The protein leverage hypothesis states that homo sapiens, or modern humans will prioritise the protein content in food over all other dietary components, and will continue to eat until the body’s protein needs have been met, regardless of the energy content, leading to the over-consumption of food when the protein content is low.
Simply put, when there’s not enough protein in the diet, the body will crave more food until it has satisfied this requirement, regardless of the caloric content. This is likely an evolutionary adaption over millions of years, where getting enough dietary protein meant a greater chance of survival.
What does this actually mean?
Well, if you consider that if you eat 100g of steak, you will consume approx. 25g of protein. Similarly, 100g of lentils contain approx. 25g of protein.
In contrast, if you eat 100g of bread, you will only consume approx. 12g of protein, while 100g of potato chips provides approx. 7g of protein.
This would mean that you would have to eat two or three times the amount of bread or potato chips to acquire the same amount of protein, due to the lower protein content in those foods. Both items also have a much higher carbohydrate and unhealthy fat content, leading to a much higher caloric content without adding any real nutritional value.
If you don’t prioritise your protein intake, you’ll need to consume a greater amount of calories to reach your body’s protein and mineral requirements, ultimately leading to excessive or unwanted weight gain.
With so many hyper-palatable foods readily available today, this may not exactly be the ideal scenario for the large portion of society who are currently overweight or obese and constantly trying to lose excess body fat. This can incredibly confusing, especially with so many debates on what exactly is healthy or sustainable nutrition.
Currently, in Australia and New Zealand, the accepted range for dietary protein and other micronutrients is 15-25% of total energy consumed. If you’re eating mostly whole foods and are meeting these requirements, your body will be better equipped to self regulate its individual energy requirement.
This hypothesis has been studied in 2005 and again 2019 as a possible contributor to the obesity epidemic.