My objective science response to this is “I told you so!” 😀

But seriously, this is a very important study,  I have said something similar for decades. For example, if you read my  article Brink’s Unified Theory Of Nutrition you will see I essentially concluded what this recent study found: Not all calories are created equal, macro nutrient ratios matter, and there’s profound effects from simple changes in those macro nutrient ratios on body comp, and tracking changes in fat vs. weight is what actually matters… I don’t know if this study will get the attention it deserves in the media, or by the main stream nutrition/med community, but it’s a seminal study. The fact is, older studies that simply track weight loss/gain need to be scrapped as they are essentially of no value in my view. Modern studies such as this, that actually look at end points that matter, are what will finally answer age old questions on nutrition.

Below is write up of the study for non-science types, and a link to the full study follows for those who wish to read that too.

Calories Raise Body Fat When People Overeat, Not Protein
Medical News Today

In a study published in the January 4 issue of JAMA, researchers assessed 25 healthy individuals who were randomized to different levels of overconsumption on protein diets whilst living in a controlled setting. They found that those who consumed the low-protein diet gained less weight compared with those eating normal and high protein diets. Furthermore, they established that calories alone and not protein seemed to contribute to increases in body fat and that protein did contribute to changes in energy expenditure and lean body mass.

According to background information in the article, “Obesity has become a major public health concern with more than 60 percent of adults in the United States categorized as overweight and more than 30 percent as obese.” However, which role the composition of a diet plays in response to overeating and energy dissipation remains unclear.

George A. Bray, M.D. and team decided to establish whether the level of dietary protein differentially affected body composition, weight gain, or energy expenditure under tightly controlled conditions. They conducted a randomized controlled trial in 25 healthy, weight-stable American male and female volunteers who were aged between 18 to 35 years with a body mass index between 19 and 30 at an inpatient metabolic unit. The first volunteer was admitted in June 2005 with the last one joining in October 2007.

Following a weight-stabilizing diet, the researchers randomized the participants to receive a diet containing 5% of energy from low protein, 15% from normal protein or 25% on a high protein diet. During the last 8 weeks of their 10- to 12-week stay at the inpatient metabolic unit, the researchers overfed the volunteers. The protein diets provided a raised energy intake of about 40 % translating to 954 calories per day in comparison to the energy intake the volunteers received during their weight stabilization period.

The researchers observed an increase in weight in all participants, irrespective of sex. They established that those in the low protein diet group gained considerably less weight compared with the other two groups, i.e. 6.97 lbs. (3.16 kg) compared with 13.3 lbs (6.05 kg) in volunteers of the normal protein diet group and 14.4 lbs or 6.51 kg in participants in the high protein diet group.

According to the researchers:

“Body fat increased similarly in all 3 protein diet groups and represented 50 percent to more than 90 percent of the excess stored calories. Resting energy expenditure, total energy expenditure, and body protein did not increase during overfeeding with the low protein diet.”

The findings showed that the lean body mass (body protein) in the low protein group was lowered by 0.70 kg (1.5 lbs) during the overeating period compared with a gain of 2.87 kg (6.3 lbs) in the normal protein diet group and 3.18 kg (7 lbs) in volunteers in the high protein diet group. In addition, the researchers noted that the resting energy expenditure of 160 calories per day in a normal protein diet and 227 calories per day in a high protein diet increased substantially in the normal and high protein diet groups.

The researchers conclude:

“In summary, weight gain when eating a low protein diet (5 percent of energy from protein) was blunted compared with weight gain when eating a normal protein diet (15 percent of energy from protein) with the same number of extra calories. Calories alone, however, contributed to the increase in body fat. In contrast, protein contributed to the changes in energy expenditure and lean body mass, but not to the increase in body fat. The key finding of this study is that calories are more important than protein while consuming excess amounts of energy with respect to increases in body fat.”

Editorial: Overeating and Overweight – Extra Calories Increase Fat Mass While Protein Increases Lean Mass

Drs. Zhaoping Li, and David Heber, of the University of California in Los Angeles comment in an accompanying editorial, that the results of this study:

“Inform primary care physicians and policy makers about the benefits of protein in weight management. The results suggest that overeating low protein diets may increase fat deposition leading to loss of lean body mass despite lesser increases in body weight.

Policy makers and primary care physicians need to understand the role of the Western diet in promoting overweight and obesity.

Because this diet increases the risks of over nutrition through fat deposition beyond that detected by body mass index, the method used to assess the current obesity epidemic and the magnitude of the obesity epidemic may have been underestimated. Clinicians should consider assessing a patient’s overall fatness rather than simply measuring body weight or body mass index and concentrate on the potential complications of excess fat accumulation. The goals for obesity treatment should involve fat reduction rather than simply weight loss, along with a better understanding of nutrition science.”

Full study: Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating, January 4, 2012, Bray et al. 307 (1): 47 ? JAMA

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48 Comments
  1. Thomas Jenkins 8 years ago

    I dont know about anybody else, but this article is very, very confusing. Is it possible to have either Will or another knowledgeable nutritionist explain exactly what this means ? For those that are “nutrition dummies” can you please give 4-5 points that we should take away from this ? Thank you.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      I sort of did at the top in bold:
      •Not all calories are created equal,
      • macro nutrient ratios matter,
      •there’s profound effects from simple changes in those macro nutrient ratios on body comp,
      •tracking changes in fat vs. weight is what actually matters…
      The people getting the low protein diet gained less weight because they lost muscle, and those getting higher protein gained gained more weight, but it was in the form of muscle and fat.
      My article linked may also help.

      • fairlane 8 years ago

        Ah…Thanks for that clarification Will, that helps….

  2. Jeff Davies 8 years ago

    This is a very good exspaination, I totally agree to what has been written. Well done Will.

  3. Dave 8 years ago

    @ Thomas Jenkins: It’s kinda like the heavy-set guys that you see weigh themselves at the gym every day. I mean, they just finished working out, and you hope that they’re working on their nutrition at the same time, too. So, lean mass should be increasing (and we know that muscle weighs more than fat). At the same time, bodyfat should be decreasing.
    With two major variables in flux, what the scale says is meaningless, without also knowing your lean mass (ie. measuring your bodyfat). Example: if I drop 2 pounds, did I *really* lose 2 pounds of fat, gain 1 pound of fat and lose 3 pounds of mass, or what?
    In this article, the low-protein group appeared to gain less fat, but what *really* happened is that they lost lean muscle mass, too, and therefore must have gained *more* fat than was apparent. The groups taking more protein gained muscle *while* adding/depositing fat, which artificially inflated their apparent “fat” (or over-feeding) gains.

  4. Dave 8 years ago

    I’m confused. The study seems to suggest a low protein diet is better, less weight gain. Is this right???

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Dave, you’re missing the essential take home: fat loss, NOT weight loss is what matters, and what they lost was muscle. That’s why most studies that simply looked at weight loss, are essentially worthless in many respects.

  5. Hans 8 years ago

    The eternal answer is simple: Don`t overeat; don`t exceed the total calories you require, not from fat, nor from proteins or carbohydrates.
    At the end, proteins, fats and carbohydrates excess will be stored as fat. This study only says that if you overeat, you will get fatter. In the case of protein excess, you will be fatter with a little more muscle but fatter at the end.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Hans, that’s not what that study found. Reader closer my friend. Ergo “In contrast, protein contributed to the changes in energy expenditure and lean body mass, but not to the increase in body fat.”

      • Hans 8 years ago

        Sorry, but “overeating” implies “eating more calories than needed”. Proteins have also a caloric value, so if you need 2000 calories a day but it 3000 calories, even if they come form proteins, you will get fatter, may be a fat person with muscle, but fatter at the end. That this study demonstrates, that when overating calories from proteins one will get less fatter than when overeating proteins from fat, is right, but always, overating will lead to fat gain goals one has.and finally to being overweight. I think, the important point will always be: how does one match the nutrients requirements with the physical’s and which are the proportions between those nutrients that best match my sports speciality or discipline.

  6. Martin 8 years ago

    The low protein group lost lean body mass during the overeating period. It would be interesting to know if they had also lost lean body mass during the maintenance period. If not, this is really amazing, that despite consuming more calories, they actually lost muscle. They still consumed the same (absolute) amount of protein. Would this be due to hormonal changes resulting from an even more unfavorable (even more % carbs, less % protein) macronutrient profile?

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Would certainly be part of the equation no doubt as protein controls various anabolic/anti catabolic pathways and hormones.

  7. Gerard 8 years ago

    I agree with Thomas Jenkins, the article is confusing. I would have thought that your summery for us “non science types” would have made more sense. When you say “calories raise fat and not protein” it sort of suggests that protein does not contain calories. My understanding is that calories and energy are more or less the same thing, so if I obtain 90% of my “energy” from protein and dont burn all these “calories” does this mean that these calories wont turn to fat? I was under the impression that personal trainers and diet gurus have been talking about body fat reduction as opposed to mere weight reduction for ages, however, your article seems to suggest that this is a new concept.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      It does not suggest protein has no calories, it shows that the protein component of the diet did not add to their bodyfat levels, but did increase their LBM. It tells us what other studies suggest, and experience has shown, all calories are not created equal in terms of how a complex biological system (in this case the human body) uses it’s calorie sources. I’m not really sure why that should come as a surprise to anyone, but the “calorie is a calorie” mantra dies hard it appears.
      In the mainstream health/fitness industry, weight has always been the focus, not bodyfat. In the bodybuilding publications, bodyfat has had a focus as it should. The VAST majority of people out their attempting to lose weight, have no clue what their BF% is, do not track it, and have no idea that they should focus specifically on fat loss. Worse, as the above posted article speaks to, the vast majority of medical professionals, nutritionists, etc who should know better, also focus on weight vs actual fat and don’t track it. What do most of them use? BMI… 🙁

  8. Eric (from Holland) 8 years ago

    Interesting article. But what confuses me is the gain in lean muscle mass. In the high proteine group this gain is 3,18 kg over a period of 3 months. How can this be declared if a result of 2/3 kg gain in lean muscle mass can only be obtained with hard training for an period of one year. In one of your vids you explaned that on average this is the maximum gain in lean muscle mass.

  9. Alex 8 years ago

    Nice post,
    It seems that the subjects in the study didnt exercise, or at least used strenght training, but anyway they gained lean body mass, that in itself is amazing and proves the power of a high protein diet in terms of body composition.
    Keep it up !!

  10. Martin H. 8 years ago

    It’s hardly surprising that one group lost muscle mass when only consuming 5 percent of calories from protein.
    It would be interesting to see the results from a similar study but with people undereating with the same percentages of protein.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Martin, that they lost muscle during a calorie surplus is surprising and goes against decades of nutritional dogma.

  11. DougM 8 years ago

    Quick technical question Will: What do you think the relation is between what they term “resting energy expenditure”, and what we use in our calorie planning, and call “resting metabolic rate”. RMR comes in for me around 2000 cal, and dominates daily expenditure. Here, REE is only 200 calories or so. If that’s all I burn ouside of working out, my calorie intake needs to drop to ZERO!

  12. DougM 8 years ago

    I can understand why there’s some confusion here. The main article is excellent in its factual rigor, but it reads more like a database of raw facts that leave the reader to draw extended conclusions. The added editorial at the end does that, as does Will. My chagrin comes from the fact that the original researchers don’t seem to make any point that lean body mass is a BETTER thing than fat is. We all here go “duh, obvious”, but there’s a vast majority out there that will stop at ” Calories … Leads to Increases in Body Fat … ” and stop there. And the nutritionist will continue to use BMI as feedback to their clients, women will continue to view lean body mass as unsightly “bulkiness”, and the rest will view a preference for leanness as lunkheadedness. We here are just lucky to get it already, and Will still has his work cut out for him to help spread the word. Hopefully additional scientific backbone like this will help him to do so.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Nicely put Doug 🙂

  13. Hans 8 years ago

    Even the title in this article is wrong and misleading: calories not proteins lead to increased bodyfat when eating excess calories? Isn’t it a basic that proteins also have a caloric value and that an excess beyond the needs of total calorie intake will be stored as fat even if they come from proteins? Please Mr. Brink, be objective and don’t mislead people who are trying to something for a healthy living.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Hans, you either you didn’t read the article(s) or you lack the science background to understand them. One more try:
      “In contrast, protein contributed to the changes in energy expenditure and lean body mass, but not to the increase in body fat. The key finding of this study is that calories are more important than protein while consuming excess amounts of energy with respect to increases in body fat.”
      If you accuse me of failing to be objective again, having (I suspect) not a fraction of my knowledge or background in this area, I will take it personally and you’ll be banned. I don’t take well to being insulted on my own web page, so fair warning there.
      Thus, you can simply stick with your current “don’t confuse me with the facts” position and ignore the findings of this study, which I suspect will be a common response by some, but be respectful and polite on my web page.
      Thanx

      • Peter 8 years ago

        Will, I think one of the problems people are having comes from this sentence: “The key finding of this study is that calories are more important than protein while consuming excess amounts of energy with respect to increases in body fat.” I’m afraid it’s just a confusing sentence (my background is in English lit. just so you know…).
        Here’s my way boned down version (correct me if I got it wrong):
        If you eat a lot of calories, most of which is carbs, you’ll gain fat while losing muscle mass. Eat a lot of calories, a lot of which is proteins, and you’ll also gain fat, but you’ll also gain muscle mass.
        The takeaway is to eat a substantial amount of calories, a lot of which is proteins, and work out too. That way you’ll consume the excess carbs as energy and store the excess protein as muscle mass.

  14. CHIARA 8 years ago

    VERY INTERESTING research…..I absolutely agree that not all calories are the same and that we should talk of fat loss not weight loss. If the weight loss comes from muscle tissue metabolism will slow down, which is not a good thing for someone trying to lean down.
    One thing I am not sure of….how do we now how much protein a person needs which is not too much not too little and as protein are acidic, could high protein diet be dangerous in the long term as they may disrupt the optimal acid/alkaline balance inside the body?
    THANKS 4 anwer

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Take a look at my article on sarcopenia (search the term and it will pop up). It does discuss some of the issues of acidity, although the acid/alkaline concept is a misused concept in my view.
      There’s a large number of articles and or vids here on the site that discuss protein requirements for active people, and the needs fairly well established in my view.

      • CHIARA 8 years ago

        THANKS A LOT…will have a look at the articles

  15. Hans 8 years ago

    I apologize for the tone in my comments, Mr. Brink. (english is not my mother language). But it is well known that if you eat too little protein, you will lose muscle, even if you eat lots of carbs or fats. This is because the body cannot synthetize most aminoacids from other source different than ingested protein. I stick on the fact that an excess in protein above your total calorie needs, will make you fat. Maybe you won’t loose muscle mass as if your excess calorie intake would be from fat, but at the end you will be fatter. So, according to the article, if one decides to eat in excess, it will be preferable having proteins because you will be fatter but a least with muscle? I simply cannot believe, that proteins do not contribute to body fat. They may even congtribute to modifications in metabolics favoring lean body mass, but in excess they contribute to form fat.

    • Rich 8 years ago

      Cool article and think I’ve read the study somewhere else a few days ago. Confusing heading for the article though as saying calories makes you fat and not protein is a contradiction as proteins contain 4 cals per g. I know the calorie thing is wrong and macro nutrients are king but wording it like that isn’t right and confusing, should it just say that carbs makes you fat not protein generally ??

  16. Garry Gillett 8 years ago

    Great info Will, I have downloaded the report for further study. I can’t understand why some can’t see it.
    The body uses more calories to process Protein than it does to process Carbs, therfore it stands to reason that a high Protein diet would use a higher calorific value to process the high Protein diet and store less fat than would the low Protein diet which would use a lower calorific value to process the diet and therfore result in a higher deposit of fat.

  17. David C 8 years ago

    The article is very interesting,
    I think it would have been even more interesting if they had more groups that had say 35% protein and 40% diets. 5% group loss of lean body mass isnt surprising to me I mean 60g protein a day means a 4800cal diet. The 15% to 25% comparison is where the article gets interesting
    One question I would have though was what was stats of protein consumption of participants prior to study.

  18. Andrey Medvedev 8 years ago

    Ha ha ha! Yes, Will, this study did get the attention it deserves from the mainstream media… except, of course, they drew the opposite conclusion from yours – “a calorie is a calorie”, something they’ve been saying for years!
    Get a load of this:
    http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/756390
    http://health.msn.com/health-topics/diabetes/calories-not-protein-or-carbs-are-key-to-weight-loss-study
    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/01/the-new-study-of-protein-and-weight-gain-calories-count/
    etc. etc.

  19. Eric (from Holland) 8 years ago

    Hey Will,
    You still haven’t give me an answer in which you explain the gain in muscle mentioned in the survey.
    In the article the high proteine group gained 3,18 kg lean muscle mass in three months.
    Even with hard training this is impossible without steroids. In general, a maximum gain in muscle grow can be obtained of 2/3 kg a year with very hard training. This is a fact that every natural bodybuilder knows. You even made a vid of the subject. So, in my opinion this article must be nonsense.
    I really look forward to your explanation.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      It’s not an article for one, it’s a study published in JAMA, the most prestigious med journal on the planet. It’s false to say people can’t gain that LBM. Newbies do it all the time. Yes, for experienced non drug using lifters, that would be very difficult to achieve without drugs. Why did they gain that much LBM? I don’t know. We are getting into new territory here with a study like this looking specifically at different effects of cals and macro nutrient ratios on body comp done so well controlled. Might have been they were protein and cal deficient, and that was the result. A follow up study using the same design, but with an additonal group doing resistance training would be really interesting to see the results that would have.

  20. Gaurav Kapil 8 years ago

    Thanks for letting us know Nutrition before it was proven. 😀
    I have 2 doubts on the study, if you will just comment:
    1) “In contrast, protein contributed to the changes in energy expenditure and lean body mass, but not to the increase in body fat. The key finding of this study is that calories are more important than protein while consuming excess amounts of energy with respect to increases in body fat.”
    > Won’t excess protein intake will lead to excess calories? I’m not able to understand the logic here.
    2) When researchers mention normal protein diet, they used 15% of energy from protein.
    > Does that mean that a person needing 2000 Calories a day will need to eat 300 gms of protein a day?
    Thanks.

    • Mike 8 years ago

      Gaurav, your math is off, my friend. You don’t simply take 2,000 * .15 to get grams of protein you need. Protein has ~4 calories per gram. If you are aiming for 15% of calories to come from protein, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, then you should be looking at 75 grams. Of course, 15% seems like a low percentage to me in the first place for anyone trying gain LBM.

      • Gaurav Kapil 8 years ago

        Thanks Mike for pointing out. My bad, about forgetting calorific value and writing like a noob’s noob.
        And Will has already clarified my query 1 by his Unified Law of Nutrition “Total calories dictates how much weight a person gains or loses; macro nutrient ratios dictates what a person gains or loses”.

  21. john 8 years ago

    god!! how can u win with comments like that,your fighting a battle with something so simple,dred if something compolate came up

  22. Sean 8 years ago

    Awsome again Will,
    Another interesting thing that i believe that gets overlooked a lot is our body is basicaly a processing machine wherby it processess food to extract the required nutrients/macronutrients to “fuel ourselves”.
    One thing that seems to be overlooked is the “chemical reaction” perspective for processing food and how this reacts in the body, for example mixing fertiliser and diesel together makes one powerful explosive bomb, yet we do not consider the potential of what we put in our mouths and the end result that it may have with the other items that we consume at that same sitting.
    Something for readers to ponder though

  23. Jeff 8 years ago

    Upon first read I was confused as well, and concluded that simply eating an excess of protein would lead to an increase in muscle (and fat), without exercise or training. WOW, wouldn’t that be sweet!
    From the abstract “…protein affected energy expenditure and storage of lean body mass, but not body fat storage.” [nice to see that the entire article, not just the abstract, is readable online without a paid subscription to JAMA]
    Low protein group gained 6.97 lbs. total, and lost 1.5 lbs lean body mass, so they gained 8.47 lbs fat.
    Normal protein group gained 13.3 lbs. total, 6.3 lbs of which was lean body mass, so they gained 7 lbs fat.
    High protein group gained 14.4 lbs. total, 7 lbs of which was lean body mass, so they gained 7.4 lbs fat.
    So my confusion arises from the definition of lean body mass, which I simplistically associated exclusively with muscle mass. Looking it up online, lean body mass (LBM) seems to be everything in your body except for fat, in other words the mass of the body minus the fat. So LBM would include organs, blood, bones, muscle, skin, etc.
    I would really be interested in an analysis of what comprised the gains in lean body mass in the normal and high protein groups. Did their blood volume go up? Did they have better bone density? Did they gain muscle mass?

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Yes, they gained almost exclusively muscle in this study. They used, short of autopsy, the gold standard for testing body comp, which was DEXA. Changes in other tissues, like bone and tendons, etc would be minimal in that time frame. Regardless, it was not fat, which is the essential finding of this study in my view.

  24. Eric (from Holland) 8 years ago

    If this is true, and I tend to believe that you have convinced me this really is an eyeopener.
    Thanks for your reply.

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      Not an eye opener to me (see my linked article above) per se, just confirmation of a general principle well known to me and support for my Unified Law Of Nutrition, which states:
      “Total calories dictates how much weight a person gains or loses;
      macro nutrient ratios dictates what a person gains or loses”

  25. Hanif 8 years ago

    Hi Will,
    You’ve mentioned a few times in your comments that the High Protein group “didn’t gain fat”, but it seems to me that *all 3 groups gained fat* in a pretty similar amount…
    The main difference being that the High Protein group gained Muscle(LBM) as well. So it seems that here’s the proper interpretation of what the researchers are saying:
    “In the high protein group, excess calories from fat & carbohydrates contributed to bodyfat gains, however, the protein calories did NOT contribute to bodyfat gains, rather, the protein calories aided in increasing LBM(muscle)”.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong and clarify.
    Thank you so much for bringing this to light!

    • Author
      Will Brink 8 years ago

      You have it correct, and I never said they didn’t gain fat.. Read carefully and keep what I wrote in context and it should hopefully make sense. I said exactly what the quote you posted above and study said: the protein component did not appear to add to the increase in bodyfat.

      • Hanif 8 years ago

        Yes you’re right, I wasn’t carefully reading what you had mentioned in your article…thanks for clarifying.

        • Author
          Will Brink 7 years ago

          No problem 🙂

  26. All Natural Supplements 7 years ago

    I don’t have any words to appreciate this post…..I am really impressed ….the person who Wrote this article surely knew the subject well. Keep more post. Thanks for sharing this with us

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