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Why You Should Avoid Very High Protein Diets

The Atkins Diet isn't the only high protein-low carbohydrate diet that was popular in the Sixties and Seventies. Other examples were the "Calories Don't Count Diet" by Dr. Herman Taller (1961), "The Doctor's Quick Weight Loss Diet" by Dr. Irwin Stillman (1967), and "The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet" by Dr. Herman Tarnower (1979).

Dieters gorged on steaks, eggs, cheese, and other animal protein products and avoided bread, potatoes, and pasta. High protein diets eventually lost their appeal as dieters realized that the weight loss was only temporary.

Enter the high carbohydrate-low fat diet of the mid-Eighties and early Nineties. Now, dieters were polishing off large plates of pasta, whole loaves of bread and boxes of non-fat cookies because "anyway, it's non-fat".

With this type of an attitude, dieters found themselves gaining weight in spite of eating low fat diets, so the pendulum has swung back once again to the high protein-low carbohydrate diet.

I am concerned that the generation of people in their teens and twenties will think that high protein diets are the latest scientific breakthrough (thirty and forty-something folks have usually been burned by these diets in the past) and will fall for the promise of rapid weight loss. What this generation doesn't realize is that this promise comes with a price - your health.

Initial weight loss is mostly water.
High protein diets are popular because of the rapid weight lost in the first ten to fourteen days. You can lose anywhere from ten to fifteen pounds. It was the instant weight loss that I was addicted to when I was a teenager. However, the weight loss is quite deceiving because what is lost is mostly water.

Carbohydrates are a major fuel of the body, particularly for the brain and the nervous system, and needs to be eaten everyday because the body can only store limited supplies (in the form of glycogen) in the liver and muscles. When a person goes on a very high protein-low carbohydrate diet, the body is forced to break down not only the protein in the diet, but also the protein in muscle tissue to convert into glucose for use as energy. Nitrogen, a by-product of the breakdown of protein, is toxic to the body and needs to be flushed out in the urine. The body requires large amounts of water to do this, therefore muscle tissue is stripped, not only of protein, but also of water (muscles are approximately 75% water and 25% protein). Even more water is lost as the glycogen storage is depleted because glycogen is stored with water. The result? A rapid loss of weight - water weight, not fat weight.

In our gym, we "catch" clients who are on high protein or very low calorie diets when we confirm what kind of weight they have lost with a body fat percentage test. The results very clearly show that what they have lost is mostly lean body mass rather than fat.

When the dieter resumes normal eating patterns, the weight returns just as rapidly as it left as the body replaces water and depleted glycogen storage levels. Dieters may now, mistakenly, believe that carbohydrates are making them fat because, after all, they lost "weight" when they stopped eating carbohydrates and they gained "weight" when they ate carbohydrates again.

It makes your liver and kidneys work harder.
High protein diets stress the liver and kidneys, which have to work harder than normal to get rid of the excess nitrogen. People with damaged or diseased kidneys are put on very low protein diets to avoid more stress.

May weaken bones
Recent research, including an 18-year Harvard study of 115,000 nurses, show that those who eat high levels of animal protein in their diet have weaker bones. The speculation is that large amounts of calcium are being lost through the frequent urination that is common on a high-protein diet. Studies of vegetarians show that they have less cases of osteoporosis. Scientists believe this is because they do not consume excess amounts of protein.

Diet for a heart attack.
Nutritionist Sanirose Orbeta told me some horror stories about people coming to her for advice after having been on high protein diets. One particular patient was eating four eggs and a pack of bacon daily aside from high fat cheeses and 16 ounce steaks (the Atkins Diet encourages foods high in saturated fat) believing that he could eat as much protein and fat as he could and still lose weight.

The patient's cardiologist sent him to see Orbeta because his cholesterol levels had risen to 560 (a desirable level is below 200), triglycerides to 800 (a desirable level is below 200), and CPK to 410 (normal is 200).

The cardiologist was especially alarmed because of the elevated CPK levels. CPK or creatine phosphokinase is an enzyme that is present in the blood at 10-25 times its normal levels in the first hours following a myocardial infarction.

Orbeta put him on a high fiber-no saturated fat diet (he ate fish, vegetables, rice and fruits) following a ratio of 65% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 20% fat. After two weeks, the blood chemistry results were dramatic. Cholesterol and triglyceride levels dropped to normal. CPK levels fell from 410 to 260 and after an additional two weeks, dropped to 170.

No wonder that Orbeta calls high protein diets like the Atkins Diet, ''diets for a heart attack".

Other side effects.
Ketosis is a state in which the body incompletely burns fat for energy. Ketones are a by-product of this process. The presence of excess ketones produces side effects like suppression of appetite, bad breath, light-headedness, dizziness, and fainting. The suppression of appetite is what causes people on a high protein diet to eat less but this can be more of a curse than a blessing in the long run because the combination of not enough carbohydrates and a low calorie intake causes the body to continuously cannibalize itself by consuming the protein in the muscles to make glucose for the brain. The less lean body tissue you have the lower your metabolism rate. Another thing to remember is that the heart is also a muscle and can be affected by long-term adherence to a very low calorie diet or very high protein diet.

A very low carbohydrate intake can affect your mental and emotional state. People on these types of diets report feeling depressed and irritable.

Hundreds of studies indicate that people who eat the most grains, beans, fruits and vegetables stay the healthiest, with less heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society recently recommended limiting animal protein in the diet because of its link to several kinds of cancer, particularly colon cancer.

High protein diets may cause abnormal heart rhythms because sodium, potassium and magnesium are lost in the urine as the body tries to get rid of ketones. Potassium loss can cause abnormal heart rhythms (cardiac arrhythmia); sodium loss can lead to dehydration; and magnesium loss is associated with migraine headaches and muscle cramps.

Eat moderately.
There is bound to eventually be dissatisfaction with these high protein diets in the future, as more people realize the damage they can do and their failure to deliver permanent weight loss.

Actually, all types of exaggerated dieting will not work in the long term because inside every one of us is a secret glutton who wants nothing more in life than to hear the words "you can eat as much as you want as long as you (fill in whatever diet rule you want here) don't eat carbohydrates, don't eat fat, don't eat meat, don't eat after six o'clock, don't eat proteins with starches, etc.

The words we don't want to hear are "eat in moderation" because, heaven forbid, that would mean "self-control" and "self-discipline" (the other words we also don't want to hear are "physical exercise"). We want to be able to eat as much as we want and still lose weight. Not only that, we want it to happen yesterday.

The painful truth is that the only way to achieve permanent weight control is to eat less and move more. Or as one physician bluntly tells his overweight patients, "Zip your mouth and get off your butt!"

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