TMH Living Well: Things to consider before starting a high-protein diet

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You likely know someone who has tried a high-protein diet to control his or her weight. There are many of them out there, including the popular paleo (paleolithic) or caveman diet as well as the old standby that’s getting a new makeover — the Atkins diet. Before jumping on the bandwagon, learn the possible drawbacks of a high-protein diet. Local Registered Dietitian Lindsey Hester shares her perspective.

On first glance, eating only meat, fish, nuts, vegetables and eggs sounds like a healthy diet — and in the sense that it focuses on whole foods versus processed foods, it certainly is. Besides, people are losing weight on it. It sounds great, so what are the drawbacks? Below are things to consider before starting a high protein diet.

Lack of carbohydrates = lack of balance

Remember that old adage, “everything in moderation?” It sounds boring, but it has a powerful, subtle effect when it comes to our diets — it creates a balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates, which is exactly what our bodies need.

“Our brains can only use glucose (from carbohydrates) for energy, not protein or fats. That’s why we see people on high protein diets sometimes come in feeling fatigued, dizzy and unable to concentrate,” Hester said.

Healthy fats, such as salmon, nuts and avocados, do support neurological pathways in our brains, but fats do not provide the “gas” our brains need to function. The brain can only use a form of fat called “ketones” in a carbohydrate-starved state. This is not healthy for our bodies, as ketones are highly acidic and may throw off our pH balance.

“Carbohydrates are an efficient energy source for our bodies. We store carbohydrates in our muscles and liver as glycogen, which gives us a steady supply of energy throughout the day. On the other hand, protein is an inefficient energy source. The body can only use so much protein and the rest gets stored as fat,” she added.

Hester recommends a diet that consists of 55 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 15 to 20 percent protein and 20 to 30 percent fat.

Our bodies need only so much protein

High-protein diets often mean consuming more protein than what our bodies need. Hester explains that the average man of 200 pounds needs 72 grams of protein per day, or 0.8 gram per kilo of weight. A 150-pound woman needs just 54 grams.

“I imagine a high protein diet easily supplies 80 or 90 grams or more of protein daily,” she said.

Yet the instant weight loss is hard to deny. People on high-protein diets do drop weight quickly, but the reason might surprise you.

“Protein is a dehydrating nutrient. It takes more water to absorb (or metabolize) than carbohydrates do. That’s why we see weight loss quickly with high-protein diets. People lose a few pounds, feel less bloated and their muscles are more defined. At first, it’s simply water weight loss,” she adds.

The type of meat you eat matters

Hester thinks some high-protein diets are healthier than others. Sticking to very lean or lean meats is important for keeping heart disease risk in check.

“Very lean meats include skinless chicken breasts, elk and bison. Lean meats include fish (such as tilapia and tuna), pork chops, turkey and even some deli meats. The key to maintaining heart health is avoiding medium- and high-fat meats such as the more expensive marbled cuts of steak (T-bone, ribeye) and the obvious bacon, hot dogs, sausages and fried meats,” she advised.

According to the American Cancer Society, eating large amounts of processed meat has been linked to an increased risk of colon and stomach cancer. The ACS also says how you cook your meat matters. Research suggests that grilling, broiling and frying meats at high temperatures release certain chemicals that might increase cancer risk.

“A friend of mine tried a high-protein diet. She lost weight and looked great, but when she had her blood work done, her cholesterol had skyrocketed.”

Cutting out fruits eliminates important nutrients

Some high-protein diets do not allow fruits, yet cutting out fruits means cutting out proven disease-fighting phytonutrients (beneficial natural chemicals found in food) and fiber.

“Yes, fruit is a carbohydrate, but it’s also an important food group. Without fruit, we lose the benefits of fiber and healthy nutrients such as antioxidants and vitamin C,” Hester said. The ACA sites a study that found dietary fiber is linked to a lower risk of some types of cancer, especially colorectal.

Finding a diet that works for you

Hester thinks that people know which diets work best for them, but she advocates for simply cutting down on carbohydrates and decreasing portion sizes as the best way to lose weight.

“Instead of a diet high in protein, I think about moderating, not eliminating, carbohydrates. Make dessert occasional, have one carb-free day a week, but mostly eat less,” she advised.

The Memorial Hospital has registered dietitians on staff to help you with your dietary needs.

This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered health care and service excellence.

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