High Protein Diets

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Diets that administer more than the required daily intake of protein – about 55.5 grams for adult men and 45.5 grams for adult women), may be called High Protein Diets.

Proteins are vital nutrients for the human body, essential for replacing and forming new tissue, transporting oxygen and nutrients in the blood and cells, regulating the water and acid balance and making antibodies.


Why should I be aware of this?

There are many proven benefits of high protein diets. Protein is essential for building muscle, which makes such diets very popular with body builders and gym enthusiasts.

A recent article by Askmen.com voted beef jerky as the #1 protein snack on the market. With as much as 13-18 grams of protein per 1 ounce serving, it far outweighs anything else.

Unlike carbohydrates, proteins provide long-lasting energy without an insulin surge that accompanies sugary or starchy food intake (which promotes fat storage).

Proteins take quite a bit of energy to digest, which boosts the body's metabolism rate.

Many people prefer the proteins in their daily diets – meat, fish, eggs and dairy, to any other types of foods like breads and sugary desserts, so they shouldn't find this diet plan too much of a hardship.

Since proteins are not calorie dense and curb the appetite, such diets coupled with exercise have been found to result in the fastest weight loss. Another study, reported in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that a high-protein diet combined with exercise enhanced weight and fat loss and also improved blood fat (lipid) levels.

High protein diets and health

A high protein intake seems to work in different ways to bring about weight loss. First, it seems to curb the hunger pangs, making the dieter feel satiated sooner than he or she would, if they had been eating other foods. Researchers have not yet understood exactly how protein works to curb appetite. Some have suggested that the high-protein diet may cause the brain to receive lower levels of appetite-stimulating hormones. Participants in a study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported greater satisfaction, less hunger, and weight loss when fat was reduced to 20% of the total calories in their diets, protein was increased to 30%, and carbs accounted for 50%.

Second, lean protein has fewer calories than many other foods, especially those that are dense with carbohydrates. For example, the ham in a common sandwich may have 343 kJ per 100g if it is very lean, while the bread could have as much as 1011 kJ per 100g. So like vegetables, lean proteins help to bulk out a meal. In the above Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, participants ate some 441 fewer calories a day when they followed this high-protein diet and regulated their own calorie intake.

All about high protein diets

There are two variations of High Protein diets, both of which suit very different types of people. The High Protein – High Calorie diet is meant for convalescents, especially children with cancer.

The High Protein – Low Calorie diet is for people who want to lose weight. Used in tandem with an exercise plan, High protein –Low Calorie diets have been proven to be quite effective for weight loss in the short term.

Forms of high protein diets

There are several different variants of the High Protein—Low Calorie diet. Here are reviews of some of the best known.

The Atkin’s Diet, propogated by the late Dr Robert Atkins (see [1]) advocates a diet high in protein and fat, and low in carbohydrate foods such as potatoes, fruit, bread, rice, pasta and other cereals. Dr Atkins explained the weight loss in people who followed his diet, is complicated. First, he believed that a high protein intake curbed the appetite. Second, he theorized that the low carbohydrate intake would lead to 'ketosis' (the production of ketone bodies that replace glucose in the blood to maintain sugar levels when carbohydrate intake is low). Since ketones are derived from the body's fat stores, this process would lead to further weight loss. In a third, and perhaps the most hotly debated premise, Atkins said that eating fat causes the body to metabolise it for energy rather than store it as more body fat, while eating carbohydrate causes that carbohydrate to be converted to body fat.

Atkins recommended very high fat and protein intakes, while his recommendations on carbohydrate intake were much lower than either typical current intakes or current recommendations. On the positive side, his diet plans were the stuff of most foodie’s dreams – bacon and fried eggs for breakfast were fine as long as you skipped the toast.

Pros and Cons – There is no doubt that strictly following the Atkin’s diet results in ketosis, a condition that normally occurs in starvation states. Several recent studies have indicated that the Atkins Diet appears to be fairly effective at reducing weight in the short term. There is, however, a sad lack of long term studies on health implications of the Atkins Diet.

Research that suggests that the weight loss induced by the Atkin’s diet is actually water loss – which means it is temporary. Also, since the diet is so rabidly against the consumption of carbohydrates in the early stages, people following it could experience a drop in glycogen (source of energy for body muscles), which leads to fatigue. The lack of fibre in the diet (since even fruits and most vegetables are taboo because of their carbohydrate content) causes many people on the diet to become constipated. Also, the diet in very inappropriate for vegetarians. Nutritionists do not recommend this diet, because it is rich in saturated fats and proteins and correspondingly low in minerals and dietary fibre. So, unless convincing evidence from new long term studies crops up, the Atkin’s Diet has a thumbs down from doctors and nutritionists alike.

The Zone Diet is slightly more balanced in comparison. Its creator, Barry Sears, outlined an eating plan that balanced the ratio between protein and carbohydrate intake. Sears believes that eating the wrong foods can lead to an imbalance of hormones like insulin and glucagons. To restore the balance, Sears advocates that proteins, carbohydrates and fats should constitute a fixed percentage of food intake at each meal. These percentages are 40 (carbohydrate), 30 (fat) and 30 (protein). If this proportion is followed (which he refers to as being `in the Zone’), not only do the hormones even out, but this also leads to an eventual weight loss as the body starts using the fat it has stored. (for more, go to Dr Sears.com)

Pros and Cons – One of the biggest pros for the Zone Diet is that it allows you to eat a balance of foods. You can eat carbohydrates and fats, as long as they are in the right proportion. This is one of the reasons that so many people can actually commit to this diet plan and stick with it for the long haul. It not only leads to weight loss, but also to a healthier overall lifestyle. On the flip side, this diet is tough to figure out in the beginning. Without the help of an expert, it is not easy for a lay person to estimate exactly how much carbs, protein, and fats, he or she needs to eat to stay `in the Zone’.

One basic shortcoming of this diet is that a person can stay `within the Zone’, eating in the right proportions – but if his or her portions are not regulated, the diet will not result in any weight loss. Also, vegetarians have complained that their options on this diet are severely limited. There is very little scientific evidence for the basis of this diet. The connection between diet, endocrinology and metabolism has also not been fully understood. A week-long study compared athletes on a normal diet (high in carbs and low in protein) with others on a Zone Diet, and saw a significant reduction in stamina amongst those `in the Zone’. Just one week of being on the Zone diet significantly reduced the participants’ ability to continue running at the same speed.

The Sugar Busters Diet claims that sugar and other foods with a high Glycemic Index (GI) are toxins, and by eliminating them from one’s diet, one can lose weight, lower cholesterol, achieve optimal wellness and have more energy. High GI foods (such as refined sugar, bread and rice) leads to greater insulin production than do low GI foods (such as lean proteins and beans), and so not only does their consumption increase body weight, it also makes one liable to develop diabetes.

Pros and Cons – while it is true that high GI foods cause an insulin surge, present research indicates that the worst thing eating a lot of sugar can do to you is to give you cavities. Proponents of this diet assume, with little scientific evidence, that reducing the intake of high GI foods will reduce some of the so called `lifestyle diseases plaguing our societies today. While the complex interrelationships between diet and health have not been completely understood – it is clear that moderate amounts of sugar and other high GI foods is NOT the cause of diabetes, overweight and high blood cholesterol.

Adverse effects

While high-protein low-carb diets may be useful in bringing down weight in the short term, they may jeopardize cardiovascular health in the long-run. Dieticians believe that consuming too much animal protein which is loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, is a major cause of clogged arteries and heart disease.

Further, the influential American Heart Association has issued a warning about these diets, saying that there is no evidence that they help people lose weight in the long term. It has also warned that sticking to such diets for a long time may pose health risks. In addition, the dietary guidelines laid down by the World Cancer Research Fund contradict many of the recommendations in many high protein diets as well.

Most of these diets advocate the consumption of high protein foods, and some (like Atkins) actively ban nutritionally rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Such a lop-sided approach is not capable of addressing long-term dietary needs. A related point – since fruits and vegetables are so unimportant in most High Protein Diets, they fail to provide essential vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutritional elements. Add to that their high fat and cholesterol content, and you have the perfect recipe for coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and several types of cancer.

Excessive protein intake may also exacerbate the symptoms of liver and kidney disease. The process of Ketosis which the Atkins Diet actually strives to achieve is a fat-burning state that occurs during starvation, and is quite dangerous. Also, the breakdown of proteins in the body causes excess urea to be secreted in the blood, strains the kidneys.

Medical evidence shows that the body loses an average of 1.75 milligrams of calcium in the urine for every 1 gram increase in animal protein ingested. Additionally, as calcium and other minerals are leached from our bones, they are deposited in the kidneys and can form into painful kidney stones

High protein diets tend to cause problems with mood changes, resulting in cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods and snacks. In fact many dieticians believe that High Protein diets are one of the biggest causes of the dangerous syndrome known yoyo dieting – in which an overweight person oscillates between dieting and bingeing. A recent study, reported in Obesity journal, followed a number of obese women with a long history of yo-yo dieting who followed either a higher carb diet, or a high protein diet of 1400 calories. The higher carb dieters had fewer cravings and better overall moods than those on the high protein diet. These also lost significantly more weight than those on the high protein diet plan.

What can I do?

  • From the above short review of some of the popular high protein diets, it is clear that one must choose lean proteins over fatty ones to avoid the pitfalls of the typical high-protein diet.
  • Do not eat too much of fatty red meats, cheese or full fat dairy products. Substitute these with fatty fish like Salmon, or with white meats like chicken and turkey.
  • Eat more plant-based proteins, like Soya Beans, lentils and small helpings of nuts like walnuts and almonds.
  • Soya beans help lower `bad’ LDL cholesterol and raise `good’ HDL cholesterol. Vegetable-protein diets enhance calcium retention in the body and results in less excretion of calcium in the urine. This reduces the risk of osteoporosis and kidney problems.


Remember, eat everything in moderation and nothing in excess. Also, the only healthy way to achieve permanent weight loss is to burn more calories than you take in. Anything else is just a gimmick.

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Additional Information

  • For a list of high protein foods, go to List of High-Protein Foods and Amount of Protein in Each
  • For more details on this diet, see High-Calorie / High-Protein Diet.
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