The Role of Low Dietary Protein

Some weight loss diets have emphasized protein intake to help reduce hunger between meals. Research has suggested, however, that the role of protein is more basic than just “hunger” and that protein balance, at least sometimes, may be dominant over carbohydrate balance.

An article in the January, 2013, issue of the journal Obesity investigated this effect, referred to as protein leverage. Fifty inbred mice were fed, ad libitum, five custom diets with equivalent appearance, palatability, and caloric density varying only in the ratio of protein to carbohydrate composition. Thus, the diets with lower protein content also had higher carbohydrate content. The experiment spanned sixteen weeks, from the age of nine weeks to the age of twenty-five weeks for the mice. The mice were followed for weight gain, length growth and body fat. The researchers also evaluated the diet effects on thermogenesis.

The mice on the lowest protein diet consumed excess energy compared to the mice on medium or high protein diets and the mice on the highest protein diet had the least weight gain. The mice on the lowest protein diet had nearly twice the mass of fat depots, indicating higher adiposity, compared to the mice on the highest protein diet. Energy expenditure increased on the lowest protein diet but not enough to compensate for the increased energy intake and prevent the increased fat deposit. This suggests that control of protein consumption to sufficiently meet protein balance is dominant over control of total energy consumption, at least in mice in this age range.

The mice on the diet with the most properly balanced ratio of protein to carbohydrate, 23:57, actually grew the largest overall. This reflects the need for both protein and carbohydrates for normal growth, (Remember, the mice were young and in the growth age period.) but a low protein diet resulted in increased adiposity.

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