People trying to lose weight who opt for more protein tend to make better food selections, with researchers hailing the findings as “remarkable”.

Choosing to eat more protein can also help people to avoid losing lean body mass, the study discovered.

A team from Rutgers University in America looked at data from several weight-loss trials and found that eating even slightly more protein – by even as little as two per cent – can have a significant impact on someone choosing healthier food options.

Study author Professor Sue Shapses said: “It’s somewhat remarkable that a self-selected, slightly higher protein intake during dieting is accompanied by higher intake of green vegetables, and reduced intake of refined grains and added sugar. But that’s precisely what we found.”

Co-author Anna Ogilvie said: “The impact of self-selected dietary protein on diet quality has not been examined before, to our knowledge, like this.

“Exploring the connection between protein intake and diet quality is important because diet quality is often suboptimal in the U.S., and higher-protein weight loss diets are popular.”

The study involved 200 people aged from 24 to 75 who were classed as either overweight or obese. They all followed a 500-calorie-deficit diet over six months and were encouraged to ensure that lean protein made up 18% of their calorie intake. This could be in the form of poultry, unprocessed red meat, fish, legumes and dairy.

Participants were divided into those with lower protein intake (18%) and higher protein intake (20%), with the key findings including:

  • Both groups lost the same amount of weight – roughly 5% of their body weight
  • Higher-protein individuals chose a mix of healthier foods overall
  • Higher-protein individuals increased how many green vegetables they ate and reduced their sugar and refined grains intake
  • Higher-protein individuals were more able to retain their lean muscle mass.

The study has been published in the journal Obesity.

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