The Lowdown on High Protein Diets

Now that we’ve addressed plant protein sources, protein physiology, and protein marketing mania, let’s chat about high protein diets for weight loss.

Before we begin, it is important to remember that how effective a given ‘diet’ is strongly depends on what the individual’s diet was like before. For instance, if you are eating the SAD (Standard American Diet) of processed and packaged foods, fast food, candy, soda, salty snacks, etc. ANY diet that encourages eating more real foods and cutting down on empty calories, is going to help you lose weight…at least initially. What we are talking about today goes beyond weight loss. We’re talking about health.

It’s easy to confuse weight loss and health. Sometimes they go together, but other times they work in opposition. As a nutritionist and supporter of lifestyle change vs dieting, I can’t, in good faith, stand behind short term diets that sacrifice health and wellness. Let’s dig a little deeper…

Low carb downfalls – from Atkins to Paleo

Most high protein diets have a low carbohydrate component. The most well known diet in this category is The Atkins Diet. The thought process behind Atkins is that all carbs, including those from fruits and and starchy vegetables, are considered ‘bad’.

When following the Atkins diet, carbohydrates are switched out for pork rinds, sausage, chicken, and other protein sources (often animal sources). Carbs are limited to 20 g per day for the first 2 weeks. The only allowed carbs are low-carb veggies – and these are limited to 3 cups per day. Fruit and starchy vegetables are cut completely.

This severe limiting of carbohydrates results in a physiological state known as ketosis. Because carbohydrates aren’t available for quick fuel, your body transitions to utilizing fat for energy. This state of being is usually reserved for ‘emergency situations’ when we are in distress or calories are severely limited. The adverse affects from ketosis can vary from GI upset to kidney stones, heart arrhythmias, menstrual irregularities, etc. It’s also rare that high protein, low carbohydrate diets result in long term weight loss.

So how does Atkins differ from the paleo diet?

The answer depends on what version of paleo is in question. Not all are bad and many focus on plants! (There are even some fully plant-based paleo folks out there! Remember how I mentioned last week that our paleolithic ancestors were eating a diet comprised of 95% plants?) The majority of paleo diets cut out processed foods, dairy, added sugar, and alcohol - this is a big improvement from the Standard American Diet. There is still a heavy emphasis on protein intake, upwards of 20-30% of daily calories. Paleo diets become questionable when they closely resemble Atkins - focus on animal protein sources and extreme limiting of carbohydrates, often vegetables, fruit, and quality grains. You know from my previous posts that there is very little evidence to support a diet high in animal protein.

A study published last March found a 75 percent increase in premature deaths from all causes, and a 400 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among heavy consumers of animal protein under the age of 65 — those who got 20 percent or more of their calories from animal protein.
— Dr. Dean Ornish

All carbs are not created equal – good vs bad  

Carbs are confusing and often stressful for many people. I often hear clients say "I just feel so bad when I eat too many carbs." or "I'm trying to lose weight but can't stay away from the carbs!" I always ask for more details. Not all carbs are created equal!

Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice & pasta, many cereals and snack foods) generally lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Whole food carbohydrates, like whole grains, real fruit, starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas, squash, etc.) are nutrient dense and fiber-rich. So, to categorize a donut (actually more calories from fat than carbs!) and a baked potato in the same food group is oversimplified and confusing, to say the least! 

Sustainable weight loss – what works long term

I've said it before and I will say it again, my friends: The key to long term health and sustainable weight loss is FIBER.

Fiber is found in all plants when they are consumed in their natural and unrefined form. High fiber, plant-based diets have been associated with longevity and decreased risk of chronic health issues such as cancer, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes. 1.7 million deaths WORLDWIDE can be attributed to low vegetable and fruit intake

Eating at least 30 g of fiber per day is also strongly correlated to weight loss! Fiber keeps you feeling full longer - not to mention high fiber foods are rich in many vitamins and minerals. 

It may seem simple enough, but when was the last time you heard someone trying out the *new* high fiber diet? It doesn't appear to create the hype of high protein diets, but hopefully things will change as more and more evidence continues to show the benefits of plant-based eating! 

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