What Is a High-Protein Diet, and What Does It Mean?

We think that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to living a healthy lifestyle at Verywell. Individualized eating programs that consider the entire person is necessary for success. Consult your healthcare professional or a qualified dietitian before beginning a new food plan, especially if you have an underlying health issue.

High-protein diets encourage people to eat more protein and fewer carbs and fats in order to lose weight, gain energy, and improve athletic performance.

Protein is a nutrient that is required for good health. Hormones, enzymes, and cell repair and maintenance are just a few of the crucial activities it performs in the body.

Diets high in protein have been around for ages. People who lived in the Arctic region, where plant life is rare, relied solely on marine life and caribou in the past.

Maasai warriors in Kenya have a long history of subsisting mostly on animal blood, milk, and flesh. Some Native American tribes relied primarily on buffalo and plants to survive.

The Scarsdale diet, which advised a diet of 43 percent protein, 22.5 percent fat, and 34.5 percent carbohydrates in the late 1970s, popularised high-protein diets. The Atkins, South Beach, and Dukan diets are examples of modern diet plans that emphasize a high protein intake.

According to some studies, a high-protein diet can help women who are overweight or obese lose fat while maintaining lean muscle mass. Protein-rich diets aid in the reduction of hunger, the rise of satiety, the increase of metabolic rate, and the preservation of muscle mass.

However, when it comes to diets, one size does not fit all, and what works for one person may not work for another.

What Experts Say

“A high-protein diet often means cutting carbohydrates. A healthier approach is a balanced diet that includes about 50% of calories from carbs, 20% from protein, and 30% from fat. ” Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

What Can You Eat?

On a high protein diet, there are no items that are officially restricted, however, it is recommended that you eat more lean proteins and less processed carbohydrates, sweets, and fats.

In general, a high-protein diet calls for protein to account for more than 20% of total calories. To keep your calorie total in check, you’ll need to eat fewer calories from carbohydrates or fats.

A high-protein diet has no recommended meal timing, though some people who follow it practice intermittent fasting, which entails reducing calories on certain days of the week and fasting on others or going for extended amounts of time without eating each day, such as 16 hours.

What You Should Know

The three macronutrients (or macros): fat, carbohydrate, and protein, should be balanced in any healthy diet for weight loss or wellness.

Protein accounts for at least 20% of the calories in a high-protein diet. The amount of protein you should consume is determined by a number of factors, including your age, gender, body size, and degree of activity.

Protein should account for 10–35 percent of your total calories, according to general guidelines. Adults who are physically active may need 1.2–1.7 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight each day. For a 150-pound person, this translates to 82–116 grams.

The official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for healthy people is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which corresponds to 54 grams of protein for a 150-pound person.

It’s simple to verify your daily protein intake if you use a calorie tracking app or website to measure calories. Many people who follow a high-protein diet utilize apps to track their macronutrient intake and ensure that they are getting the proper protein, carbohydrate, and fat ratios.

A high-protein diet should contain 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 40 percent carbohydrates as a starting point. A starting ratio, on the other hand, is simply that: a starting point.

Many proponents of high-protein diets find that a little more or less of a macronutrient helps them feel better, so you can modify your macros as needed while sticking to a high-protein diet. What Should You Eat?

  • Lean proteins, such as lean meat, seafood, beans, soy, low-fat dairy, eggs, nuts, and seeds
  • Low glycemic fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries
  • Vegetables, including leafy greens, peppers, mushrooms, and cruciferous vegetables
  • Whole grains

What Not to Eat

  • Refined carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, and white rice
  • Saturated fats and fried foods
  • Added sugar, including candy and sweetened condiments

Following a high-protein diet typically requires:

  • Including protein in all of your meals: Meals should be built around a protein, such as lean beef, poultry, or pig, with vegetables filling the remainder of the plate.
  • Avoiding processed carbohydrates: Instead of refined carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta, and bread, include modest quantities of high-protein whole grains such as amaranth or quinoa, or replace pasta with spiralized zucchini or carrots, and riced cauliflower for white rice.
  • Protein-rich snacks: Keep high-protein snacks on hand, such as almonds, Greek yoghurt, hummus, ricotta, and string cheese, for when hunger comes in between meals.
  • Protein first thing in the morning: Breakfast meals strong in protein, such as eggs and smoothies made with protein powder, such as whey, pea protein, or collagen

Sample Shopping List

High-protein diets emphasize lean protein, nutrient-packed vegetables and berries, and whole grains. The following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started with a high-protein lifestyle. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list, and you may find other foods that work better for you.

If you plan to buy in bulk, fill your cart with a variety of fresh and frozen meats, seafood, and even berries to stock in your fridge and freezer.

  • Lean cuts of red meat (sirloin tip, top round, filet mignon)
  • 75–80% lean ground beef
  • Chicken breasts and thighs
  • Seafood filets (salmon, cod, halibut)
  • Beans (black, pinto, kidney)
  • Vegetables (dark leafy greens, peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower)
  • Soy milk
  • Low-fat milk, cheeses, and yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds)
  • Berries (blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, amaranth, barley)

Sample Meal Plan

Each meal on a high-protein diet features a serving of protein accompanied by plenty of vegetables and smaller servings of certain fruits and whole grains. You can also snack on protein in between meals to curb hunger. Nuts or low-fat string cheese are great options.

The following three-day meal plan offers a glimpse at what a high-protein diet might look like. You can choose to accompany these meals with water or a glass of wine at dinner.

Keep in mind that if you decide to follow this diet, there may be other meals that are more appropriate to suit your tastes and preferences.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Avocado and egg toast; 2 strips turkey bacon; high-protein shake with berries
  • Lunch: Quinoa-stuffed chicken roll-up (use low-fat feta)
  • Dinner: Oven-baked herbed salmon (4 ounces); 2 cups Mediterranean chopped salad

Day 2

  • Breakfast: 1 serving “Mexican garden” egg scramble; simple green juice
  • Lunch: 2 cups low-carb taco salad (use low-fat yogurt and cheese)
  • Dinner: 2 Poblano portabella mushroom tacos; 1 cup vegan chili

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Steak and eggs (2 eggs over-easy with a 3-ounce bone-in ribeye or sirloin, pan-seared)
  • Lunch: Peanut butter banana blueberry açai smoothie (optional: add a scoop of protein powder for an extra boost)
  • Dinner: 1 serving sheet pan harissa chicken and cauliflower; 2 cups blood orange and quinoa kale salad

Pros and Cons

Pros

Cons

  • Potential for nutrient deficiencies
  • Processed foods sometimes encouraged
  • Associated with some health risks

Like most weight-loss plans, a high-protein diet has its share of benefits and drawbacks. Review the pros and cons associated with a high-protein diet to determine whether it’s the right diet plan for you.

Pros

  • You’ll have a longer feeling of being full. Protein in your meals and snacks can make you feel full and satisfied, which can help you reduce your portion sizes.
  • You will gain and keep more muscular mass. Muscles burn more calories than fat even at rest, thus a strong body not only performs better in daily tasks, but it also burns more calories than fat.
  • You could be more likely to eat healthier foods. You have less space on your plate for less healthful foods when you arrange a meal around a lean source of protein. Learning to eat various sources of protein may also help you optimise your diet. When you consume tuna, for example, you benefit not only from the fish’s protein, but also from the healthful fat it contains.

Cons

  • It’s possible to have nutrient deficits. Constipation and other health problems might result from a high-protein diet that is deficient in dietary fibre. Dietary fibre is vital not only for colon health, but also for reducing inflammation and protecting against cancer.
  • Foods that are high in fat and processed are occasionally promoted. High-fat foods, such as fatty cuts of beef, full-fat dairy, and processed and cured meats like deli meat, sausage, bacon, and hot dogs, are recommended in some kinds of high-protein diets. These foods aren’t the ideal choices for a healthy, balanced diet because they’re linked to heart disease and cancer.
  • Too much protein may be unsafe for those with chronic diseases. People with kidney disease should not follow a high-protein diet without first speaking to their doctor. The body converts excess protein to glucose to be used for energy, which could cause a spike in blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

While high-protein diets may have many benefits, there are some potential negatives. While this eating approach may be an effective strategy for losing weight, important food groups such as fruits and grains are often cut out, which does not provide a well-rounded diet.

Is a High-Protein Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Many experts recommend following a reduced-calorie, high-protein diet for weight loss. A diet focused on lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is considered a healthy way to lose weight.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines provide recommendations for a healthy, balanced diet. The 2020–2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended percentage breakdown of macronutrients is as follows:

  • Protein: 10–35% of daily calories
  • Fat: 20–35% of daily calories
  • Carbohydrates: 45–65% of daily calories

The RDA for protein for healthy individuals is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, which means you should eat slightly less than 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight every day at the absolute least. If you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms), for example, you need to consume at least 54 grams of protein every day.

Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, and healthy oils are all rich sources of protein. The USDA recommends a daily calorie reduction of 500 calories to lose weight.

This translates to around 1,500 calories per day on a 2,000-calorie diet. However, this number fluctuates depending on age, sex, weight, and other factors.

There are a few different varieties of high-protein diets including the Atkins Diet, Dukan Diet, and Whole30. Here’s how they compare:

  • The Atkins Diet is a low-carb, high-protein diet that starts with 20 grammes of carbs per day and gradually increases to 100 grammes per day before concluding with a maintenance phase.
  • The Dukan Diet is a low-carbohydrate, low-fat, high-protein weight-loss plan based on the idea that it’s difficult to lose weight while you’re hungry, and it emphasises lean proteins and fat-free dairy to help you feel full.
  • Whole30: The Whole30 is a 30-day diet that removes sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, and most legumes, leaving only meat, vegetables, and fruit. It is meant as a short-term “reset” of your body (with the goal of reducing cravings and breaking sugar addiction).

If you exercise for weight loss, you may want to consume more protein. A position statement developed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the Dietitians of Canada (DC), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that exercisers should consume between 1.2 grams and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

Health Benefits

Eating a diet that includes plenty of lean protein provides several benefits, especially when you’re trying to lose weight. High-protein diets help build and preserve muscle mass, boost your metabolism, and increase satiety.

You also burn a few extra calories when you eat protein because your body has to work harder to chew and digest the food. This is known as the thermic effect of food. 

Keep in mind, however, that the number of extra calories burned is small so you shouldn’t create an entire weight loss program based solely on this benefit. 

Health Risks

Some high-protein diets severely restrict carbohydrates and can result in nutritional deficiencies and a lack of fiber, which can lead to constipation and other health concerns. In addition, a high-protein diet can cause bad breath.

A high-protein diet may cause blood sugar levels to rise in people with diabetes. Furthermore, insulin-dependent diabetics may have trouble controlling blood glucose because protein promotes delayed blood sugar rises.

Excess protein is eliminated through the kidneys, which can deteriorate renal function in patients who already have kidney disease.

Furthermore, protein metabolism results in the synthesis of nitrogen (ammonia). Nitrogen has to be eliminated by the urine. As a result, those who follow a high-protein diet are more likely to become dehydrated and need to drink more water.

While most high-protein diets emphasize lean protein sources, others contain and even encourage saturated fat-rich protein sources. A diet high in saturated fats has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, according to research.

A Word From Verywell

The greatest diet for you is one that provides you with the nutrition and fuel your body need while also being easy to follow. This is a high-protein weight-loss plan for some.

It may be a beneficial diet for you if eating extra protein helps you eat less during the day and create a stronger, more active physique.

Remember that following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and that many diets, especially long-term diets, simply do not work.

While we do not advocate for fad diets or unsustainable weight reduction approaches, we do give the facts so you may make the best selection for your nutritional needs, genetic profile, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health.

Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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