Tons of women find that a high-protein diet is the ticket to weight loss. It makes sense: Protein breaks down slower than carbs, so it helps you to feel fuller for longer. Eating enough protein helps you to lose less muscle as you shed weight, which keeps your metabolism humming. Plus, focusing on protein can automatically lead to you swapping junkier processed carbs for healthier options such as lean meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
That said, there is such a thing as too much protein. One large study published in 2015 in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that people whose diets were made up of more than 20 percent protein—especially animal protein—were significantly more likely to gain more than 10 percent of their body weight compared to people whose diets had less than 15 percent protein. And while plenty of other research suggests that you can (no, make that should) go higher in protein to lose, not gain, this study was enough to make us scratch our collective heads.
“I think people don’t understand that protein still has calories," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., creator of BetterThanDieting.com and Read It Before You Eat It. ” And, no matter how much protein you're eating, consuming more calories per day than you burn off will always lead to weight gain, adds Emily Kyle, R.D.
Need some help getting your weight loss (and calories) in check? Check out these four ways that a high-protein diet can sabotage weight loss, along with simple strategies for making a high-protein diet work for you.'
YOU’RE EATING TOO MUCH MEAT
While that marbled ribeye will definitely help you feel full, it also packs more calories than you probably bargained for: A 10-ounce steak—a small restaurant portion—can clock in at 1,000 calories. “Those excess calories don’t go to your biceps. They turn into fat,” says Taub-Dix.
The fix: As often as possible, opt for veggies and dairy that are high in protein but still low in calories. For example, a cup of Greek yoghurt or beans, for example, net you around 15 grams of protein for less than 200 calories. And when you do eat meat, choose lean cuts and keep your portions in check. One serving should be about the size of a deck of cards, says Taub-Dix.
YOU’RE SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR BINGES
Cutting the carbs can but a damper on your moods and make your body crave carbs, which can lead to binges. “Your brain’s preferred fuel source is glucose, or carbs,” says Kyle. When you do eventually have carbs again, there’s a good chance you’ll overdo it and undo all of the progress you’ve made. “Usually when my patients are really being strict on protein diets, even a piece of Melba toast looks delicious,” says Taub-Dix.
The fix: To keep things in balance, she suggests getting about 50 to 55 percent of your daily calories from healthy carbs. “Carbs are the nutrient we love to hate. But you can still lose weight eating carbs,” she says. Great, weight-friendly sources include whole grains, fruits, and veggies.
YOU DON'T HAVE THE ENERGY TO WORK OUT
“Carbs are the best source of fuel for any activity,” says Taub-Dix. Cutting them out entirely to make way for protein can also cause you to feel tired, which means you end up working out less—and that’s counter-productive to any weight-loss plan. “It’s a revolving cycle. You feel lethargic so you don’t work out, and you don’t work out so feel more lethargic,” adds Kyle.
The fix: High protein doesn't have to mean no carbs, she says. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. Try introducing some more whole carbs from fruits, legumes, and whole grains into your diet and see how your energy levels fare. Before and after your workout are the perfect time for carbs.
YOU’RE NOT GETTING ENOUGH FIBRE
Fibre absorbs fluid to help you feel more full and keeps your GI tract healthy by feeding healthy gut bacteria, and lots of studies have linked fibre to weight loss. But if you’re focusing too much on protein, you might be not get enough fruits, veggies, and whole grains—major sources of nutrients and fibre that can help you feel more satisfied with more volume for fewer calories. “If you’re eating too much protein, you’re not fueling the good bacteria in your gut,” says Taub-Dix.
The fix: So make sure you’re hitting your daily recommended intake of about 25 to 30 grams of fibre daily. Good sources include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
WHAT NOW? THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF PROTEIN FOR WEIGHT LOSS
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines say you should max out at 35 percent of your daily calories from protein (that’s a whopping 175 grams of protein if you're following a 2,000-calorie diet), and one review from the University of Texas found that 25 percent is the sweet-spot for obese women trying to lose weight. But Taub-Dix says most of us need 20 percent of our calories from protein, or about 100 grams of protein, max (Remember, the harder you cut calories, the more protein you need!) Keep in mind that your ability to convert protein into muscle caps out at around 30 or 35 grams per meal, so spread your intake throughout the day.
Think your protein intake might be sabotaging your weight loss? “If you’re feeling off, you’re probably overdoing it,” says Kyle. Watch out for signs you’re getting too much protein, which can include feeling thirsty, being constipated, moodiness, weight gain, and changes in your menstrual cycle. If you think your body is crying out for carbs, try reintroducing them gradually in the form of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy for a well-balanced diet that will keep you energized and shedding the pounds.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.