Don’t Believe the Hype: The Bottom Line on High Protein Diets

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“High protein diets that restrict carbohydrates are the best way to lose weight.”

That’s what the peddlers of many popular diet books want you to believe. And with the holidays approaching, swearing off carbs might seem like the best way to get yourself into svelte form. But do these diets really work? According to Samantha Treyve, RD, a nutritionist at One Medical Group, A high-protein diet can produce fast initial weight loss but most of it can be attributed to water weight. The diets also force your body to burn extra calories (since protein requires more energy to digest), and help you feel full for longer periods after eating. While this sounds irresistible to most dieters, it’s not the best weight loss solution – the results are usually not long-lasting, and might even be dangerous.

The Risks of High Protein Diets

The average human diet contains a reasonable amount of carbohydrate, from which the body can readily extract glucose, its most important fuel source. But high-protein diets typically involve restriction of carbohydrates. “When the body is starved of carbohydrates, it converts fat into glucose instead,” explains Treyve. This fat-burning proposition may sound great to dieters, but it’s not a healthy weight loss solution. When your body uses fat as its primary fuel, it can go into a state known as ketosis, which can eventually harm the kidneys and other organs. “And it causes you to have really bad breath,” warns Treyve.
Moreover, typical high-protein diets (like the Atkins Diet) promote eating foods such as red meat instead of leaner sources of animal and plant protein. “A diet rich in these foods can increase your risk of heart disease,” says Treyve.
Then there’s the issue of what you’re not eating. “Some high protein diets restrict carbohydrates so much that they may result in nutritional deficiencies,” Treyve says. If you are avoiding healthy complex carbohydrates–such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables–your diet will be lacking in essential vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. In the short run, you might experience troubles such as constipation and low energy. But over time, these deficiencies could possibly increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

The Expert Advice: Take a well-balanced approach to your diet for the best long-lasting results.

“For most healthy people, a high protein diet isn’t harmful if it’s followed for just three or four months, and it probably will result in weight loss,” says Treyve. But in the long term, any diet that eliminates or severely restricts your carbohydrate intake will start to take a negative toll on your health. The better approach is to focus on consuming a wide variety of healthy, whole, unprocessed foods. This means eating a mix of lean animal proteins (like fish and poultry) and plant proteins (such as beans and legumes) in addition to whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Chances are, you would also tire of trying to stick to a restrictive, high protein diet for any length of time. Says Treyve, “Variety is the spice of life, and when you reduce the variety in your diet, you might become bored and develop cravings,” which, in turn, can lead you to quickly gain back any weight you might have lost in the first place.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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