02/21 2012

Protein Diets: The Good, Bad and Need to Know

Red Pepper

Lately, it seems, I’m hearing a lot about protein.

My husband is increasing his protein intake as a means of building muscle mass.

I, myself, have increased the amount of protein I eat over the past several years. My incentive is to gain more endurance for distance running and marathons, and my heavy carbohydrate diet was proving inadequate.

And just last week, I wrote a blog post about my friend Tom Darling and the Ideal Protein diet, a program in which he participated to lose weight.

Something new and different?

High protein diets are not new. Atkins started the revolution in 1972 with the book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. This low carbohydrate diet forces the body to burn fat instead of glucose for energy, thus throwing it into a state of ketosis.

The South Beach diet, popularized in the early 2000s, is more of a low-fat diet rather than a high protein regime, and one that replaces “bad carbs” and “bad fats” with “good carbs” and “good fats.” Like Atkins and Ideal protein, the first phase eliminates all processed carbs, sugars and fruits in hopes of eliminating the hunger cycle.

The Ideal Protein diet is a high protein and low carb diet similar to Atkins – with an exception being an emphasis on higher quality protein. The first phase also forces the body into a state of ketosis.

I am personally skeptical of eating too much protein as a percentage of a person’s daily macronutrient intake. But what do other experts say?

How much protein is enough?

First of all, protein is one of the macronutrients needed for energy, growth, metabolism and other body functions. When we eat protein, the body breaks it down into amino acids that are necessary for building muscle and blood. Proteins are complex molecules that take longer to break down than carbohydrates, thus they tend to be a longer-lasting source of energy.

The USDA recommendation for protein in adults is about 60 grams of protein per day (0.8 g per kg of weight or 7 grams per 20 pounds).  As a percentage of total daily caloric intake, this translates to 10-35% of total calories. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we get adequate protein from the following:

  • Teenage boys and active men can get all the protein they need from three daily servings for a total of seven ounces.
  • For children age 2 to 6, most women, and some older people, the government recommends two daily servings for a total of five ounces.
  • For older children, teen girls, active women, and most men, the guidelines give the nod to two daily servings for a total of six ounces.

What are the benefits of more protein?

If you are trying to build muscle, eating protein all day long will not do the trick, at least not by itself. The only way that will happen is through more exercise. Conversely, athletes and body builders wishing to build muscle can do so by eating the proper amount of protein at the right time, according to bodybuilding.com.

If you are looking to lose weight, diets rich in protein but low in fat can work brilliantly – at least in the short-term. As previously mentioned, in the early phases, individuals reach a state of ketosis in which fat is burned for energy. Ketosis also results in the elimination of fluids and loss of appetite. In addition, protein doesn’t spike blood sugar levels like carbohydrates, so you tend to stay more full for a longer period of time after eating it. You also burn more energy while digesting protein.

However, according to WebMD, six months is about the maximum time period in which you might gain a weight loss benefit.

Does a lot of protein come at a cost?

Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and protein is no exception to the rule. Follows are some of the key disadvantages in eating too much protein.

1. Fat storage – Like any other macronutrient, if you eat too much protein, it will be stored as fat.

2. Kidney problems – According to National Kidney Foundation, eating too much protein may stress kidneys and contribute to pre-existing kidney problems, high levels of protein in the urine, and kidney stones.

3. Heart problems from animal proteins – According to Harvard School of Public Health, protein from animal sources is high in saturated fats, and this could lead to heart problems over time due to increased cholesterol in the blood. A safer approach is eating vegetable sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and whole grains, which offer healthy fiber, vitamins and minerals. The best animal protein choices are fish and poultry. If you can’t live without red meat, try to choose lean cuts and moderate portion sizes, and make it only an occasional part of your diet.

4. Low calcium or osteoporosis According to WebMD, there is evidence to suggest that people eating diets rich in protein may excrete excess calcium in their urine. This happens because bodies release calcium in the blood to counteract an increase of amino acids due to the breakdown of proteins. Over time, this could lead to osteoporosis.

5. Cancer risk from animal proteins – Diets rich in red meat protein may lead to higher incidences of cancer.

What’s the safe bet?

Moderation and balance remains the safest, long-term option to eating.  Everyone needs a range of macronutrients – fat, protein and carbohydrates – as well as vitamins and minerals, whether you are trying to lose weight or bulk up. Though you shouldn’t eat below the USDA recommendation of protein, eating higher levels could have long-term health implications. And make sure the proteins you consume are high quality ones.

Sources:

http://www.diet.com/g/macronutrients

http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/benefits-protein

http://diet.lovetoknow.com/wiki/Side_Effects_of_Too_Much_Protein_in_the_Diet

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/

http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/protein2.htm#1

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein-full-story/index.html

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-the-health-benefits-of-protein.htm

Photo courtesy of Harvard School of Public Health.

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