A dieter's best friend: Protein

Special to The Times

Hunger pangs are hard to resist. So the recent findings that a little more lean protein at breakfast will last you until lunch could provide the boost to help you maintain your weight during the upcoming holidays and beyond.

Of all the macronutrients that we eat, "protein blunts your hunger the most and is the most satiating," notes Wayne Campbell, who leads a team investigating protein at Purdue University's Campbell Laboratory for Integrative Research in Nutrition, Fitness and Aging.

In October, Campbell and his colleagues reported at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society that women who added a little more lean protein to their breakfast -- in this case, a slice of Canadian bacon added to an egg sandwich made with an English muffin -- experienced less hunger over the next four hours compared with those who ate the sandwich sans bacon.

Blood levels of the hunger hormone -- ghrelin -- also rose significantly less in women who ate the bacon breakfast.

The Purdue findings are just the latest in a growing number of studies that point to some weight benefits of eating more protein.

In 2005, University of Washington researchers tested the effects of placing 19 slightly overweight people on a low-fat, high-protein dietary regimen to maintain their weight. Participants ate about 30% of their daily calories in protein. That's about twice the average intake of protein and roughly equal to the protein content of the breakfast sandwich in the Purdue study. About half the daily calories came from healthy carbohydrates, including plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and the rest from fat.

The higher-protein fare made participants feel full -- so full that they complained about it, according to Dr. David Scott Weigle, professor of medicine at the University of Washington and the study's lead author.

During the four-month study, participants continued to eat the high-protein foods dictated by the researchers. To avoid nutritional boredom, participants were allowed to eat one meal of their choosing and drink up to three alcoholic beverages weekly.

The study found that on the low-fat, high-protein regimen, participants spontaneously cut their daily intake by 441 calories -- roughly a quarter of their total calories. Although the goal was weight maintenance, participants lost an average of 11 pounds, including about 8 pounds of fat -- all while feeling satisfied.

It doesn't seem to matter what type of protein is eaten as long as it's lean. Poultry without the skin, fish, vegetable protein such as soybeans, eggs, low-fat or nonfat dairy products are just as good as lean cuts of meat.

Nor does it take a lot of protein to see the effects. For healthy people, "an extra 3 ounces per day is well within the acceptable range," says Campbell, whose study was funded by the National Pork Board. (If you have Type 2 diabetes or any medical condition that could affect your kidneys, check with your doctor before boosting protein intake.)

It's also best if extra protein calories replace other food rather than add to the total tally. "So instead of a soda," Campbell says, "have a glass of milk and you'll get an extra 8 grams of protein." And choose high-protein snacks, such as a cup of bean soup with nonfat cheese on top, a handful of nuts or half a peanut-butter sandwich.

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