Is an Unmet Need for Protein a Reason for Overeating and Weight Gain?


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Is the body’s unmet need for protein causing us to overeat and gain weight? In a paper published on September 4 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the scientists who first put forth the concept, called the “protein leverage hypothesis,” present more evidence that our built-in protein appetite, unsatisfied by our modern-day diet of highly processed foods, is an important driver of obesity.

Protein is the nutrient that human appetites regulate most strongly, says study coauthor David Raubenheimer, PhD, a professor of nutritional ecology at the University of Sydney in Australia. “We don’t feel full until we’ve eaten our requirement of it, and find it difficult to eat more [protein] than we need,” he says. “That means that if we dilute protein in our diets, we will continue to eat unnecessary calories until we reach our protein target. If it’s fats and carbs diluting protein, then we will eat more of those, leading to overeating energy and potentially obesity.”

The protein leverage hypothesis makes sense intuitively, says Christopher Gardner, PhD, the Rehnborg Farquhar Professor of Medicine at Stanford University in California and a nutrition scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. Dr. Gardner was not involved with the Royal Society study.

“There are a bunch of foods that aren’t great sources of protein: chips, cookies, dessert. If there’s this preset thing in our body that says, ‘Oh no, I haven’t had enough protein yet, I’m going to have to keep eating and eating these foods until I get enough,’ it could lead to consuming way more calories than our body needs. It could contribute to the obesity epidemic,” he says.

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