The High-Protein Diet Debate
For years you’ve been hearing that you should eat a diet high in carbohydrates. Now you’ve heard the opposite—that protein is king—from doctors, researchers and the media alike. What’s the straight answer? Can popular high-protein diets like the Atkins diet help you lose weight? Get the facts below from Amy Paturel, MS, MPH, nutrition consultant, educator and counselor.
This diet restricts your daily intake of carbohydrates to about 20 grams (or 80 calories) of leafy vegetables during the initial phase (about 2 weeks) and gradually increases carbohydrate intake through the lifetime maintenance phase (when body weight has stabilized). Protein needs are based on body weight, not on the number of calories consumed. Atkins dieters can feast on protein sources like lobster with butter sauce and bacon cheeseburgers (minus the buns), but they must stay away from grains, beans, most fruits and starchy vegetables.
The principle behind this diet is that banishing or severely limiting carbohydrates while loading up on protein and fat causes fat stores to become the primary energy source. However, opponents point out that there are few published studies and no long-term results to back up these claims. “As for reports of reduced cholesterol levels among Atkins followers [as found in a recent study by Westman et al. (2002), funded by the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine], any time a person loses weight with any method, cholesterol levels drop,” says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “The Atkins study trial lasted only 6 months, but what happens after 6 years?” Many experts say that eating a diet high in saturated fat may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease over the long term.
The simple fact is that restricting calories will result in weight loss. In fact, calorie restriction is the real reason people successfully lose weight on the Atkins diet and other popular weight loss plans. While it is true that Atkins diet followers can eat all the steak and béarnaise sauce they crave, the diet works because even though calories are restricted, the fat from these kinds of foods is, in itself, filling.
The diet does have drawbacks. Over time many dieters find it difficult to maintain the low level of carbohydrates the diet requires. As the regimen progresses, carbohydrates can be increased modestly, but refined sugar, bread, milk, pasta and white rice remain taboo. Because the diet allows unlimited saturated fat and cholesterol, it can be dangerous for people with heart disease. People with renal disease should also avoid this diet, since it can tax the kidneys.
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If high-protein diets aren't the weight loss secret, is there one? Not really. Some experts believe that emerging research will lead to a new approach in which dieters will get the most nutrient "bang" for each calorie "buck." Such an approach would emphasize fruits and veggies over refined carbohydrates, ultimately resulting in dieters getting more nutrient-dense foods.
A body of scientific research has already underscored the health benefits of eating vital nutrients like those found in fruits and vegetables. Several studies have also stressed the benefits of restricting calories and even suggested that doing so may add to life expectancy. However, many nutrition experts agree that there is no quick fix for obesity and no one diet is right for everyone. As with most things in life, though, balance is key, and most people can lose weight by following these tips:
- Never miss snack time; eating small meals throughout the day prevents hunger and keeps your metabolism high.
- Eat small amounts of fat and protein at every meal so you are satisfied and full.
- Consume vegetables and fruits that contain fiber to promote health and longevity.
- Exercise to promote weight loss.
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