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Is protein key to weight loss? We talk to Dr Sally Norton to find out


Research shows that a high protein diet is ideal for weight loss. But how much do we need? And which sources are best? We spoke to Dr Sally Norton, NHS weight loss consultant surgeon and founder of, to find out.

This is what she told us:

When it comes to weight-loss we are always looking to spotlight a particular food group as the hero or villain. We talked about fats for years – they were DEFINITELY the reason behind our obesity crisis and so we were sold low-fat, sugary, processed apologies for food to make us all slim and healthy. Oooops! Well, that certainly didn’t work. In fact, contrary to what we used to believe, we now know that healthy fats are good in moderation – and actually better than most of the substitutes we existed on for years.

Then the focus turned to fruit and veg – trying to persuade us to eat at least 5 a day to reduce our risk of heart disease, various cancers, and numerous other health problems. That still holds true – we really do need to increase our fruit and veg intake. Though, in our quest to make our diets healthier, we need to be careful that we don’t buy into the ‘health halo,’ which has us believing that gallons of fruit juice and smoothies or foods sweetened with ‘natural fruit juice’ or packed with dried fruit in industrial quantities is fine…just look at the sugar count on the labelling and you will see how wrong that can be.

greek yogurt
Instead of stocking up on sugary cereals, consider filling the fridge with Greek yoghurt, eggs, salmon or other good sources of protein

Then the attention turned to carbs – the lower the better, with many of us now trying to avoid all carbs, worrying about gluten intolerance and complaining of constipation and bad breath! For sure, we eat far too many carbs, due to the old advice, which encouraged us to cut out fat and bulk up with carbs to keep us feeling full. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good, whole-grain carbs can help us feel full, give us the fibre we need for good health – and it’s a lot easier to eat out if you aren’t fussing about every trace of carbohydrate that the restaurant or friends may be trying to serve you!

But protein hasn’t had that much attention other than in weight-building and fitness circles. Many women, in particular, haven’t really woken up to the fact that protein can be a huge ally when it comes to weight-loss. For them, protein is more of a man-thing, all about boosting muscle. But muscle is a good thing. It ensures that our body functions efficiently – reducing the risk of illness. It boosts metabolism – helping weight-loss. And contrary to the belief of many women that having more muscle makes us look huge or masculine, it actually gives us definition, and can make us look slimmer! However, as women are naturally lower in muscle mass than men and our muscle levels decrease with age, we should be ensuring we keep our muscles primed!

Most of us may not eat enough protein… unless there are reasons to the contrary, we should be aiming for around 1.2-1.5g/kg body weight. Apparently, this amount has been shown to promote weight and fat losses while preserving muscle mass. If you weigh 70kg, that equates to around 100g protein per day…so what can we do to achieve that target?

I recently read a review of the current scientific literature on protein consumption by the University of Missouri researcher Heather Leidy and her colleagues that gave the following tips…

Eat a protein-rich breakfast

As Leidy quotes in the report, “Breakfast, in general, provides benefits for appetite control and feelings of fullness”. Many of us opt for cereal and fruit juice – high in sugar and low in protein. This results in a sugar high – followed by a slump mid-morning, which has us reaching out for a muffin and coffee…and then the pattern repeats itself! Instead, try swapping your breakfast for one that contains about 30 grams of protein and you’ll end up feeling fuller for longer, and as result, stop yourself from reaching for that unhealthy mid-morning snack.

Evenly distribute protein intake throughout the day

It’s not just breakfast that is important… evidence also suggests that spreading your recommended protein intake evenly throughout the day is important. So, aim to eat approximately 30 grams of high-quality protein at each meal.

Salmon is a great source of protein as well as healthy fats

Plan ahead

The report states that many of us might think eating 30 grams of protein for breakfast sounds too difficult, but planning ahead can make it easier. Instead of stocking up on sugary cereals, consider filling the fridge with Greek yoghurt, eggs, salmon or other good sources of protein. It may mean a bit of a mind-shift…but your body will feel better for it.

Add a little protein to every meal, especially at breakfast and lunch

“We want people to know that they don’t have to consume impractical amounts of protein,” Leidy says in the report… “The research suggests that most individuals only need to add an additional 10-15 grams of high-quality protein, such as eggs, beef, pork or dairy, at breakfast and lunch to achieve the recommended amount.”

Consume high-quality protein

Not all proteins are created equal. High-quality, or “complete,” proteins found in animal-based foods such as beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products contain all the essential amino acids that we need and are easily digestible. Most plant-based proteins found in vegetables and grains are considered lower quality, or “incomplete,” proteins because they lack one or more essential amino acids and are less digestible. And remember, when calculating the amount of protein it may not necessarily be the weight of the meat or fish you are eating. A 100g serving of chicken breast contains 21g protein. A salmon fillet contains about the same. And the previously maligned egg? It contains about 6g.

So, put simply, what we need for our health is:
– good fats in moderation
– plenty of fruit and veg
– bin the processed carbs in favour of smaller amounts of wholegrain or unrefined varieties
– …but don’t forget the protein!