In spite of what the critics say, Prevention says that a hi-pro diet-if you do it right-may be healthier than what you're eating now
And you can bet that they're aware of the army of health experts who attack high-protein diets on TV. In fact, I used to be a critic too. No wonder all my cheeseburger junkies share this one nagging fear: "Am I damaging my health for the sake of losing weight?"
I still believe the answer is yes-if you're following the wrong hi-pro diet. Some, like the Atkins Induction diet, just drip with artery-clogging saturated fat, yet lack the health-protective benefits of plentiful vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. You've heard these diets panned in the media, and rightly so.
But what about the more moderate hi-pro diets, including Sugar Busters! and The Zone? The truth is, I'm having second thoughts--and here's why: When I compare them to what most high-carb dieters are actually eating-tons of empty-calorie refined carbs such as white bread, fat-free cookies, pretzels, bagels, and crackers-I've started to think that the better hi-pro diets look pretty darn healthy. There's also some real scientific evidence that dieters actually need more protein.
Weight Loss Secrets Revealed!
To be sure, all the hi-pro diets are based on bogus science-the erroneous idea that carbohydrates make you fat. You think you're losing weight because you're following a "scientific" plan that focuses on "protein blocks" or "reward meals." But you're really losing weight because you're eating fewer calories, not because you're eating fewer carbohydrates. It's as simple as that.
But to follow the moderate hi-pro diets, you cut back on starchy carbohydrates and sweets, substituting meat and tons of vegetables in their place. For most people, that means trading in nutrient-empty white flour and sugar for nutrient-laden protein and produce. As a dietitian, I'd say that's a big improvement-not perfect, but a huge step in the right direction. And if it helps you achieve a healthy weight, fantastic! Just to make sure, I rechecked my facts with some top doctors-and here's the truth I now tell my clients about those "nasty" high-protein diets:
What You Hear: High-protein diets make your kidneys work harder to flush out waste products, and may also wear them out.
The Truth: "They do increase risks for people with kidney problems," says Lisa Giannetto, MD, associate in medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or other risk factors for kidney disease, before considering such a diet, discuss it with your doctor and have her give you a complete physical and a blood test.
But if you have healthy kidneys, there's simply no research that says that excess protein will damage them-even though most high-protein diets call for an amount of protein about three times higher than Recommended Dietary Allowance levels. To be on the safe side, however, if you're on a hi-pro diet, your doctor should monitor you, says George Blackburn, MD, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition and Medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
For dieters with healthy kidneys, there may actually be bonuses with higher protein levels. When it comes to satiety-keeping you satisfied longer-high-protein foods do it better than high-fat or high-carbohydrate foods.
Another hi-pro benefit for dieters: Your protein needs increase when you restrict calories. When your energy intake is restricted, some of the protein that you eat is used for energy, making it unavailable for maintaining muscle tissue and other important substances such as antibodies. On moderate-weight-loss diets such as the 1,500-calorie minimum that Prevention recommends, protein needs increase only slightly-up to about 15% of calories. But what if you go below 1,500? "The lower the calories, the higher the protein" is Dr. Blackburn's advice.
If you do follow a high-protein diet, drink at least 8 cups of fluid daily to help your kidneys flush away extra waste products.
What You Hear: High-protein diets thin your bones by raising blood acid levels, which force the bones to release calcium in order to neutralize all that acid-the same way that calcium in Tums neutralizes stomach acid.
The Truth: "Yes, excess protein increases calcium loss, but that's only a problem if your diet is calcium-poor. If you take in enough calcium, studies suggest that your bone density is maintained," says calcium expert Robert P. Heaney, MD, of Creighton University in Omaha, NE.
If you're on a high-protein diet, Dr. Heaney recommends aiming for 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium daily (slightly more than Daily Value [DV] levels) from a combination of diet and supplements.
What You Hear: High-protein diets are bad for your heart because they're high in saturated fat and raise your cholesterol.
The Truth: Some diets fit that description perfectly. One of my clients came to me after 2 months on the Atkins diet. She loved her rapid weight loss while still eating saturated-fat-laden Cheddar cheese, sausage, burgers, and ribs, but was alarmed when her total cholesterol rose to a high-risk 276 and her "good" HDL plummeted.
With a family history of heart disease, she knew that for the long term this was not good. She's now on a new eating plan low in saturated fat; her cholesterol has returned to normal and she's maintained her weight loss.
Fortunately, not all hi-pro diets are like the Atkins or Carbohydrate Addict's diets. Several, including Sugar Busters! and The Zone, focus on heart-healthy lean meat, poultry, fish, and low-fat cheese-all of which are low in saturated fat. Preferred fats include olive and canola oils, olives, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish that actually lower heart disease risk by raising HDL, lowering "bad" LDL, and controlling triglycerides.
What You Hear: High-protein diets increase cancer risk because eating lots of meat has been linked to higher rates of breast, colon, and prostate cancers and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
The Truth: Yes, some studies do link high-meat diets with higher cancer risk, although why isn't certain. Is it the fat? Choose lean cuts. The nitrites? Eat fewer sausages and hot dogs. The heterocyclic amines from cooking? Cook meat over low heat, don't char; and choose more vegetable proteins such as tofu, beans, and legumes. The lack of fiber? Choose one of the hi-pro diets that really maximizes your intake of fruits and vegetables, and make sure that you eat all that are allowed. Along with the fiber, you'll get phytochemicals that are known to protect against cancer.
What You Hear: High-protein diets cause a potentially dangerous condition called ketosis.
The Truth: Only hi-pro diets that are exceptionally low in carbohydrates-about 50 grams (g) or less per day, as in the Atkins plan-cause ketosis. Your brain depends on carbohydrates for its daily fuel, but in a pinch, your body will ravage fat fragments to create compounds called ketone bodies that can also be used as fuel by the brain. Ketone bodies are prized by Atkins dieters because they suppress the appetite-but they also upset the acid-base balance of your blood.
So is ketosis dangerous? In this case, no one really knows for sure. But the ketosis caused by very low carb diets is not as severe as the potentially fatal ketosis sometimes experienced by people with diabetes. Also, there is a lack of research pointing to adverse outcomes from ketosis in people who are dieting. Yet, no expert that I talked to recommends any diet that provokes ketosis.
The good news is that the better-balanced hi-pro diets, which do not restrict carbohydrates so severely, don't cause ketosis.
What You Hear: The weight that you lose on a hi-pro diet is only water, not really fat.
The Truth: It's true that your body will lose several pounds of water in the first few days of a low-carbohydrate diet. So those first few pounds that you drop in a flash at the start of a hi-pro diet are water. But that's only true in the beginning. After that, the weight that you continue to lose represents true weight loss, the same as you'd get from any low-calorie diet.
What You Hear: High-protein diets cause bad breath and constipation.
The Truth: Only the very low carb diets cause bad breath as your lungs try to blow off some of the ketones created by too much fat burning. And low-carb diets that limit high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are responsible for constipation. So choose one of the high-protein diets that allows you more than 50 g of carbohydrates, emphasizes high-fiber foods, and reminds you to drink 8 cups of fluid daily.
Bread Made by Sugar Busters!
On the Sugar Busters! diet, bread is allowed as long as it's whole grain-the kind that Prevention recommends too. We tried Sugar Busters! 100% Whole Wheat Dinner Rolls (125 calories, 0.6 gram [g] fat, and 4 g fiber per roll) and think that they rival homemade. Call Boudreaux's Foods at (504) 866-9500 to find a store (located primarily in the southeastern US, Texas, California, and Missouri) or to order a variety of whole grain breads.
The Healthy Way to Go Hi-Pro
If you do decide to follow a high-protein diet, here are rules to help you use-but not abuse-the staying power of protein:
* Have your doctor test your kidney function before you start a hi-pro diet to make sure that your kidneys are healthy.
* Choose a diet that maximizes yourintake of high-fiber, brightly colored veggies-and be sure to eat all the veggies that are allowed.
* Select a diet that emphasizes low-saturated-fat meat and poultry. Trim fat. Don't char.
* Pick a diet that includes at least 50 grams (g) of carbohydrates daily to prevent ketosis.
* Drink 8 cups of fluid daily to help your kidneys.
* Select whole grain breads and cereals when possible.
* Opt often for soy-based foods, legumes, and fish for your protein choices.
* Choose low-fat dairy foods and calcium supplements to reach 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium daily.
* Take a standard (not high potency) multivitamin/mineral supplement daily.
The Best and Worst
Prevention says that the healthiest weight loss diet is one that's based on plant foods-about 15% protein, 25% fat, and 60% mostly unprocessed carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, and whole grains). But if you want to go high-protein, we surveyed an array of popular hi-pro diets to zero in on what we think is the best-and the worst. We've also included a "fix" to make the best even better.
Food focus: Lean protein; legumes; low-fat dairy foods; high-fiber fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals
Calorie control: Small portions, no seconds
Considered the enemy: All sugars, sweets, corn, carrots, beets, and white potatoes/rice/bread
* Breakfast: OJ, wheat bran cereal, fresh strawberries, fat-free milk
* Lunch: Lean roast beef on whole wheat with lettuce and tomato
* Snack: Kiwifruit, 6 walnut halves
* Dinner: Turkey breast, baked sweet potato, steamed green beans
* Dessert: 2 thin slices of cheese
Risks: You get obsessed with every grain of sugar-unnecessarily. A few healthy foods such as carrots are demonized. It's a little low in calcium, folate, and iron.
Benefits: Provides a great array of healthy choices, including whole grains. Rich in fiber, vitamins A and C, the B vitamins, and zinc
The fix: Choose calcium-fortified orange juice and take a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement.
Dr. Atkins's New Diet Revolution
Food focus: Bacon, fried eggs, fried pork rinds, high-fat cheese, butter, cream
Calorie control: Limits carbohydrates to 20 grams (g) to provoke ketosis, which inhibits hunger Considered the enemy: Most breads and cereals, fruit, and starchy vegetables are severely limited. Milk and sugars are forbidden.
* Breakfast: Fried eggs with sugar-free sausage
* Lunch: Bacon cheeseburger (no bun), small tossed salad
* Dinner: Shrimp cocktail with mustard and mayo, clear consomme, steak, tossed salad with dressing, diet Jell-O with artificially sweetened heavy cream
Risks: Bad breath, constipation, and elevated cholesterol. Oozes saturated fat and limits many foods known to protect your health
Benefit: Rapid weight loss
The fix: Honor your body enough to choose a different diet.