So you’re thinking of starting a high-protein low-carb diet plan. Fantastic! There are many reasons to take on such a diet, whether it’s for weight loss, to build lean muscle, or just to reduce your carb-heavy fast food intake. High protein low carb makes for a smart, sustainable diet that can reap a lot of benefits for your body and overall health. Here we’ll discuss the value of protein in your diet, what foods are high in protein and low in carbohydrates, and some recipe ideas you can include in your meal planning going forward.
The Importance of Protein
Increasing your protein intake can be an important part of weight loss, but protein has vital health benefits for our bodies that cannot be ignored on any diet. Some of the most important functions of protein are as follows.
- Your hormones: Protein-based hormones or peptide hormones are made of amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins, including dietary protein. These hormones enable the organs and cells in your body to communicate.
- Building blocks of the body: Speaking of what protein builds, it’s the main component of hair, skin, muscles, and bone. Protein is also needed to repair and maintain these structures—every skinned knee, broken bone, sprained muscle, and even every haircut.
- Your enzymes: Most of your enzymes are proteins, and they drive the chemical reactions throughout your body that keep you going.
- Molecular transport and storage: Some proteins move other molecules throughout your body, as hemoglobin in your blood transports oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body’s cells.
There is no functioning human life without protein and the amino acids that make them up. Nine of those amino acids are “essential” amino acids, meaning we need them but can only get them from what we consume, like our food. A high-protein diet can provide a wealth of these essential amino acids, and some foods will go further in amino acid content than others.
When you’re looking to up your protein intake, the first thing you’ll want to do is learn which foods are complete proteins, meaning they have all nine of the essential amino acids. According to the FDA, whole proteins include:
- Dairy products
Incomplete proteins are either missing an essential amino acid or two, or their levels of certain amino acids are not sufficient enough, making their protein content imbalanced. Those foods are mostly plant foods like whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Complementary proteins are two or more protein sources that, when eaten together in one sitting, complement each other’s protein content enough that they become a whole protein meal. An example would be pairing grains with beans, as grains are low in the amino acid lysine, while beans are low in methionine. Eating a bowl of rice and beans together makes up a complete protein dish.
A High-Protein Low-Carb Diet for Weight Loss
Losing weight in a healthy way involves several components. A low-carbohydrate diet paired with an increase of protein will help you lose weight from two directions: fewer sugars from carbs and more high-quality protein for muscle building. If you adopt this diet along with a fitness routine, your body will have all the tools to take energy from your body fat instead of from the sugars you eat, and will use that energy to power your growing muscles. Here are the details on what more protein can do from a weight management standpoint.
Curb Appetite and Increase Satiety
Protein increases the production of hormones that help you feel full and sated, while also reducing the levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. A study done with 19 young adults showed that when they were allowed to eat whatever they wanted on a diet of 30% protein intake instead of 10% protein, they ate an average of 441 fewer calories per day.
Increased Metabolic Rate
Increased protein intake can also increase the calories you burn from the low-carb foods you eat by raising your metabolic rate. Many studies have shown that those on high-protein diets burn more calories for several hours longer after eating, and in one specific study, 10 young women on a high-protein diet for just a single day exhibited higher metabolic rate increases (up to twice as high) as the young women on a high-carb diet for a day.
Additional Protein Benefits
A higher protein intake is known to increase muscle size and strength when paired with resistance training. It also reduces the muscle loss that comes with aging, strengthens bones to such an extent that postmenopausal women with high animal protein intake have shown a staggering 69% decrease in risk for hip fractures. High-protein diets are also associated with enhanced wound healing after surgery. High-protein intake can have life-long positive effects, especially when incorporated into a balanced diet and fit lifestyle.
Let’s Get Practical: How to Keep a High-Protein Diet
Your perfect amount of protein may vary depending on your body composition and fitness goals. However, a diet that favors a moderate amount of complex carbs over processed carbs, and low-fat and healthy fat foods over unhealthy fats, combined with an eye to increase protein throughout the day will set you on a path to gradual, sustainable weight loss. What follows now are some ideas about how best to stick to your new diet. You may find it helpful to have a few of these items around as you get started on a new way of eating.
- Keep a food diary: Any notebook will do, even a day-planner if it’s big enough for meal planning or notes on the foods you eat throughout the day. Food tracker apps serve just as well, if not better, when you’re on the move.
- Start a recipe spreadsheet: Once you start identifying favorite ingredients and combinations, get organized with a food list. The act of organizing itself will help you remember all this new information, so eventually it’s no longer a chore, but a habit.
- Use a food scale: No bigger than any postage scale, you can keep a food scale on your countertop to learn just what X grams of carbs or Y grams of protein looks like. This knowledge will also serve you well when eating out in the future.
High-Protein, Low-Carb Recipes
Remember that a balanced diet involves items from all the food groups on the food plate: protein, dairy, carbs, fruits, vegetables, and fats. Sometimes a high-fat food like an avocado is perfect, because it’s a source of good fats and protein. Sometimes a starchy vegetable like green peas will be worth it for the fiber and (again) protein content. A food like cottage cheese for example has a great balance between high protein and low carbs, and makes for a very convenient snack or side.
To make any diet work, it must provide you with the necessary nutrients, which is why even high-protein diets or low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet do not eliminate any food group entirely for indefinite amounts of time. Here are a few keto-inspired recipes that can be worked into any low-carb meal plans.
- Protein: 28.5 g per serving
- Net Carbs: 4 g per serving
These cheesy chicken and spinach meatballs can be eaten with a faux-pasta dish made out of zoodles (zucchini noodles) to replace the pasta, or shared as tasty bites for your friends and family.
- Protein: 48.8 g per serving
- Net Carbs: 6.2 g per serving
These pot sticker dumplings have swapped the traditional wheat–based wrappers, which are high in carbs, for steamed cabbage leaves instead. Even on a low-carb diet you can still enjoy these modified dumplings, full of tasty meat and sautéed in healthy olive oil.
- Protein: 39.6 g per serving
- Net Carbs: 3.8 g per serving
These awesome sliders are bite-sized burgers made out of lean ground chicken meat, topped with mozzarella and bacon, and held in a lettuce bun. They’re great for taking to a picnic or for having a fun summer Sunday in your own back yard.
High Protein, Low Effort
A high-protein, low-carb diet isn’t that difficult to keep once you get into the habit, and now you’re armed with some helpful tips for getting started! If done consistently, this diet should find you losing weight, getting stronger, and feeling the wonderful sense of accomplishment one feels for goals that have been set and met.