As a Registered Dietitian (RD), I have to obtain 75 continuing education credits every 5 years in order to continue practicing as a RD. I recently took a short course on the benefits and risks of following a high protein diet to get a few credits. The information was interesting and I believe it would be beneficial for my readers to learn about this diet as well. Below is the premise of the course and I’ll share a few key points:
“High-protein diets such as the Zone, Atkins, and Sugar Busters have come and gone for decades, their popularity rising and falling like waves in the ocean. While high-protein diets do usually lead to weight loss, they may be unbalanced meal plans that sometimes restrict entire food groups and fail to meet humans’ essential needs for vitamins, minerals, and fiber. But that doesn’t have to be the case.”
A short-term study was published in 2011 in Nutrition Journal comparing women who were overweight or obese and followed a high-protein diet with those who followed a high-fiber, high-carbohydrate diet. Results showed that although both groups lost weight, the high-protein group lost more weight with greater fat loss and greater decreases in blood pressure.
This study and more like it have been pointing toward the scientific evidence that high protein diets may be a great tool to help fight the obesity epidemic hitting the US. According to my reading, “High protein diets may also be more likely to help keep the weight from coming back, improving weight maintenance, due to better compliance and increased satiety.”
Define High Protein
Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) recommend a wide range of protein consumption from 10% to 35% based on total calories. Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) are set at a minimum of 0.8 g/kg of body weight (about 0.4 g/lb) but the recommendation for high-protein diets is about 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg but less than 2 g/kg. This comes out to 25-30% of the calories from protein with the rest of the diet coming from carbs (40-45% of calories) and fat (no more than 30%).
Protein fills the tank better than carbs
Protein has an edge over carbs because protein promotes greater satiety than both carbs and fat. As a result, we feel fuller and more satisfied over a longer period of time.
Thermogenesis and muscle maintenance
There’s more to satiety with a high protein diet. Digesting protein has a higher rate of thermogenesis than fat or carbs. Thermogenesis is the amount of energy needed to digest, absorb, and metabolize nutrients. This means we burn more calories by digesting protein than we would digesting fat or carbs.
The biggest impact a high protein diet has on metabolism involves protein’s role in muscle building and maintenance. The test diet used in the studies performed for my reading involved a meal that included at least 30 grams of protein but no more than 50 grams of protein at a meal, especially breakfast. Americans don’t typically follow a diet like this because we skimp on protein at breakfast & lunch and then consume large amounts of protein at dinner. Americans average about 10 grams of protein at breakfast. Spacing out protein intake over the course of the day is important since positive protein balance only lasts for about 3-4 hours after consumption.
How do I increase my protein intake?
First off, it’s very important to assess how much protein you currently consume on average before you decide to eat a cow for breakfast in attempt to reach 30-50 grams at breakfast. A great tool to use in order to determine the breakdown of your calories is MyFitnessPal. This program can show you what percent of your calories you’re getting from protein, fat, and carbs. From this information you can gauge how to gradually increase your calories from protein to meet the 25-30% of calories range. The photo below is an example I found from a MyFitnessPal user. In this case, the amount of fat consumed in the diet would have to decrease to accommodate an increase in calories from protein. This could be changed by choosing lean protein sources low in fat or choosing less items that are high in carbs and fat like breakfast muffins, donuts, croissants, etc.
What food sources can I get protein from?
High-protein sources include chicken, turkey, pork (tenderloin…not your bacon & sausage), fish, meat, eggs, cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, beans, tofu, and other soy products. It’s important to be mindful of the protein choices you make since the sources listed above can be high in saturated fat depending on the type and/or amount you consume. Aim for lean sources and get a variety from the list above. Don’t forget it is possible to get protein from non-animal sources as well. If you choose prepared vegetarian items, be sure to monitor your sodium (salt) intake since some tend to run high.
Pair a high protein diet with exercise
If you’re aiming for weight loss, pairing a high protein diet with strength training allows your body to hold on to your muscle mass so that the weight loss comes from fat. Compare the muscle/fat loss ratio discussed in my reading:
“During starvation, we break down about 50% lean tissue and 50% fat. If you lose weight using a high-carbohydrate diet similar to the Food Guide Pyramid, you’ll be breaking down about 35% lean tissue and 65% fat. Now go on a high-protein diet, and our research shows lean tissue breakdown drops to 20%, while fat breakdown increases to 80%. Add exercise to the mix, and protein breakdown drops even lower—below 10%.”
Don’t leave out fruit & veggies!
Those who start a high protein diet without being properly informed tend to consume a lot of red meat and forget about the produce section. Choose healthy carbs and protein sources from whole grains, non-starchy vegetables (moderation with starchy veggies: peas, beans/legumes, corn, and potatoes), and fruit like berries.
If you have trouble losing weight or failed to keep weight off, high-protein diets may be an great option for you to pursue. It’s very important to be mindful of fat intake and to consume whole grains, get five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and drinking a variety of fluids since high-protein diets increase urinary output. This diet is not a one-size fits all and I highly recommend you see a Registered Dietitian to get a personalized plan that works best for your needs and to monitor your progress.
What are your thoughts on a high protein diet?
The author of the article I read for my continuing ed credit was written by Diane Welland, MS, RD, a dietitian, author, and freelance writer based in Springfield, Virginia, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Northern Virginia Community College. Her books include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Local, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Belly Fat Weight Loss.
high protein photo source: www.lifecherry.com