Recently, the diet pendulum has swung in favor of counting calories—an effective weight-loss tool, but not one that always prioritizes protein. "Many women perceive foods that are rich in protein as being high in calories or fattening," says Laura J. Kruskall, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition sciences at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. This isn't the case, but diehard counters know that most proteins will cost you a few more calories than fruits and veggies will.
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What's more, protein isn't as portable as other foods. The best sources—fish, meat, dairy, beans—aren't as quick or convenient as most carbs or even fruits and veggies. "Traditional protein sources aren't usually grab and go. And if they are, they're often fried or unhealthy," says nutrition expert Angela Ginn, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
That may help explain why up to a third of women between the ages of 20 and 40 don't get their RDA of protein, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And in light of the fact that a growing number of nutritionists believe that the current dietary guidelines for this mighty macronutrient are way too low, we're really missing out.
Consider this: A Johns Hopkins University study found that a diet in which roughly a quarter of the calories (about 60 percent more than the recommended 10 to 15 percent) come from lean protein sources reduced blood pressure, LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, and triglycerides better than a traditional higher-carb diet. Other research finds that diets rich in protein can help prevent obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.
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The Power of Protein
The moment it leaves your fork, protein starts winnowing your waistline. High-protein foods take more work to digest, metabolize, and use, which means you burn more calories processing them. They also take longer to leave your stomach, so you feel full sooner and for a longer amount of time. The cumulative effect has obvious benefits for anyone who is watching her weight.
In a study published in Nutrition Metabolism, dieters who increased their protein intake to 30 percent of their diet ate nearly 450 fewer calories a day and lost about 11 pounds over the 12-week study without employing any other dietary measures.
And if, like most successful dieters, you're burning calories as well as counting them, protein is doubly essential for making sure you lose fat, not muscle. Your body uses the amino acids in protein to build lean muscle, which not only makes you stronger and more toned but also fries calories even when you're not active—unlike lazy fat. Ultimately, this keeps your metabolism humming along at high speed so you can burn off the occasional cookie, no problem.
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