Protein Is Weight Management’s Good News

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 18 No. 4
Volume 18
Issue 4

Whether from plants or animals, protein lends the weight-management sector some much-needed credibility.

Whether from plants or animals, protein lends the weight-management sector some much-needed credibility.


In a national conversation that sometimes seems to bristle with bad news about the American diet-too much sugar, not enough fiber, and a whole lot of disagreement about everything else-one topic that reliably serves up good news is protein. Alone among macronutrients, protein has escaped the demonization that, for some critics, landed carbs and fat in the doghouse.

Even better, whereas the wholesale rejection of sugars and fats is misguided, the positive energy surrounding protein-from consumers, health professionals, and industry alike-is refreshingly reality-based. Whether strengthening bones, maintaining muscle, increasing energy, or easing how we age, protein, evidence continues to suggest, plays a constructive role.

Such is the case in managing weight, as well. And for a weight-management category that’s taken its lumps from increased regulatory scrutiny and shifting consumer expectations, protein’s potential to bring scientifically substantiated legitimacy to functional foods and beverages is good news, indeed.


Food First

Protein is sitting pretty as its renown spreads beyond its initial advocates-strength trainers and athletes. “It’s become the most popular ingredient at the moment with both consumers and product developers,” says Julian Mellentin, director, New Nutrition Business (London). Consumer awareness of protein is very high in the United States, he adds, and the success of everything from protein-powered granola bars to Greek-style yogurt shows that “Americans at a mass-market level are embracing protein in all its forms.”

To the extent that consumers are embracing protein to help control weight, their decision makes sense. After all, protein is “a recognizable ‘food-based’ ingredient that people are already used to consuming in things they like: dairy, meat, etc.,” says Chris Schmidt, consumer health analyst, Euromonitor International (Chicago). This food-like positioning, he believes, gives protein an advantage over “the myriad newer ‘flavor-of-the-month’ diet ingredients.”

When those flavors-of-the-month-think raspberry ketones and green coffee extract-hit shelves in the form of weight-loss supplements, sales tend to spike, Schmidt says, and then “die off fairly quickly” thereafter. In the meantime, sales of what he describes as meal-replacement “slimming” products like shakes, bars, and their functional kin that count protein as a key ingredient “outstrip weight-loss supplements by a wide margin in both the United States and across the world.”

That wouldn’t surprise Anne Poulsen, business development manager for performance health & nutrition, Arla Foods Ingredients (Sønderhøj, Denmark), who observes that the bad press aimed at weight-loss supplements tainted with the banned prescription drug sibutramine-the subject of FDA warnings in November 2012, January 2013, and February 2013-leaves consumers “increasingly suspicious of products that seem too good to be true.” For them, she says, protein offers an easier, more convenient, and “more sociable” approach to watching food intake.


Revving the Engines

Moreover, protein actually appears to work. “There really is a lot of scientific evidence1 supporting the fact that a high proportion of protein in the diet increases weight loss and prevents weight gain and regain,” Poulsen says.

The theory rests on the understanding that protein helps stanch appetite by promoting satiety better than carbohydrates or fats, naturally amps up the body’s calorie-burning thermogenic engines, and aids in glycemic regulation-the combination of which ultimately leads to improved body composition, Poulsen explains. “Improved body composition means the preservation or gain of muscle mass and the concurrent loss of fat mass, so it’s a highly desirable benefit for consumers who want to look and feel good.”

Consumers have gotten the memo. According to a 2014 Consumer Whey Protein Tracker survey of U.S. adults conducted by San Francisco–based market research firm GfK for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI; Rosemont, IL), 43% of respondents attested to actively changing their food and beverage choices to ensure adequate protein intake-a 36% increase from 2011-and 52% agreed that “protein plays a role in weight management.”

Notes Erin Coffield, RD, LDN, vice president, strategic communications and integration for health and wellness at the National Dairy Council (NDC; a DMI-managed program), “Consumers are most likely to identify ‘building and maintaining muscle’ and ‘providing sustained energy’ as protein benefits, but significant numbers also attribute benefits to protein linked directly to weight management, such as ‘helps speed up metabolism and burn more calories naturally’ and ‘helps keep you from feeling hungry between meals.’” And they want more.


Quality over Quantity

How much more? Current research concludes that protein consumption above RDA (recommended dietary allowance) levels “may protect fat-free mass in the body during short-term weight loss,” Poulsen adds, citing a 2013 study2 published in The FASEB Journal as support.

Those recommended levels work out to 10%–35% of total daily calories, and given that Americans above age two currently average about 15% of calories from protein, there’s room to incorporate more, Coffield says. The precise quantity to influence weight will vary widely, from 63–154 g/day, she says, “and most likely depends on calorie intake and desired outcome-weight management or loss.”

At least as important as protein quantity is quality, as the majority of scientific literature has evaluated high-quality protein in relation to satiety and weight management, with whey, eggs, lean meat and fish, soy, and dairy generally delivering the essential amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle and help the body work properly, she says.

And yet individual protein quality can get lost amidst the exuberance surrounding the larger category. “The surge in interest in protein has inevitably resulted in a huge number of new protein sources coming onto the market as ingredients,” Poulsen notes. “But it would be a mistake to consider the protein market as a single category. Instead, it’s a series of subcategories, each with its own specific attributes. It’s important not to fall into the trap of believing all proteins are equal. In fact, proteins can vary enormously in terms of nutritional quality, taste, and ease of processing.”


Whey to Go

Consider whey’s track record. “In recent years, whey protein has emerged from niche to mainstream,” Poulsen says. And for good reason. “The use of whey protein to improve body composition is supported by 14 randomized clinical trials, including one3 that involved 627 adults who consumed protein either as a supplement combined with resistance training or as part of a weight-loss and -maintenance diet.”

It’s especially effective at jumpstarting caloric combustion. The energetic cost of metabolizing proteins in general tops that needed to burn either carbohydrates or fat, Poulsen says, yet even within the protein category, whey generates greater diet-induced thermogenesis than either soy or casein protein, per a 2013 study4 published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

That same study found that whey stimulates the secretion of satiety hormones like cholecystokinin, peptide YY, and glucagon-like peptide 1, while reducing secretion of the hunger-promoting hormone ghrelin. It’s also replete with branched-chain amino acids-valine, isoleucine, and leucine-which aid muscle growth and, in leucine’s case, “exerts a direct central effect on reducing appetite,” Poulsen says. Finally, while milk proteins broadly stimulate insulin secretion, whey elicits “the highest insulinotrophic response, thereby assisting blood-glucose regulation that translates into long-term improvements4 in insulin sensitivity,” she says.


Vegetative State

But whey isn’t the only game in town; increasingly, consumers are investigating vegetarian protein options. While dairy proteins still get the majority of media attention, Schmidt says, “soy protein is fairly ubiquitous in packaged foods, and there’s been growing interest in plant sources like pea, rice, and others, particularly within the general health-and-wellness and healthy-weight areas.”

Data from SPINS (Chicago), an information provider for the natural and specialty products industries, illustrates the rise of plant protein in the “Health Focus” sector comprising vitamins, supplements, herbals, and homeopathic remedies, says Kimberly Kawa, SPINS content development. While conventional-channel sales of animal-based protein combination products within the Health Focus market represented the highest dollar value for the 52 weeks ending February 2015-$126 million-plus-they were up only 6.8% over the previous year; by contrast, Health Focus products with a plant-based protein combination may have raked in a more modest $9.6 million-plus in natural-channel sales during the same period, but were up a whopping 92.1% over the year prior.

In any case, “I think pea protein is one of the top plant-based proteins of interest,” Kawa says, crediting its popularity to its GMO-free supply chain, allergy friendliness, easy digestion, and promotion of muscle growth. “Since ‘grain-free’ is also a trend now, pea protein falls into that category, as opposed to rice protein, which has been a common base for plant-based protein powders,” she suggests. No wonder, then, that bars with a pea-protein boost are appearing more frequently, and that items across all products and departments formulated with pea protein grew by 56.5% in the natural channel compared to the year before, she adds.

Still, a protein’s animal or vegetable origin may be a deal breaker for only the closest of label readers and those with dietary restrictions, Mellentin says. He contends that “there is a subset of more health-aware consumers in the United States who are showing a preference for vegetable-source protein. But there’s no science behind this, as dairy protein is the most effective and bioavailable. It’s just a question of people picking up on ideas about plant-based diets being somehow ‘better.’” Ultimately, “Most consumers don’t know the difference between different protein types,” he wagers. “They just know, ‘I want protein,’ or, maybe, ‘I want X grams of protein.’”


Protein in the Pantry

What consumers know is that they want protein to provide an appealing experience. As Poulsen says, “Increasing numbers of ‘ordinary’ health-conscious consumers are now demanding food and beverage products that help them stay fit, toned, and looking and feeling good, but which are convenient to integrate into their everyday lives. The key to tapping into this growth opportunity is to offer ‘lifestyle’ protein-based products that are delicious and easy to consume, since these shoppers aren’t willing to make the taste and convenience sacrifices that niche protein consumers, such as bodybuilders, accept.”

And with contemporary lifestyles being what they are, ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, shots, bars, and snacks may be just what these shoppers are looking for. “Consumers have a growing appetite for protein-rich snacks,” Poulsen points out. Per Innova Market Insights data, sales of such products grew 25% from 2012 to 2013, she says, which “reflects people’s busier lives and limited time for enjoying sit-down meals.”

On the beverage front, Kawa notes that although they don’t exhibit overt weight-management messaging, Orgain’s high-protein plant-based vegan and filtered-milk drinks, Organic Valley’s Fuel and Balance high-protein filtered-milk products, and Mayesa’s plant-based pea-protein beverages are good examples of the latest in RTD meal-replacement and protein beverages that support both plant-based and animal-based trends.

Euromonitor’s Schmidt adds that the weight-management category is shifting from a “diet” focus toward what he calls “healthy/active nutrition.” In other words, “A lot of companies are positioning protein products as meal replacements not so much in the sense of losing weight for bikini season, but as a more nutritious option with on-the-go benefits.” Both niche products like Premier Nutrition’s Premier Protein and Optimum Nutrition’s Protein Energy, as well as packaged-food giants like Kellogg’s Breakfast on the Go and PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats Breakfast Shakes, are cases in point, he says.

Just what weight-loss results these products can claim to deliver, however, remains a subject that manufacturers should approach with prudence. FDA has approved no health claims linking protein and weight management, but structure/function claims “based on the nutritive value of the ingredient or food and that are truthful and not misleading” are okay, Coffield says. That said, she continues, “Care should be taken when making weight-loss claims. A higher-protein diet can be incorporated into a weight-loss plan, but weight change results when there’s negative energy balance.”


Also read:

Digestive Enzymes for the Protein Punch

Pea Protein Is Coming Up Strong

Plant Protein: Searching for the Next Soy

How Big a Threat Is Plant Protein to Dairy Protein?




  1. Bendtsen LQ et al., “Effect of dairy proteins on appetite, energy expenditure, body weight and composition – a review of the evidence from controlled clinical trials,” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 4, no. 4 (July 1, 2013): 418-438
  2. Pasiakos SM et al., “Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss, an RCT,” FASEB Journal, vol. 27, no. 9 (September 2013): 3837-3847
  3. Miller PE et al., “Effects of whey protein and resistance exercise on body composition: a meta-analysis of RCTs,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, vol. 33, no. 2 (2014): 163-175
  4. Jakubowicz D et al., “Biochemical and metabolic mechanisms by which dietary whey protein may combat obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, vol. 24, no. 1 (January 2013): 1-5


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