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.
Experts advise consuming between 0.8 grams and 1.1 grams of protein per pound of your body weight. That's 112 grams to 154 grams a day for a 140-pound woman. Skew on the high end if you're very active, and on the low end if you're trying to lose weight. If both apply, shoot for an amount somewhere in the middle—around 130 grams.
Even more important: Aim to get at least 30 of those grams at breakfast, (That's roughly the amount you'll get from two eggs and a cup of cottage cheese.) After fasting all night, your body is running on empty and may start drawing on muscle tissue for fuel if you don't replenish its protein stores first thing in the a.m. Plus, studies have found that protein-rich breakfasts can help regulate your appetite all day.
But not all proteins are created equal. While nuts, whole grains, and veggies technically count, they don't contain all nine of the amino acids your body needs in order to build lean muscle. Those that do—known as complete proteins—are typically found in animal products. Your best flat-belly bets are skinless white chicken or turkey, seafood, low-fat dairy, pork tenderloin, and lean beef. All of these foods have just one to three grams of fat per 50-calorie serving.
Vegetarians need to be a little more creative. Pairing incomplete proteins—peanut butter on whole-wheat bread, or brown rice and beans, for example—can pinch-hit for complete ones. Or nosh on complete proteins such as tofu, hemp seed, buckwheat, and quinoa. The beauty of protein is that with so many tasty options, getting your daily dose is a simple pleasure.
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