different from the ‘being good’ scenario above.
While the run down of foods to eat above may freak you out if you’re used to a cereal and salad diet – don’t be scared. If your dietary pattern looks much as I described above, allowing more protein earlier in the day will have a huge influence on your overall intake – the pattern of grazing late afternoon into the evening will change. I promise. I’ve written about the protein leverage theory before when discussing the National Heart Foundation’s food guidance system (click here for that post) – that the body has an innate requirement for protein and will drive appetite until this is requirement is met. If you eat a lower protein diet, research suggests you may eat more overall calories (and calories from refined carbohydrate) compared to people consuming a moderate protein diet. I know many people don’t like eating more food earlier as they don’t believe they have the willpower to stop. I recently wrote about the main physiological driver of ‘lack of willpower’, and eating more protein will kill this response pretty quick. You just have to try it. When combined with fibre, a bit of fat and carbohydrate that takes longer to digest, protein is (to my mind) the nutrient to focus on for controlling appetite, hunger levels and helping maintain an optimal body composition.
Protein quality definitely counts here too. This measure has been revised recently to reflect updated knowledge regarding the digestibility of protein, however regardless of technique used to establish bioavailability of protein source, animal protein consistently scores higher than plant protein in terms of protein quality (with 0.75 as a cut-off for good digestibility – see here for some food-based tables). This will have implications for their effect on appetite (i.e. ability to keep you satisfied). In part this is due to the presence of anti-nutritive factors in plant based proteins (such as lecthins, tannins, phytates etc) that prevent our absorption of them (see here for a comprehensive report on the digestibility of protein). This is not to say that plant protein doesn’t count. I have many clients who are vegetarian and, for them we ensure a good intake of eggs, cheese and protein powder (whey, pea or egg white protein powder for a good variety). People following a vegan diet are a little more challenged. While they will get protein from legumes, nuts, edamame beans, tempeh and seeds, I recommend (again) protein powders, and incorporating a variety of these (such as pea, hemp and sacha incha) in their daily diet. These are lower in overall protein compared to, say, whey (sacha incha has around 12g per 20g serve (60% protein), compared to whey protein (17-18g, or 85-90%). But if we are looking to increase protein across the course of the day, these will certainly be useful.
So…what about you?
If you’re a numbers person, think about your goals (weight loss, muscle maintenance etc) and shoot for the grams per protein I’ve mentioned above. Use Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret or Cronometer to find out how much protein is in the foods that you’re eating, and what the distribution of it is across the course of the day. Then use the information provided to plan for a higher protein intake and a more even distribution. At the very least, aim for around 25-30g of protein in your meals. If you’re not a numbers person, then use tables like these to give you an indication of where protein is in food. Aiming for:
- 3-4 eggs at breakfast, or 120g protein-based food or 1-2 fist-sized worth; and
- at least 120-150g of protein-based food at lunch (or 1-2 fist-sized); and closer to
- 160-200g protein-based food at dinner (or 1-2 fist-sized); and
shooting for the higher numbers the more active or the bigger you are and THEN base the remainder of your macronutrient intake (carbohydrate and fat) around this – and don’t forget the abundance of non-starchy vegetables. If you want some help with this, get into contact with me or sign up for my online nutrition coaching – this is pretty much how I build my meals. While initially you may feel hungry, this will likely be habit rather than actual hunger (or a hormonal response, as your body’s appetite hormones work on a circadian rhythm and ghrelin may well be released as your body is used to eating at that time. Brushing your teeth is one of the best things to do to cut that hunger. If you wait it out, it will eventually pass and you’ll easily eradicate the feeling of hunger, the grazing later in the day and regain the feeling of control around your food (rather than letting the food control you).