Are you tired of endless diets that just leave you hungry and unsatisfied? Wondering how to eat less without feeling deprived? Well, the secret might just be in your protein percentage.
Protein leverage, as it’s known, is gaining recognition as the key to controlling satiety and curbing overconsumption. In a world filled with hyper-palatable, ultra-processed foods designed for profit, understanding the role of protein in your diet is crucial.
But here’s the catch: while protein leverage can be a game-changer, swinging to extremes can derail your progress. You see, our bodies need a balanced mix of nutrients, including carbs and fats, for sustained energy. Go too far in any one direction, and you risk those dreaded cravings, binging on comfort foods, and ultimately giving up on your goals.
The solution? Optimization. It’s about making subtle, strategic adjustments to your diet for lasting results.
In this article, we’ll show you how to nudge up your protein percentage just enough to boost satiety and achieve sustainable weight loss—all while still enjoying your meals.
- Why the Protein % of Your Diet Is So Important
- Why High Protein % May Not Be Ideal for You
- The Minimum Effective Dose of Change
- How Much Do You Need to Increase Your Protein % to Get Results?
- What Happens to Fat When Protein % Increases?
- What Happens to Carbohydrates when We Increase Protein %?
- Dialling in Your Macros
- Deficit vs Calories
- Higher Protein, Higher Satiety and Nutrient-Dense Recipes
- Levelling Up Your Protein %
Why the Protein % of Your Diet Is So Important
Many quantifiable factors align with eating more or less. However, our analysis, and a plethora of other research, has shown that protein %—the percentage of total energy from protein—is the dominant factor.
To illustrate, the chart below shows the relationship between protein % and energy consumed from our analysis of 141,747 days of data gathered from forty thousand Nutrient Optimiser users. People with the highest protein % consume 61% fewer calories than those with the lowest.
Why High Protein % May Not Be Ideal for You
But let’s be honest, who really wants to live on a 60% deficit?
Even if you have your macros and micros dialled in perfectly, not many people, except for maybe bodybuilders and fitness models in the lead-up to a show, are that committed.
Dialling up your protein % super high requires you to prioritise protein and dial back energy from fat and carbs a LOT.
Below are some examples of our high protein %, nutrient-dense NutriBooster recipes (you can click on the name to open the recipe).
These optimised recipes are great if you want to lose weight quickly and maximise your food’s nutrient content at the expense of less energy. However, not everyone wants to eat like this all the time, nor do they need to.
Fat and carbs spike our dopamine and make our food pleasurable. Because you want your food to be somewhat enjoyable, these meals may be hard to stick to, especially if you’re coming from an ultra-processed diet like most of us eat nowadays.
Although these meals will lead to rapid fat loss if you have a lot of stored body fat, there is a limit to how much stored energy your body can liberate each day. Hence, you may still be hungry and gravitate towards less-than-optimal, easy-energy foods.
If you find yourself gorging on less-optimal foods, you’ve likely pushed your protein % too high and need to slow down a bit!
The Minimum Effective Dose of Change
Rather than swinging to unsustainable extremes, it can be better to progressively nudge yourself towards optimal in a sustainable manner, starting from where you are now.
The chart below shows the change in protein % in the US food system over the past century. Notice how the average protein % has dropped while obesity has risen. According to CDC data, the mean protein intake for men in the US is 16.0% and 15.7% for women.
The recent study, Macronutrient (im)balance drives energy intake in an obesogenic food environment: An ecological analysis, showed that the average protein intake of Australians in 2011 was 18.4%, and the average energy intake was 2073 calories per day (8671 kJ). Those with the lowest protein % ate the most, and vice versa.
The chart below summarises the macronutrient data from the study into a right-angled triangle plot, which Professors Raubenheimer and Simpson commonly use in their protein leverage studies. The blue area towards the bottom right represents the lowest calorie intake, which aligns with less energy from fat and carbs, and, thus, a higher protein %.
Interestingly, the rectangular-ish area in the middle represents the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) or the macro splits recommended by current guidelines.
On average, people tend to consume less protein than the AMDR recommends. However, to reduce calories and optimise your satiety, you must swing to a higher protein % than the AMDR and less fat.
How Much Do You Need to Increase Your Protein % to Get Results?
From our analysis of 141,747 days of Optimiser data, we can clearly understand the relationship between protein % and calorie intake.
The table below shows protein % vs calories, using the Aussie average of 2073 calories and 18.4% protein as the default maintenance level.
Towards the top of the table, we see how decreasing our protein % to 10% aligns with a 10% increase in calorie intake. Towards the bottom of the table, we see that a higher protein % aligns with a larger deficit.
- To achieve a typical deficit of 15% without tracking calories, the average Aussie would need to increase their protein % from 18.4% to 32%.
- Jumping to 49% protein would align with a 35% deficit, which would be a bit too heroic for most people to sustain.
The table below shows what each level would look like in grams of protein, carbs, and fat, assuming net carbs are fixed at 15% of calories. Protein in terms of grams and % increases, while energy from carbs and fat decreases. For reference, I’ve also shown the % fat for each level in the far right-hand column.
What Happens to Fat When Protein % Increases?
As the chart below from our satiety analysis shows, a lower % of total calories from fat aligns with a decreased energy intake. Reducing the amount of dietary fat you’re consuming makes sense if you want to lose body fat.
While reducing fat from 75% to 50% is fairly easy to achieve by reducing added fat like dressings and oils, it becomes more challenging to minimise fat beyond that without seeking out ultra-lean foods that you may not eat as regularly. Hence, a higher protein % becomes harder to achieve and sustain over the long term.
What Happens to Carbohydrates when We Increase Protein %?
Similar to fat, energy from carbs needs to decrease to increase protein %.
But unlike fat, our satiety response to carbohydrates is not linear. Towards the left of the chart below, we see that the lowest energy intake aligns with 10–20% of our total energy from carbohydrates.
However, fascinatingly, we also see that our calorie intake tends to taper off when we increase our carb intake above 50% of total energy. Hence, lower-carb and super-high-carb diets can both result in reduced energy intake.
Interestingly, the average Aussie’s carb intake is 43.5% of calories, which aligns with the highest overall energy intake. It’s probably no surprise that the US average is the same.
While it may look like our food system is intentionally trying to make us fat, it’s just the effect of the free-market economy where companies have realised they can increase their profits if we eat more food.
Dialling in Your Macros
The following charts show how each macro would change with an increasing deficit.
Deficit vs Macros (%)
To achieve a 40% deficit, protein % would need to go from 18.4% to 52% while fat and carbs decrease.
Deficit vs Macros (g)
The following chart shows how macros would need to change (in grams) for the average Aussie to maintain their weight on 2000 calories per day. Again, notice how absolute protein intake increases and fat and carbs decrease.
Deficit vs Calories
This final chart shows the breakdown of calories for each macronutrient for the average Aussie as they reduce their overall intake. Eventually, protein reaches a maximum as the deficit increases, while the reduction in energy comes from carbs and fat.
You don’t need to jump to a heroic and unsustainable 40% deficit to make progress. Most people make sustainable progress with a more moderate 10 – 20% deficit.
It doesn’t matter much if you prefer more energy from fat or carbs; it’s hard to overdo if you dial up your protein %. Focusing on protein also pushes you to avoid the hyper-palatable combination of fat and carbs that’s so good at making us eat more.
In our Macros Masterclass, we guide our Optimisers to start with their current macronutrient intake. From there, they set their baseline protein intake as their minimum and progressively dial back their energy from carbs and fat until they achieve sustainable fat loss (i.e., 0.5 to 1.0% per week).
Higher Protein, Higher Satiety and Nutrient-Dense Recipes
Hopefully, you can see that you don’t need to swing to protein extremes to make sustainable progress unless you want to jump into a hardcore phase of rapid fat loss and can fight against your hunger with herculean willpower. For most people, it’s wiser to level up your protein % progressively.
If your diet currently has a meagre protein %, you must only bump it up a little to achieve a sustainable deficit without having to eat foods you hate. To quote Dr Ted Naiman in a recent Diet Doctor podcast, “If you’re currently eating glazed doughnuts, start by removing the glazing.” By making tiny tweaks, you can continue to make progress.
Over the years, we have used our data and knowledge of satiety to develop and compile an extensive database of recipes to help people optimise their nutrition at the macro and micro levels. The chart below shows the 1400 recipes we have created and analysed.
Click here to dive into the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer). If you click on the recipe, it will pop up with more details and a link to view the recipe.
You can also check out our full suite of NutriBooster recipe books tailored to a wide range of goals and preferences here.
Levelling Up Your Protein %
While we have some super-high-protein % recipes, you don’t have to jump right into them to achieve sustainable results. We have plenty of lower and more moderate-protein recipes, too!
Over the year of working with thousands of Optimisers in our Macros Masterclass, we’ve realised that some people can find all these options overwhelming. Additionally, many discover that jumping to optimal isn’t necessarily ideal for long-term progress.
In the Macros Masterclass, we guide Optimisers to identify their current macro split and then choose foods and meals that will help them increase satiety and nutrient density incrementally and thus move toward their goal using foods and meals they enjoy!
- Protein leverage is the most potent factor that influences satiety and hunger. Therefore, increasing your protein % will help you feel fuller with fewer calories, which will help you lose weight without falling victim to your cravings.
- While protein is critical, jumping straight to a very high protein % can be hard to maintain. Hence, it’s ideal to start with a gentle and sustainable approach that allows you to stretch without breaking.
- Protein Power: Visualizing 30g in Everyday Foods
- The Protein Leverage Hypothesis
- Mastering Nutritional Optimisation: A Journey Towards Your Ideal Diet
- Protein Leverage | Professors Stephen Simpson and David Raubenheimer (podcast)
- Protein – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)
- How to Maximise Satiety Per Calorie
- Highest Satiety Index Meals and Recipes