The Good and Bad of High Protein Diets

High-protein diets can work for some people

High Protein Diets: Good or Bad?

High-protein, low-carb diets are appealing to many people, especially to meat lovers who envision filling up on high-protein snacks and foods like bacon, steak, cheese, and nuts.

Popular High-Protein Diets

  • Atkins Diet
  • Zone Diet
  • Sugar Busters
  • Protein Power
  • South Beach Diet

While high-protein diets can work for some people, it's important to consider the risks and benefits before embarking on any diet.

Low-Carb Diets Vs. High-Protein Diets

The most popular high-protein diets, like the Atkins diet, have encouraged dieters to eat foods that are both low-carb and high-protein. However, more recent ketone diets suggest eating very few carbohydrates while consuming normal amounts of protein.

Types of high protein foods.

How Much Protein?

A typical American diet is made up of 12-18% of calories from proteins. High-protein diets suggest increasing these amounts to near double the percentage. In fact, in these diets, half your daily calories may come from protein such as eggs, cheese, and meat. High-protein weight loss plans suggest dramatically restricting your consumption of grains, starches, fruits, and cereals.

A person stands on a weight scale.

What Is Ketosis?

In the absence of dietary carbohydrates (less than 50g/day) the body goes into a metabolic state called ketosis. In normal metabolic processes, the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose used to fuel cellular metabolism, providing energy to cells. The brain in particular requires these glucose molecules to function. In the absence of dietary carbs as a source of glucose, the body diverts to ketosis for replacement molecules.

In ketosis, the liver derives ketones from fat (stored or from food) to provide much needed fuel to brain cells. Ketosis is one of the body's defenses against starvation as a way to feed the brain when quality food is scarce.

Ketone “Ketosis” Diets

Ketone dieters force their bodies into ketosis to burn fat and fuel their brains using fats (ketones) and not sugars (glucose). By reducing a dietary intake of less than 50 mg of carbohydrates per day, ketosis can be achieved. This diet has many side effects and can impact underlying health conditions. Speak with a physician before making any dramatic dietary changes.

Increasing your intake of fatty meats can increase health risks.

Are High-Protein Diets Safe?

The American Heart Association doesn't recommend high-protein diets, arguing that increased consumption of fatty meats and dairy foods raises your cholesterol and risk of a heart attack. Not consuming vegetables and fruits also reduces your intake of fiber and many essential nutrients. Experts do not agree on the value of high-protein diets, so a more moderate diet with reduced fat and healthy carbohydrates may be the best choice according to the experts.

High-protein and low carb foods can help you loose weight.

Choosing a High-Protein Diet

Extreme diet plans are never a good idea; the best high-protein diets do include some carbs and are low in fat. Enormous portions of fatty meats are not part of a healthy high-protein diet.

A lean beef steak.

High-Protein Foods: Lean Beef

Lean cuts of beef are a high-protein option with less fat. A lean cut of beef has only slightly more saturated fat than a skinless chicken breast of the same size. So you can enjoy a steak, if it is a lean cut like a top round steak.

Poultry and salad.

High-Protein Foods: White Meat

White meat poultry has less fat than dark meat and is the healthier option. Removing the skin from poultry also dramatically reduces your fat consumption. In general, poultry is an excellent source of protein for those on high-protein diets.

A pork tenderloin.

High-Protein Foods: Pork

Some cuts of pork are also good options for protein, if you choose leaner options. Today, some cuts of pork are 31% leaner than they were 20 years ago. Healthy choices for pork include tenderloin, rib chops, sirloin steak, top loin, or shoulder blade steaks.

A healthy serving of fish.

High-Protein Foods: Fish

Fish is a great, low-fat source of proteins. Tuna and salmon are fish that have more fat, but they contain the heart-healthy kind of fat known as omega-3 fatty acids. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids can lower your risk of heart disease, some cancers, and arthritis.

A carton of eggs.

High-Protein Foods: Eggs

One egg a day is safe for healthy adults, even though the yolks contain cholesterol. You can choose egg whites if you don't want the added cholesterol. Remember that of the cholesterol you consume, only a small portion enters the bloodstream. Eating saturated and trans fats is more likely to raise your cholesterol level.

A bowl of cubed tofu.

High-Protein Foods: Soy

Soy-based foods are another good source of protein. Consuming 25g a day of soy protein has also been shown to lower cholesterol levels.

Soy-Based High-Protein Foods:

  • Tofu
  • Soy Milk
  • Edamame
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Soy Flour
A variety of beans.

High-Protein Foods: Beans and Legumes

Beans offer both fiber and protein for those watching the scales. Fiber and protein both help you feel full longer, and fiber can help lower cholesterol. Eating 1 1/2 cups of beans gives you about the same amount of protein as 3 ounces of steak.

Healthy, High-Protein Beans and Legumes:

  • Pinto Beans
  • Black Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Black-Eyed Peas
  • Lima Beans
  • Fava Beans
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
Low fat dairy products.

High-Protein Foods: Low-Fat Dairy

Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are also protein sources. They offer the bonus of calcium to protect your bones and heart. Choosing low- or nonfat dairy products can help you reduce your fat intake. Many lactose free options are now available for those sensitive to dairy.

Whole grain bread loaves.

Healthy, High-Fiber Grains

High-protein diets like the Atkins diet tend to limit the amount of grains you can eat, so be sure to choose healthy grains. Whole-grain products are better choices than white breads and pasta. Whole-grain products can supply the fiber that can be missing in a high-protein diet. High-protein cereal bars may also be a good choice if they don't contain a lot of sugar or fat.

A grocery basket full of produce.

Fruits and Veggies

Fruits and vegetables are loaded with nutrients including antioxidants that aren't present in many other foods. These might help lower your risk of cancer. Fruits and vegetables should be part of any weight loss diet.

There are some risks associated with high-protein diets.

More Protein, More Risks?

There are some risks associated with high-protein diets. Many doctors are concerned these diets are too high in fat and low in fiber, leading to an increase in the risk for heart disease and stroke. Kidney disease and osteoporosis are other risks if high-protein diets are used for a long time.



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  • International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Ketogenic Diet for Obesity: Friend or Foe"
  • John Hopkins Medicine: "Dietary Therapy"
  • Journal of Pediatrics: "Efficacy and Safety of a High Protein, Low Carbohydrate Diet for Weight Loss in Severely Obese Adolescents"
  • Medscape: "Obesity Treatment and Management."
  • Obesity A Research Journal: "The Effects of a Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet and a Low-Fat Diet on Mood, Hunger, and Other Self-Reported Symptoms", "The Effects of a Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet"
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