Every few years, a new diet trend promises effortless weight loss. You’ve probably heard of some of them – from the Potato Diet to Keto and everything in between. These diets attract many, but few succeed in the long run.
At Optimising Nutrition, we’ve set out to uncover the real secret behind diets that stand the test of time. While seemingly straightforward, weight loss is a complex battle against our appetites and cravings.
Our extensive research points to a game-changer: protein. It’s the ultimate satiety powerhouse. This revelation aligns with the groundbreaking work of Professors Raubenheimer and Simpson, who’ve championed the Protein Leverage Hypothesis since 2005.
In a world filled with diet noise, we’ve found that prioritizing protein while taming fat and carbs is the key to sustainable weight loss without the constant battle against hunger.
In this article, we’ll dive into the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, exploring its origins and practical applications. We’ll show you how to leverage it for lasting weight loss, insulin resistance reversal, and metabolic health optimization.
Along the way, we’ll share insights from our data analysis and our experiences guiding thousands in our Macros Masterclass. Get ready for a journey of discovery and transformation.
- What Is the Protein Leverage Hypothesis?
- What is the “Leverage” in Protein Leverage?
- How Does the Protein Leverage Hypothesis Work?
- The Satiety Response to Protein
- Who Developed the Protein Leverage Hypothesis?
- History of the Protein Leverage Hypothesis
- Protein is the Most Expensive Macronutrient
- Geometric Framework for Nutrition
- Eat Like the Animals
- Protein Leverage is Not About MORE Protein
- The Other Nutrients Matter
- There is No One Size Fits All Protein %
- Protein % and Insulin Resistance
- Protein Leverage and Menopause
- Protein % and Low Carb Diets
- What Happens if You Push Your Protein % Too High?
- Protein Shakes and Supplements Aren’t as Effective
- The Nutrient Leverage Hypothesis
- How to Implement the Protein Leverage Hypothesis in Practice
What Is the Protein Leverage Hypothesis?
Your innate appetite constantly works to ensure you get the right balance of nutrients and energy from the food available. Protein only makes up a small percentage of your diet and is a poor fuel source. However, protein is critical to our survival, so we have a strong craving for it.
The Protein Leverage Hypothesis proposes that:
- In a low-protein environment, we overconsume energy to get the protein we need and thus gain weight.
- Conversely, we consume less energy when we only have access to foods with a higher protein %.
The critical thing to note is that it doesn’t take a large shift in your current protein % to leverage a significant change in energy intake. You only need to dial back your carbs and fat only a little while prioritising protein.
It’s crucial to find the balance of protein vs energy to achieve consistent and sustainable weight loss.
What is the “Leverage” in Protein Leverage?
In engineering, a lever uses a slight movement in one parameter to produce a significant change in something else.
In finance, leverage is borrowed money that costs a little that can significantly increase the gains or losses of your investment.
Similarly, in protein leverage, protein is the powerful force that causes a large impact on our intake of energy from fat and carbs.
Rather than jumping from low to high protein extremes, you only need to nudge your protein % to increase satiety and lose weight sustainably. Conversely, growing children or athletes who are lean may benefit from a lower protein % to reduce satiety to allow them to consume more energy.
How Does the Protein Leverage Hypothesis Work?
Protein leverage has been observed in a wide range of living organisms, from slime to apes and, of course, humans.
Free-living animals in the wild use their keen sense of smell and taste to seek out the nutrients they need. If they only have access to low-protein foods, they experience excessive hunger (hyperphagia) in the pursuit of adequate protein.
Did you know that crickets become cannibals if they can’t get protein? Crickets march across the landscape in search of food and keep ahead of the hungry cricket behind them.
The amino acids that makeup protein are essential to life and are perhaps some of the most critical nutrients for human function. These nutrients synthesise, maintain, and rebuild our DNA, organs, muscles, bone, hair, skin, and nails, help us detoxify, and produce various enzymes, neurotransmitters, and hormones that catalyse bodily function.
While we can recycle some protein, it isn’t very efficient. Hence, we need to eat enough of it. Our protein requirements increase if we are more active, stressed, losing weight, growing, or healing.
The Satiety Response to Protein
As shown in the chart below from our satiety analysis of one hundred and fifty thousand days of food logs from forty thousand Optimisers, people who consume a diet with a higher protein % tend to consume a massive 61% fewer calories than those who consume a lower protein %!
Towards the left of the chart, we see the US population’s average protein intake is about 14%, which aligns with the maximum energy intake. Our analysis suggests that once we get above around 20% of energy from protein, the satiety response is linear.
For reference, the average protein % of people using Nutrient Optimiser in our Macros Masterclass and Micros Masterclass is 32%. Because we also crave energy from fat and carbs, not many people manage to maintain a very high protein % for long.
Who Developed the Protein Leverage Hypothesis?
In 2005, Professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney published Obesity: the protein leverage hypothesis.
In this original paper, they proposed that the dilution of protein in our modern processed food environment was an elegant explanation for the obesity epidemic.
This prolific duo has worked together for decades, publishing hundreds of papers, ever since David was Stephen’s PhD student at Oxford University.
Professor David Raubenheimer
David Raubenheimer is a professor of nutritional ecology, studying how an organism’s biology and nutrition interact and influence its health and fitness outcomes. He received his education from the Universities of Oxford and Cape Town, joining the University of Sydney team in 2013.
Professor Stephen Simpson
Stephen Simpson is an entomologist, having studied its intersection with nutrition, zoology, and experimental psychology. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Queensland in 1978 and completed a PhD in locust feeding physiology in 1982. He undertook 22 years of research before returning to Australia in 2005. Stephen is now the Academic Director at the Charles Perkins Centre in Sydney.
For a quick overview of the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, I highly recommend this 15-minute presentation by Professor Simpson to the Royal Society scientific meeting on the Causes of obesity: theories, conjectures and evidence (starts at 37 minutes).
You can watch my interview with David and Stephen for a deeper dive into the origins and practicalities of protein leverage.
History of the Protein Leverage Hypothesis
After studying insects and animals for decades, in the early 2000s, Raubenheimer and Simpson wanted to apply what they knew from studying nutrition, ecology, and etymology in animals and apply it to the runaway obesity epidemic.
After noting it began with the previous generation, mainly in the last fifty years, they felt something environmental must be at play. This made them wonder, ‘what around us changed that allowed us to eat so much energy?’
As we can see in the chart below, calorie intake and obesity started to take off after the second Agricultural Revolution in the 1960s.
For more on how our food system has changed over the past 50 years, see How the Biggest Trends in Nutrition Influence How We Currently Eat.
After studying how various insects and animals innately chose a balanced diet from a seemingly random selection of foods, they wondered whether humans could do the same in our modern environment. As we can see in the chart below, since the 1960s, our protein intake has increased marginally, while fat and carbohydrate have increased significantly.
Their analysis showed that the appetite of various organisms—including humans—increases significantly when the per cent of total calories from protein increases only marginally. In addition, their analysis showed that a slight change in protein % was enough to explain large increases in energy intake from carbs and fat.
For example, as shown in the chart below, a reduction in protein from 14% to 12.5% aligns with a 14% increase in energy from carbs and fat.
Raubenheimer and Simpson concluded that it’s not one single nutrient that influences obesity but rather the balance of protein vs energy. Rather than fat OR carbs, fat AND carbs dilutes the protein in our food system and drive us to eat more.
Ominously, when we look at the changes in the food system using data from the USDA Economic Research Service, we see that protein % has decreased from around 13% to less than 12% since 1977. This seemingly minor decrease in protein % is enough to explain the accompanying growth in obesity.
Protein is the Most Expensive Macronutrient
Beyond the mathematical and physical quantifications for the obesity epidemic, Raubenheimer and Simpson also used socioeconomic and biological reasonings to complete their theory.
Protein is the most necessary macronutrient for human life; amino acids partake in nearly every bodily process, including growth and regeneration and comprise a significant proportion of our body, second only to water.
Unfortunately, protein is the most expensive macronutrient. Hence, lower-cost, high-profit-margin foods made from industrial seed oils and subsidised grains are more heavily marketed and thus, consumers gravitate towards them due to their palatability and low cost. Hence, those living in lower-income households might find themselves drawn to less-expensive fat-and-carb combo foods for price and pleasure.
Thus, the economics are behind our decreased protein consumption and overconsumption of energy from carbs and fat.
Geometric Framework for Nutrition
To depict the multidimensional nature of nutrition, Raubenheimer and Simpson have also pioneered their Geometric Framework of Nutrition. These three-dimensional charts allow people to see how multiple nutrients and dietary components influence human disease and which nutritional subsets correlate strongly to adverse health outcomes. The contour plot below in one of Dr Ted Naiman’s popular memes shows how our energy intake is minimised with a higher protein %.
Eat Like the Animals
To bring protein leverage to the masses, Raubenheimer and Simpson published Eat Like the Animals in 2019 to tell the story of their research that led them to the Protein Leverage Hypothesis.
Protein Leverage is Not About MORE Protein
When most people first hear Protein Leverage, their first response is to eat more protein. However, because protein typically comes with fat, merely increasing protein tends to lead to an increase in energy intake (as shown in the chart below from the analysis of our Optimiser data). Simply eating more butter, bacon, and nuts won’t help increase your protein %.
Instead, to implement the power of the Protein Leverage, you need to focus on protein % or per cent of total calories from protein. Your protein % is influenced by your protein intake, carbs, and fat. Hence, optimising your protein % requires you to dial back your carbs and fat while prioritising protein.
The figure below (from Raubenheimer and Simpson, 2019) shows a compilation of protein % vs energy intake data from human studies. Note that as we increase protein %, protein intake (in grams) increases marginally while total energy drops significantly.
We see a similar trend in our analysis of data from one hundred and fifty thousand days of data from forty thousand people using Nutrient Optimiser. As we increase protein %, absolute protein (in grams) increases marginally while total calories decrease significantly.
Rather than swinging from low to high protein, you simply need to:
- Determine your current macro intake (i.e., from protein, fat and carbs), and
- Dial back fat or carbs while maintaining or slightly increasing your protein intake.
To see how we do this in the Macros Masterclass, see What Are Macros in Your Diet (and How to Manage Them)?
The Other Nutrients Matter
In 2019, Raubenheimer and Simpson published a follow-up paper, Protein Leverage: Theoretical Foundations and Ten Points of Clarification, to clarify several common misconceptions about the Protein Leverage Hypothesis.
One of their points highlighted that Protein Leverage isn’t independent of food quality and micronutrient content. The macronutrient protein is made up of twenty amino acids that all play distinct roles in our body. As shown in the chart below, getting more of each of the essential amino acids per calorie aligns with consuming fewer calories.
But it’s not just protein or amino acids. Higher protein foods also come packaged with other essential nutrients. Minerals and vitamins also show a unique satiety response, meaning we tend to consume fewer calories when we pack more of each of them into the food we eat.
It’s worth noting that Eat Like the Animals was published in the UK as “The Five Appetites” because Raubenheimer and Simpson had seen that “animals possess five appetites – for protein, carbohydrate, fat, salt and calcium”.
Our analysis shows that up to around 50%, protein and nutrient density are closely correlated. So, if you’re getting your protein from whole foods, you will also get plenty of the other nutrients clustered with protein. So, protein leverage may not be due to protein but rather the nutrients that also tend to be packaged in higher protein foods.
For more details on this, see:
- Nutrient Leverage Theory – Cluster Analysis, and
- The Geometric Framework for Nutrition: Nutrient Optimiser Data Analysis.
There is No One Size Fits All Protein %
Raubenheimer and Simpson also highlighted that a person’s protein target is not static. While everyone wants a simple number to aim for, there is no one size fits all protein target for everyone. Protein requirements vary depending on life stage and activity levels.
For example, people who are older tend to need less energy and thus a higher protein % to get adequate protein. While you may think that it’s the young bros who need more protein, we often see older women thriving on the highest protein percentages in our programs.
For more details on how to guide people to find their optimal balance of protein vs energy in our Macros Masterclass, see What Are Macros in Your Diet (and How to Manage Them)?
Protein % and Insulin Resistance
People who are obese are often insulin resistant, which leads to more of the protein they consume being converted to glucose (via gluconeogenesis). In their 2005 paper, Raubenheimer and Simpson highlight that the increase in obesity and diabetes could explain why protein intake has increased a little.
Because more protein is converted to glucose if there is inadequate insulin, people who are insulin resistant tend to crave more protein to maintain the protein in their body. Hence, if you’re insulin resistant, it’s even more important to prioritise protein and dial back energy from fat and carbs to lose weight and restore insulin sensitivity.
For more details on insulin resistance, see:
- What Is Insulin Resistance (and How to Reverse It)?
- The Real Reason You’re Insulin Resistant and The Macros to Reverse It
- What are Normal, Healthy, Non-Diabetic Blood Sugar Levels?
Protein Leverage and Menopause
In their latest paper, Weight gain during the menopause transition: evidence for a mechanism dependent on protein leverage, Raubenheimer and Simpson elegantly addressed menopausal weight gain through the lens of protein leverage.
- As women age, a reduction in estrogen and high follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and increased anabolic resistance and insulin resistance in women lead to a loss of lean mass. While anabolic and insulin resistance occur in men, too, menopause accelerates this process in females.
- To compensate for the loss of muscle, our bodies seek more protein by eliciting cravings for more of it.
- Activity levels often also decrease as we age, so we require less energy from food.
- We consume more food to get the protein we require and gain weight if we don’t change what we eat during this transition.
For more details, see Menopausal Weight Gain: The Problem and Solution Explained.
Protein % and Low Carb Diets
As we increase protein %, energy from fat and carbs both reduce. If your blood glucose is in the normal range, it doesn’t matter too much if you tend to get more energy from fat or carbs.
Because we can produce the carbohydrate we need from protein via gluconeogenesis, carbohydrate is not technically an essential macronutrient. However, if you’re on a lower-carb diet, you may need to prioritise even more protein to compensate for the protein lost to glucose via gluconeogenesis and prevent the loss of your precious lean muscle mass.
As shown in the chart below from our satiety analysis, energy intake tends to be lowest when we consume 10-20% carbohydrates. But lower carb is not necessarily better in terms of satiety. So below this point, we may end up consuming more food in an attempt to get adequate glucose.
For more details, see:
- Carbohydrates – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)
- Fat – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)
- Protein – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)
- Low Carb vs LowFat: What’s Best for Weight Loss, Satiety, Nutrient Density, and Long-Term Adherence?
What Happens if You Push Your Protein % Too High?
In my conversation with Professors Raubenheimer and Simpson, they emphasised that they don’t advocate for very high protein % diets. Instead, they see increasing protein % as a short-term ‘therapeutic intervention’. Although they also noted that, given most of the population is overweight, most people would benefit from an increase in their protein % until they reach a healthy body weight.
Again, to achieve long-term success, it’s critical to find the balance of protein vs energy that allows you to make sustainable progress. Because there is a limit to how much fat your body can liberate daily, it also needs some energy in your diet.
In our Macros Masterclass, we find most people don’t thrive for long when they push their above 40-50% protein. After a few days, their cravings for energy from fat and carbs become excessive, and they find themselves in a rebound binge with a dysregulated appetite. Hence, it’s best to gradually ratchet up your protein intake by dialling back fat and/or carbs, as we do in our Macros Masterclass.
Although a short-term protein-sparing modified fast can be helpful to shed a few extra pounds in an emergency (e.g., before surgery or an event like a bodybuilding competition), it is by no means ideal or sustainable over the long term.
For more details, see:
- Secrets of the Nutrient-Dense Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) Diet
- The Ultimate PSMF Calculator
- How Much Weight Should I Lose Per Week?
Protein Shakes and Supplements Aren’t as Effective
No matter how you intend to increase your protein %, focusing on nutrient-dense whole-food protein sources is best.
Various studies have shown that we don’t see the same degree of protein leverage when the protein is from protein powders. Not only are they pre-digested, so they are assimilated quicker, they don’t contain the other micronutrients your body requires to maximise satiety.
Studies show relying on and using low-calorie protein powders, shakes, and isolates can have detrimental and even deadly health consequences, as they don’t provide the complete spectrum of nutrients humans require.
The Nutrient Leverage Hypothesis
Our multivariate statistical analysis aligns with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, which states that we have a strong appetite for protein and we overeat if we don’t get enough. However, it also shows that other nutrients, like potassium, sodium, calcium, and some B vitamins, correlate strongly with satiety. Thus, our appetite will also increase if we don’t get adequate amounts of them.
The table below shows the results of the multivariate analysis of 111,897 days of food logging data from people using Nutrient Optimiser. Moving from low to high protein aligns with a 32% reduction in calorie intake. However other nutrients like potassium, fibre, sodium and calcium also have a statistically significant impact on how much we eat. Check out the full article at The Cheat Codes for Optimal Nutrition and Satiety.
|pantothenic acid (B5)||0.006||4||15||-18||-1.1%|
But when we dig a little deeper, we see that these statistically significant nutrients may just represent the cluster of nutrients that tend to come with those main nutrients. For more details, see Nutrient Leverage Theory – Cluster Analysis.
As we have continued to analyse and refine our data, it has become more apparent that these correlations to satiety are not independent. In other words, all the nutrients’ effects synergise when consumed together in whole foods.
For example, high-protein animal foods often contain other B vitamins (i.e., thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine, folate, and cobalamin) and zinc, iron, copper, and selenium. Hence, these nutrients may not show up as statistically significant as protein in terms of satiety because they hide under the larger ‘umbrella’ of protein.
Rather than protein leverage alone, it appears that there may be a more general nutrient leverage effect whereby we crave the nutrients we currently require more of. Thus, the most effective way to increase satiety and manage our appetite is to increase the nutrient density of the food we eat.
The takeaway from this section is that micronutrients like amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids have just as much of a role in satiety as macronutrients like protein. Additionally, hyper-focusing on individual nutrients won’t solve our problems, and supplementing with the most statistically significant nutrients won’t give us the same effects as consuming whole foods.
How to Implement the Protein Leverage Hypothesis in Practice
There is no protein leverage diet, but applying these principles is not that hard! You can apply the principles of protein leverage in any dietary template.
It is best to begin by tracking your current food intake for a week. From there, you can dial back your intake of carbs and (or) fat incrementally while prioritising protein and fibre until you reach your goals, as we do in our Macros Masterclass.
Your goal is not simply to add in more protein; instead, it’s to prioritise reducing carbs and fat in proportion to protein. This increases your protein % or your per cent of total calories from protein.
If you’re looking for an easy starting point, you might check out our NutriBooster recipe books tailored to various goals and preferences. Not only do they have a high protein %, but a high nutrient density, too!
The chart below shows our six hundred NutriBooster recipes in terms of protein % vs nutrient density vs satiety. You can dive into all the details in the Tableau chart here.
- To increase your protein %, choose recipes towards the right.
- To increase nutrient density, choose recipes towards the top.
- For greater satiety, avoid the red recipes and focus on the green ones.
- You can dive into all the details in the Tableau chart here.
If you’re only focused on protein, it’s easy to miss out on many other nutrients. Thus, if you switch your focus to the most nutrient-dense foods vs the highest-protein foods, your protein % and nutrients look after themselves. The chart below shows how various foods rank in terms of protein % vs nutrient density vs satiety. Again, you can dive into the detail in the interactive Tableuea chart here.
To make this easy, we’ve taken our years of analysis to compile a slew of free food lists targeted at various goals and preferences. You can use them as shopping lists to kickstart your nutrient-focused journey. Click here to access our suite of free food lists.
- Professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney published their Protein Leverage Hypothesis in 2005.
- Protein leverage highlights the significant impact of protein % on overall energy intake – if we only have access to foods with a low protein % we end up eating excess calories to get adequate protein.
- The Protein Leverage Hypothesis highlights that the decreased protein intake relative to carbs and fat elegantly explains the obesity epidemic.
- People commonly think the protein leverage requires them to eat MORE protein. But instead, the focus needs to be on dialling back energy from fat and/or carbs while prioritising protein.
- There is no one size fits all protein % or protein target. To implement protein leverage, you must understand your current typical macro intake and dial back energy from fat and carbs while prioritising protein.
- In addition to protein, other nutrients matter. Protein supplements like powders, bars and shakes are effectively pre-digested, so they don’t provide the same satiety impact as whole-food protein sources that also contain the array of other nutrients we require.
- In addition to protein leverage, there appears to be a broader nutrient leverage effect. Your cravings will increase for the amino acids, minerals and vitamins that you need more of right now.
- You can begin implementing the protein leverage by dialling back your intake of fat and carbs while prioritising protein, as we guide Optimisers to do in our four-week Macros Masterclass.
- Eat Like the Animals: The Origins of the Protein Leverage Hypothesis
- Protein Leverage | Professors Stephen Simpson and David Raubenheimer
- How Much Protein Should I Eat to Lose Weight?
- Protein to Energy Ratio (P:E) vs Protein Percentage (%)
- Protein – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)
- Macros Masterclass