A high-protein diet focuses on a variety of protein sources used as the foundation of your eating plan. There are various types of high-protein diet, and not all are proven equal. Depending on the type of diet chosen, weight loss could result. This is especially true of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate plan. Let’s take a closer look at the different varieties of a high-protein diet, but first, let’s take a closer look at what a protein is.
What are Proteins Made Of?
Proteins are large and complex molecules, responsible for most of the body’s tissue, organ structure, and function. Protein consists of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. With the addition of nitrogen, the protein gets a specific name, an amino acid.
Amino acids are also known as the building blocks of life and are essential to the human body. There are 23 proteinogenic amino acids, each one in a different sequence and carrying out a different job in the body; this is similar to spelling out a word. We use the same letters to make different words, and also, we create different definitions. Many of the amino acids in our bodies come from the food we ingest. After eating a protein, the body breaks it down into an amino acid. Once broken down, the body begins to rebuild those proteins. It uses a sequence to aid and replenish a specific part of your body.
There are nine “essential” amino acids. Essential amino acids are essential because the body does not produce them. Instead, we get them from our diets. These fundamental building blocks include isoleucine, histidine, leucine, methionine, phenylalanine, lysine, threonine, valine, and tryptophan. Let’s take a look at the different essential amino acids and the roles they play in our bodies.
- Leucine: Leucine is an essential amino acid. Responsible for muscle growth and strength, leucine is what helps us retain muscle when dieting. Leucine is responsible for activating the compound mTOR or mammalian target of rapamycin, which, in turn, is accountable for upregulating the synthesis of proteins. You can find leucine in fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, beef, chicken, pork, and peas.
- Isoleucine: Much like leucine, isoleucine helps the body produce hemoglobin. This is vital because hemoglobin is responsible for carrying iron in the blood. It is also important because it is responsible for the regulation of blood sugar levels in the body, which is used for energy. There are many sources of isoleucine, including fish, meat, eggs, soy, lentils, nuts and seeds, beans, and other dairy products.
- Histidine: Histidine is vital to brain health — specifically, the neurotransmitter histamine. Histidine is an aid to the immune system by producing red and white blood cells. You can find sources of histidine in red meat, poultry, beans, potatoes, and buckwheat.
- Methionine: Methionine contains sulfur, making it essential to muscle and tissue health. Methionine aids in creatine formation. Importantly, methionine can also reduce fat deposits in the liver. You can find sources of methionine in onions, rice, beans, Brazil nuts, seeds, meat, and fish.
- Phenylalanine: Phenylalanine is responsible for the production of things such as epinephrine and thyroid hormones. Phenylalanine is directly related to our mental health and our mood, making this amino acid even more essential. There are plenty of places to find phenylalanine; some of those include fish, eggs, meat, chicken, avocados, pumpkin seeds, olives, berries, and even leafy greens.
- Lysine: Known as a major player in muscle repair and growth, lysine plays a vital role in the body. Lysine helps in synthesizing collagen, which, in return, helps the connective tissues in the muscles. Another benefit of lysine is the natural boost it gives the body’s immune system. Some of the sources of lysine are cheese, beans, parsley, cashews, whey protein, and chia seeds.
- Threonine: Known for speeding up the healing process of wounds, threonine also aids in the central nervous system, heart function, liver function, and the immune system. Threonine is needed in producing serine and glycine. These amino acids create elastin, which is a highly elastic protein found in the connective tissue of muscles.
- Valine: Impressively, this amino acid can aid in curing liver disease. Valine is responsible for the health of the nervous system and cognitive function. Valine can produce additional glucose in the body to keep muscles at optimal health. You can find sources of valine in red meat, chicken, pork, blueberries, cranberries, and oranges.
- Tryptophan: This remarkable little amino acid is responsible for making us happy. After being absorbed into the body, tryptophan turns into serotonin. This neurotransmitter is responsible for stress levels and depression. This amino acid helps us sleep better, which then creates a healthier environment for our entire body.
Quick Recap of the Best Sources of Amino Acids
Amino acids are present in all proteins, but not all proteins are good sources of all amino acids. Some of the foods that contain high levels of specific amino acids include:
- Isoleucine: soy protein, poultry, fish, seaweed, and eggs.
- Histidine: nuts, whole grains, seeds, fish, and poultry.
- Leucine: tuna, chicken, tofu, beef, pork, milk, cheese, eggs.
- Methionine: eggs, fish, sesame seeds, cereal grains, meat.
- Phenylalanine: poultry, beef, eggs, yogurt, cheese, milk, soy.
- Lysine: eggs, cod, sardines, soybeans, spirulina, fenugreek seed, cheese.
- Threonine: cottage cheese, lentils, sesame seeds, fish, poultry.
- Valine: peanuts, cheese, whole grains, mushrooms.
- Tryptophan: poultry, salmon, nuts, soy products, seeds, spinach, milk.
How About Amino Acids – How Much?
Everyone needs amino acids for optimal health, but exactly how much amino acids do you really need? And, how much protein do you need to maximize your amino acid intake?
Many people on a high-protein diet are also following low-carb rules. This is because high-protein diets do not tend to be synonymous with high-carb diets. As a matter of fact, high-carb diets, especially those focusing on simple carbs, can actually cause weight gain. Success rates fail because many people find it challenging to cut out bread, pasta, and fruit to adhere to the low-carb diet.
How about the amount of protein you need? You can find how much protein you need by multiplying your weight by .8 grams. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you need 120 g of protein daily. After finding how much protein your body needs, the amount of amino acid intake can be calculated.
For each gram of protein your body needs, you generally need 18 mg of histidine, 25 mg of isoleucine, methionine, and cysteine, 55 mg leucine, 51 mg lysine, 47 mg phenylalanine and tyrosine, 7 mg tryptophan and 32 mg of valine.
If you eat meat, poultry, and fish, you are likely receiving the daily amount of amino acids you need, however, if you are a vegan or vegetarian, it is important to supplement with beans, pasta, peanut butter, and lentils. It’s best to track your protein intake when following a vegan diet, especially, to ensure proper nutrition.
Roles of Protein in the Body
- Repair and Maintenance: Protein has a significant role in building lean muscle mass and preventing muscle loss. People who participate in bodybuilding find this tactic useful to maintain significant muscle mass levels. Even for people who do not participate in activities such as bodybuilding, protein can ensure that they do not have substantial weight loss due to muscle loss when aging. Protein is also responsible for reducing bone loss with age and can help fight off osteoporosis. Because protein is the main component of hair, getting proper levels of protein can also aid in optimal hair growth. By getting adequate protein levels, hair growth issues are significantly reduced. Protein can also ensure the proper healing of wounds ranging from bedsores to the effects of surgery outside of the physical healing process.
- Hormones: The human body is a delicate balance of hormones, and because specific chemical messenger proteins in the body make it possible for the proper communication between organs and cells, protein plays a vital role in the production and communication of these hormones. These messages are used for the direct care of organs and organ growth. Without these chemical messenger proteins, organ growth would be significantly impaired.
- Enzymes: Because most enzymes are proteins, protein plays a vital role in this function of the human body. There are thousands of different chemical reactions that take place in the body, and without protein and enzymes, these reactions would fail.
- Transportation and storage: Transportation within the human body is vital for life. Hemoglobin, a protein, is responsible for the proper transportation of oxygen to the bloodstream. Without proteins, the transportation and storage of many body functions would cease.
Types of High-Protein Diet
There are various types of high-protein diets, as we touched on earlier. Of those out there today, the most popular tend to be lower carb versions.
When it comes to types of high-protein diets, there are three major players on the market. You have the keto diet, low-carb (Atkins-like) diet and a standard high-protein diet where the majority of calories come from protein.
The first two focus on using fat to push the body into ketosis. Protein is the second most critical aspect. In just about all high-protein diets, carbohydrates take up the least number of calories as they contribute to less than 10% of total intake.
High-Protein Diet Vs. Low-Carb Vs. Keto
There are many diets out there and knowing which to choose is a difficult decision, especially with so much information floating around. Let’s compare and contrast three of the most popular high-protein diets circulating today.
Standard High-Protein Diet – A high-protein diet suggests getting most of your daily caloric intake from protein. These types of diets have been shown to decrease calorie intake by 441 calories a day and decrease food thoughts by as much as 60%. The high-protein diet is more successful than a high-fat diet. Much like the keto diet, it reduces the feelings of hunger. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
Low-Carb Diet – Like the keto diet, the generic low-carb diet uses super low carb counts to trigger ketosis. Although unlike the keto diet, people on a lower-carb diet get 10% of their daily intake from carbs, 60% from fats, and 30% of their daily intake from protein. Low-carb diets rely on higher protein intake than the keto diet.
Keto Diet – The keto diet consists of low-carb, high fat, moderate protein plan. Unlike the traditional low-carb diet, which was designed for weight loss, the keto diet was initially made for seizure prevention. Typically, people on the keto diet get 2-5% of their calories from carbs, 75-90% of their daily intake from fats, and the remaining 6-20% from protein.
These three diets have many different benefits and serve to fit the individual. Many of these diets can show people how to lose weight, how to stick to a low-carb diet or overcome the challenges of sticking to a weight-loss diet, if only because high-protein diets tend to reduce hunger so you eat less.
How to Get Started on Your High-Protein Diet
When you’re ready to get started on your high-protein diet, you first need to know how much protein is right for you. The amount of protein required is associated with the type of diet, the purpose of the diet, and the person consuming the diet. From there, you can figure out how exercise impacts your protein intake, and the role protein plays in ketosis.
Protein Levels for Women and Men
Measuring the daily intake of protein for women and men isn’t an exact science; however, the general consensus is that 0.8 g of protein per 2.2 pounds is just the right amount, but this is a general recommendation. To better find how much protein you should consume, try this.
Multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.36. For example, a 200-pound individual (200 multiplied by 0.36) would need to consume about 72 g of protein per day. This is the amount for an average diet, not a high-protein diet. To reap the benefits of higher intake of protein, you have to take into consideration why you’re changing your diet and how it will affect your health. (Harvard Medical School)
Protein and Exercise
While you can take in protein before, during, and after a workout, it’s the post-workout protein that’s supposed to facilitate muscle growth and recovery. Based on research, the most crucial time to consume protein is after a workout. Exercise can trigger protein synthesis for hours after the workout is complete. The addition of a post-workout protein shake or supplement supports this reaction. (Nutrients)
Protein and Ketosis
Using a high-protein diet, weight loss is accomplished by reaching something known as ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state that happens from depriving the body of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the largest source of fuel in the human body. In depriving the body of carbohydrates, you are also robbing glycogen stores from being filled. When this happens, the body looks for other sources of fuel. During this metabolic transition, the body then uses fat to convert into ketones; this becomes the body’s new source of energy.
Ketones are simply a byproduct created when the body breaks down fat for fuel. There are only three different types of ketones.
Acetoacetate– At the top of the list, this ketone is created when fatty acids are broken down. This ketone is then converted into acetone or beta-hydroxybutyric acid.
Acetone– Next, created from acetoacetate, we have acetone. This ketone breaks down very quickly and is expelled through waste and breath.
Beta-Hydroxybutyric Acid– Lastly, Beta-hydroxybutyric acid isn’t actually a ketone. However, within the keto diet community, people often consider it to be.
Ketosis allows for better mental focus and ketones provide a constant source of energy for the entire body, including the brain. With a high-protein diet and ketosis, this constant source to pull from allows the brain consistent fuel to make optimal focus come easily.
Another added benefit from ketosis is the physical endurance level it creates. Without the need for replacing glycogen, the body can just keep going, so with a high-protein diet and ketosis, your endurance may also increase. This could be perfect for marathon runners. However, someone who is bodybuilding for muscle mass would not benefit as strongly from a keto diet because carbs are used to carry protein to the muscle for growth and recovery.
Ketosis and Weight Loss
Ketogenic diets are all the rage, and rightfully so. There are thousands of people sharing their keto journeys across social media from around the world. There’s a clear difference between a traditional high-protein diet and a keto diet. The difference comes down to fat intake. As much as 70% of total calories from fat are required to follow a ketogenic plan accurately. Does a keto, high-protein diet work for weight loss?
The simple answer is – yes. When the body is in ketosis, it burns the small number of carbs you intake each day before switching over to burning fat for fuel. On average, people on a keto diet lose about five more pounds per month than those on a more traditional weight-loss diet. (CFP-MFC)
Types of High-Protein Ketogenic Diets
Not all ketogenic, high-protein diets work in the same way – but all focus on increasing fat intake and reducing (dramatically) your carbohydrate intake.
(SKD) Standard Keto Diet – “very-low-carbohydrate with moderate protein and high fat” Typically, 70 percent fat, 25 percent protein, and five percent carbohydrates.
(CKD) Cyclical Keto Diet – “periods of higher carbohydrates in between the ketogenic diet cycles.”
(TKD) Targeted Keto Diet – “adding additional carbohydrates around the period of the intensive physical workout.”
(HPKD) High-Protein Keto Diet – “ratio of about 65 percent fat, 35 percent protein, and five percent carbohydrates.” (IJMR)
Detailed Look at High-Protein Diets and Weight Loss
One of the first things we find about the high-protein diet is that it promotes weight loss and increases energy expenditure in men and women, though the best results come with a high-protein, low-carb diet. When women, in one study, paired a high-protein diet with exercise, the results on weight were clinically significant – they simply lost more weight. (Nutrients)
Protein and Appetite
High-protein diets have been shown to increase energy expenditure (the number of calories the body burns). This is especially true of high-protein diets, as opposed to medium-protein diets. (Annual Review of Nutrition)
“Dietary protein contributes to the treatment of obesity and the metabolic syndrome, by acting on the relevant metabolic targets of satiety and energy expenditure.” (British Journal of Nutrition)
This isn’t the only study showing the effect of protein on appetite. It appears that this effect is linked to amino acid levels and various hormone concentrations. (Frontiers in Endocrinology)
High-protein diets are thought to work to suppress hunger thanks to the release of satiety hormones and increased ghrelin levels. (Nutrition and Metabolism)
In terms of thermogenesis, or the production of heat, higher protein diets work to decrease appetite via results of “diet-induced thermogenesis.” (Nutrition and Metabolism)
Protein and Ghrelin Levels
The “hunger hormone,” also known as ghrelin, is produced in the gut of the human body; it then travels throughout the bloodstream and eventually makes its way into the brain. Once at the brain, it signals the body to eat when hungry. Interestingly, during a typical diet, these levels of ghrelin increase and convince the person to eat eventually. However, when significant protein is ingested, ghrelin levels are reduced, allowing the person to fight off hunger and lose weight. (Healthline)
It appears that after eating a high-protein meal, ghrelin levels decrease gradually. This decrease can help reduce the amount of ghrelin released and, thus, decrease hunger. (JCEM)
Protein and Metabolism
Another study reports that high-protein “diets may be metabolically advantageous, particularly for overweight and obese adults attempting to lose weight.” (Journal of Food Science)
The effects of a high-protein diet on metabolic rate is well-established in research on both adults and adolescents. (Revista Espanola Fisiologia)
Protein and Muscle Loss
Diets without sufficient levels of protein can actually cause loss of lean muscle tissue. When protein is needed, the body breaks down this tissue, which can cause weight loss, but not in a healthy, sustainable manner. (Cell Reports)
When adequate, not excessive, protein intake is adopted, it can result in weight loss while protecting muscle mass. (Advances in Nutrition)
To prevent muscle loss, research shows you can intake protein before bed, which increases the rate of protein synthesis overnight. This, in turn, supports muscle growth and recovery. (Frontiers in Nutrition)
While high-protein diets have been shown to promote the preservation of lean muscle mass, it has been noted that to protect muscle successfully, an adequate amount of protein is required. (Nutrients)
Who Would Benefit From a High-Protein Diet?
High-protein diets are not merely popular for weight loss; they are also beneficial in other ways.
Of the many reasons people can benefit from a high-protein diet, some include:
- Bodybuilders: Many bodybuilders use a high-protein diet for muscle gain. Because bodybuilders break down a lot of muscle, they need to have a high-protein diet to ensure proper muscle mass. Protein helps muscles to repair and restore after physical activity, like weight training and other types of muscle-building exercise programs.
Research shows that bodybuilders actually need more protein than average people. This is especially true of competitive bodybuilders. (Sports Medicine)
- People prone to weight gain: Many people use a high-protein diet to lose weight. Protein increases the feeling of fullness and allows people who are prone to weight gain the option of a diet that actually works. By stabilizing blood sugar, proteins help those who feel hungry frequently feel full and resist eating. This helps individuals learn how to lose weight fast, efficiently, and safely.
Something as simple as a high-protein snack can reduce hunger between meals enough to facilitate weight loss or reduce/prevent weight gain. (Nutrition Journal)
- Women with sugary, carbohydrate diets: Proteins can help women with a medical condition known as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. PCOS has been linked to sweet cravings and has been directly linked to diabetes. A high-protein diet with little to no carbs can also help a person on a limited diabetic diet. By participating in a healthy diet plan, people with PCOS can cut down on weight gain and potentially increase fertility, a result that has been linked to weight loss in some women. Women with PCOS typically can use a high-protein diet weight-loss program to cut back on carbs and create a regime to lose weight. The high-protein diet weight-loss programs available can show women how to lose weight fast, maintain a low- to no-carb diet, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
It’s also vital for women with PCOS to intake enough fiber while reducing saturated fat intake. (British Journal of Nutrition)
- People who are middle-aged: Because middle-aged people are at risk for an array of conditions, protein is vital. With an increased risk of heart disease, bone loss, hair loss, and other medical conditions, it is essential to look at the many high-protein diet benefits. Many middle-aged people use a high-protein diet for muscle gain to help combat muscle loss that comes with aging.
High-protein diets have been shown to help “slow functional decline in older adults.” (American Journal of Epidemiology)
Good and Better Sources of Protein
There are many sources of protein; however, there are some foods that are better sources of protein than others. Many of these items make a perfect contribution to a high-protein diet menu. If losing weight and gaining muscle mass is a goal, these foods are at the top of the priority list for most high-protein diets. Some good and better sources of protein include:
- Pork chops- 26 g per 3 oz serving (206 calories)
- Yellowfin tuna- 25 g per 3 oz serving (92 calories)
- Chicken breast- 24 g per 3 oz serving (140 calories)
- Corned beef- 24 g per 3 oz serving (213 calories)
- Halibut- 23 g per 3 oz serving (94 calories)
- Sockeye salmon- 23 g per 3 oz serving (143 calories)
- Steak (bottom or top round)- 23 g per 3 oz serving (142 calories)
- Greek yogurt- 23 g per 8 oz serving (130 calories)
- Light tuna- 22 g per 3 oz serving (99 calories)
- Cottage Cheese- 14 g per 1/3 cup serving (76 calories)
- Beef jerky- 13 g per 1 oz serving (116 calories)
- Swiss cheese- 8 g per 1 oz serving (108 calories)
- 2 Percent milk- 8 g per 1 cup serving (103 calories)
- Egg- 6 g 1 large egg (72 calories)
- Navy beans- 20 g per 1 cup serving (70 calories)
- Dried lentils- 13 g per 1/4 cup serving (169 calories)
- Tofu- 12 g per 3 oz serving (64 calories)
- Peanut butter- 8 g per 2 tbsp serving (188 calories)
- Green Peas- 7 g per 1 cup serving (118 calories)
- Quinoa- 8 g per 1 cup serving (222 calories)
- Mixed nuts- 6 g per 2 oz serving (344 calories)
- Edamame – 5 g per ¼ cup shelled (120 calories)
- Hemp seed – 4 g per tablespoon (50 calories)
- Chia seed – 3 g per tablespoon (58 calories)
- Asparagus – 3 g per 1 cup (20 calories)
- Broccoli – 3 g per 1 cup (31 calories)
- Brussel’s sprouts – 3 g per 1 cup (38 calories)
- Watercress – 1 g per 1 cup (3 calories)
- Alfalfa sprouts – 1 g per 1 cup (10 calories)
- Spinach – 1g per 1 cup (7 calories)
- Cabbage – 1 g per 1 cup (22 calories)
Benefits of a High-Protein Diet
There are many benefits of a high-protein diet. Some of these include:
- Increase muscle mass
- Protect against the loss of lean muscle while dieting
- Reduce muscle loss during aging
- Strengthen bones
- Improve wound healing
- Improve symptoms of neurological disorders
- Reduce seizures in people with epilepsy
- Reduce hunger
Protein is a necessity; it is one of the three macronutrients in the food we ingest. Amino acids, which protein is made of, breakdown and re-assemble themselves into different elements that the human body requires. Protein is important because if we do not get enough of it, our bodies will start to take it from other parts of the body, such as the muscles. By eating enough protein, we can replenish the necessary levels we require and keep the rest of the body running smoothly and healthily.
Muscle Mass and Strength: During resistance training, a high-protein diet will help increase lean muscle mass, and subsequently, strength. (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition)
For best results, a high-protein diet needs to be partnered with an adequate exercise program. Basically, you cannot increase muscle mass and strength with increased protein intake alone. You need to work those muscles before size and tone is changed. (Sports Medicine)
Bone Strength: When too little protein is consumed, it can cause weaker bones and increase the risk of breakage, especially in aging adults. (JBMR)
It appears the connection between protein and bone health is rooted in calcium absorption. Protein works to help with “calcium retention and bone metabolism.” (Current Opinions in Lipidology)
Healing Injury: Protein is used in the formation and health of organs and tissues. With sufficient protein intake, the time it takes to recover from injury is reduced. (Nutrition in Clinical Practice)
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Parkinson’s Disease (PD): It appears a high-protein ketogenic diet can decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. It’s thought that anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects are the heart of cognitive protection. (Behavioral Pharmacology)
Human studies, not studies on animals, has shown this positive effect on neurological processes to fight AD and PD. (Nutrients)
Epilepsy: A high-protein, high-fat diet has been used since the 1920s to treat the symptoms of epilepsy. The effect has been shown in people of all ages. (Frontiers in Neuroscience)
The high-protein, ketogenic diet works well as an addendum to medication therapy for epilepsy. (CFP-MFC)
Appetite: There’s a wealth of research showing that protein intake increases satiety, which means you feel less hungry and, in turn, consume fewer calories. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
Health Risks of a High-Protein Diet
Overeating protein has been a health concern for many people. If you eat too much protein, it will ruin your kidneys. Let’s explore some of the most common health issues high protein diets may be harmful for.
- Kidney damage. It has been noted that high-protein diets may fuel kidney damage — an interesting misconception caused by doctors typically telling individuals with preexisting kidney issues to eat a low-protein diet. High-protein diets are not known to cause kidney disease. This comes from the idea that higher levels of protein cause the kidneys to work harder because there are higher levels of metabolic waste to be excreted through the urine. If your kidneys are already damaged, clearly, this is harder on them. However, if your kidneys are perfectly healthy, high levels of protein are not going to cause kidney damage.
Though research shows that taking in too muscle protein can cause kidney issues, additional research shows no harmful effects or side effects of increased protein intake. (The Journal of Nutrition)
- Liver damage. Being another processing organ in the human body, the same applies to the liver. If you suffer from cirrhosis of the liver, high-protein foods are not ideal. However, if your liver is healthy, there is no concern for liver damage through a high-protein diet menu.
When intaking moderate amounts of protein, there doesn’t seem to be an effect on liver health. However, when protein intake is too high, liver damage can occur. (Examine)
- Osteoporosis. While eating foods high in protein can cause calcium to leave the body at higher rates, eating more protein alone does not cause osteoporosis. There is a significant amount of protein also located in the bones of the human body. Bones are similar to muscles, in that they are continually being broken down and rebuilt. This means that bones also require protein. Elderly women who eat a diet consisting of higher protein foods have a higher bone density, showing that protein can actually do the opposite for the bone health of individuals who are most prone to have osteoporosis.
It appears that high-protein diets can cause an increased release of calcium. This, in turn, affects bone health and density. (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
- Heart disease. There is limited understanding and knowledge to base the concept that higher levels of protein intake increase the risk or development of heart disease. It is thought that higher levels of animal-protein intake are directly linked to heart disease. Though, there is no mention of plant-based protein. This suggests that the problem isn’t actually the protein but where you get the protein from – though research has yet to come to a consensus.
Surprisingly, another negative result of high-protein diets includes an increased risk of heart failure. (Circulation. Heart Failure)
- Cancer. The most interesting connection thus far is the connection between cancer and protein. Most studies connecting these two things have been based on human memory. Having a patient recall the amount of protein they ate throughout their lives is widely inaccurate because of the inconsistencies and reliability of the memory. Even more impressive was that while people aged 50-65 were associated with higher death rates linked to eating protein, people aged 65 and older showed a reversal of that data. This indicates that there is limited knowledge and proof that protein causes cancer. Many of the studies done linking high-protein intake with cancer have a focus on where the protein came from. Like heart disease, the risk of cancer-induced through protein intake was taken from animal-sourced protein. Learning how to supplement animal protein with plant protein sources may be the key to these study results.
Believe it or not, excessive intake of protein can lead to an increased risk of respiratory tract cancer in men. (Nutrition Journal)
There’s also evidence that high protein intake can elevate the risk of colon and rectal cancers. (Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer)
- Dehydration. It appears that increased protein intake tends to be matched with decreased fluid intake. This can cause dehydration, which can eventually lead to constipation. (AAAS)
- Constipation. It appears, thanks to the potential for protein to sap fluid levels in the body, dehydration can occur. Dehydration can lead to constipation as the bowel doesn’t have enough liquid to function properly. To negate these effects, increase water intake and take in enough dietary fiber to keep things moving.
- Kwashiorkor Protein Deficiency. Protein is such a necessity that without it, the body would become malnourished and die. With many people talking about high-protein diet risks, it is only prudent that we point out the effects of protein deficiency. Kwashiorkor is a disease of protein deficiency. This deficiency mostly affects people who have faced famine or who are on a low-protein diet – as is the case with extreme vegan diets where protein intake is not well monitored. Protein virtually makes up everything our bodies do, all the enzymes and blood transporters, the formation of your fingernails and hair, a lot of the hormones in the body, much of the muscle, and bone and internal organs. Essentially if there is no protein, there can be no person. Knowing this shows us that it is clear that Kwashiorkor is a serious condition, and protein is an absolute must to keep our bodies in perfect working order.
Though there are possible side effects of excessive protein intake, the body needs protein to function correctly. Too little protein, called protein deficiency, can lead to this form of malnutrition. (StatPearls)
Despite the ample support for various adverse effects of a high-protein diet, there’s research that shows “no harmful effects” of the said diet. (Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism)
Fighting the Risks of a High-Protein Diet
Experts agree that there are some changes you have to make in your diet to ensure overall health and reduce the risk of side effects. The changes include:
- Drinking more water
- Taking a vitamin B6 supplement
- Taking a multivitamin with vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium
Sample High-Protein Diet Menu – Meat Eaters
Finding high-protein diet recipes for all diet plans can be challenging. Many people get consumed with confusion at what they should be eating and how much they should be eating. Let’s take a look at a week-long high-protein diet menu for a meat-eater.
Pork Cutlets with peppers and onions. This protein-heavy meal is easy and loaded with protein. Saute peppers, shallots, kalamata olives, and cannellini beans with a pork cutlet and enjoy. Add parsley and other spices to taste.
Steak with sauteed tomatoes and green beans. This is an easy stovetop or grilled option loaded with protein. Simply cook steak and saute the tomatoes and green beans with some oregano and sliced garlic.
Slow cooker corned beef and cabbage. This is a perfect addition to the menu because it is easy and takes very little work. Simply take beef, red potatoes, carrots, and cabbage and place it in a slow cooker for seven to eight hours. Add thyme and caraway seeds halfway through for taste.
The beef, bacon, egg burger. This is easy and loaded with protein. Mix hamburger with fried bacon in a bowl, pat out, and fry. Place burger on an English muffin bun and top with tomato and egg.
Roasted curry salmon with tomatoes. Fish is always a great option for any diet plan consisting of high protein. Toss tomatoes in oil and place on a baking sheet, nestle salmon on the same sheet, and bake at 400 degrees F until fish is flaky. Place salmon over rice vegetables and top with tomatoes and basil.
Lentil and kielbasa stew. Saute celery, carrots, and onions. Add kielbasa, lentils and cooking liquid and allow to simmer. Make sure to stir occasionally until done.
Chipotle beef and beer chili. Easy to make dish using one pound of ground beef and a cup or two of kidney beans. Saute onions, brown meat and add in peeled tomatoes, beans and chipotles in adobo sauce. Mix in some Mexican beer to help keep this chili moist.
Sample High-Protein Diet – Vegetarian and Vegan
Vegetarian and vegan diet plans can be a challenge when trying to adopt a high-protein diet. Finding a high-protein diet for vegans gets even trickier. Though tricky, many of these high-protein diet recipes are easy to make. Let’s take a look at a week-long high protein diet for vegetarians and vegans.
Cashew noodles with tofu and broccoli. Boil the noodles, puree cashews, and steam broccoli and toss together with tofu to get this high-protein meal. For a change, leave cashews whole and mix with noodles, broccoli and tofu.
Black bean salad. This meal is great for a high-protein diet for a vegan. Just add black beans, tomatoes, avocado, corn kernels, and finely chopped celery and mix with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or lime.
Cauliflower and cheese. Mixed raced or chunked cauliflower with vegan cheese and almond milk. Bake until the vegetables are just soft. Move to the top rack to slightly brown the cheese.
Vegetarian chili. Made like most chili, this vegetarian version can be made by substituting the hamburger found in regular chili and adding enough black beans and kidney beans to ramp up the protein.
Bean kale burger. Substitute the protein in beef by using pinto beans, kale, and vegan pepper jack cheese to make this burger. Add tomatoes and lettuce for a topper.
Egg in a basket with asparagus. This can be part of a high protein diet for a vegan if they eat eggs. Simple fry the egg into the high-protein bread, add Gruyere cheese and use grilled or steam asparagus as a sandwich topper.
Lentil barley vegetable soup. Take lentils, split peas and barley, and add them all in a crockpot to make this high-protein meal. Lentils typically take a few hours on high to fully cook.
Tips for a High-Protein Diet
With any diet, there are key components to ensure that individuals stick to their regime. These simple steps can help a person learn how to lose weight in a controlled, safe manner. Some essential tips for a high-protein diet include:
- Keep a food diary
- Calculate protein needs
- Eat protein at every meal
- Include animal and plant proteins in your diet (if not vegetarian or vegan)
- Choose high-quality protein sources
- Consume well-balanced meals
- Eat your protein first, for appetite suppression
- Choose Greek yogurt over traditional yogurt
- Drink plenty of water to reduce the risk of constipation and dehydration
- Add fiber to your diet, again to curb the risk of constipation
Expert Opinion on High-Protein Diets
Although there are many opinions on high-protein diet risks, benefits, and side effects, an expert’s opinions can be vital to know the facts. Let’s look at some of the views of professionals on high-protein diets.
John McDougall, MD – According to Dr. John McDougall, MD, “A diet based on complex carbohydrates with the addition of fruits and vegetables will cause effortless, permanent, healthful weight loss without restricting food or causing hunger. You eat delicious dishes such as minestrone soup, chili, and bean burritos. And you won’t ever have to make yourself sick again with fried cheese cubes wrapped in bacon.” Dr. John McDougall is not an advocate of a high-protein diet.
Dr. Eric Berg DC – According to Dr. Eric Berg DC, “Protein does trigger the fat burning process, but if your liver is toxic, weak or damaged, you won’t be able to handle heavy protein.” Dr. Eric Berg DC points out that although high-protein diets to lose weight are efficient, those who have a weakened liver should avoid them.
Dr. Mercola – Dr. Mercola is an advocate for high-protein diets. According to him, “Simply speaking, eating protein keeps you feeling full longer, which will naturally help quench overeating or snacking on less healthy foods.” This quote shows us that a high-protein diet does, in fact, reduce the urges of consuming unhealthy foods by making us feel fuller.
Dr. Sam Roberts – According to Dr. Sam Roberts “While this is more a side effect of losing the weight rather that the direct consumption of proteins, the speed in which the weight is lost means that those who have dangerous levels of cholesterol can get relief rather quickly by using this particular diet.” Dr. Roberts points out that people who may need a low cholesterol diet may benefit from using a high protein diet. Those who need to drop weight fast and lower cholesterol levels may find a high protein diet more beneficial than a normal low cholesterol diet.
Dr. Campbell – According to Dr. Campbell, “Eating a diet that includes a serving of legumes, greens, vegetables, and grains at each meal will provide plenty of protein, along with wholesome, plant-based nutrients.” Dr. Campbell also points out that we should be getting sufficient protein from high protein diet vegetables. High protein diet vegetables are what he would consider the best sources of our protein needs.
Dr. Valter Lango – Dr. Lango is not an advocate for a high protein diet, in fact, he is quoted as saying, ”If you look at, for example, some of these high-fat, high-protein diets, in the beginning, everybody thought they were a great idea because people lost weight. Then it turns out, as the epidemiological studies started coming out, they are some of the worst diets you can have. They promote higher mortality and higher incidents of all kinds of diseases…and sure enough, there are no very long-lived populations that have a high animal fat, high animal protein diet.”
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS – As an advocate for high protein diets, Dr. Marc Bubbs, CISSN, CSCS has said “If weight loss or getting leaner is your goal this year, take a lesson the bodybuilding community has known for decades, significantly increasing your protein intake is a fantastic way to burn fat and build muscle. Don’t be afraid of protein”.
Krista Haynes, R.D., and Beachbody Nutrition Manager. – Krista Haynes R.D. points out that “The protein helps support muscle recovery and growth when combined with proper exercise.” This opinion shows us that while eating protein, foods can be beneficial; it is also important to pair any diet with exercise. Partaking in the consumption of high protein snacks can help promote muscle growth and recovery, especially when paired with a good exercise regimen.
Dr. Bill Sukala – According to Dr. Sukala mentions, “A high protein content is probably not going to hurt you unless you have a pre-existing kidney problem.” This quote shows us that someone who is diabetic and on a diabetic diet should be screened before starting a high protein diet.
Dr. Dean Ornish – According to Dr. Dean Ornish, “The debate is not as simple as low-fat versus low-carb. Research shows that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. Heavy consumption of saturated fat and trans fats may double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.” Dr. Dean Ornish describes the high-protein diet as a myth. He suggests that a high-protein diet is riddled with health concerns and links animal protein to cancer and even type 2 diabetes. This suggests that once again, the problem may not be with the protein itself but rather where we get your protein from. Replacing some of your protein needs from animal protein to plant protein sources may decrease some of the negative health effects.
Jose Antonio, PhD – According to Jose Antonio, PhD, there are many myths surrounding a high-protein diet. Dr. Antonio says, “Here at the university, we have data showing that if you are a trained male bodybuilder and consume a high-protein diet for at least two years, you will experience no harmful effects to your kidneys, liver, or blood lipids.” This opinion is very different than some of the other expert opinions we have come across. Dr. Antonio suggests that there are no adverse effects on the kidneys, bone loss in aging women or that high-protein diets cause weight gain.
Dr I.V. van Heerden – In an article written by Dr. I.V van Heerden, Dr. van Heerden suggests that while high-protein diets work, they come at great costs to the body. Dr. van Heerden states, “The risk of death is well documented, and regular reports are published in the medical literature describing deaths that result from the use of high-protein slimming diets.” Dr. I.V van Heerden’s article focuses on the aspects of the idea that while the high-protein diet works to lose weight, it has serious adverse effects on the body. Dr. I.V van Heerden suggests that high protein diets may be harmful – associated with liver and kidney damage, unpleasant body and breath odor, muscle loss, deficiency diseases, constipation, and even death. Dr. I.V van Heerden goes on to suggest that while these diets work, the link between illness and high-protein diets are well noted saying that “One of the most telling indications that high-protein slimming diets are not good for you is the fact that most of the diet books that advocate such diets, always warn that you should only use the diet for one, or a maximum of two weeks, at a time.”
Research on Protein and High-Protein Diets
Study Title: Ghrelin and glucagon-like peptide one concentrations, 24-h satiety, and energy and substrate metabolism during a high-protein diet and measured in a respiration chamber.
This study was done on 12 women, ages 18-40. The women were fed an energy-balanced adequate protein or an HP diet in a random crossover design. The group that partook in the high-protein diet felt fuller, had increased GLP-1 levels, and ate less than the group who were supplied with the lower-protein diet. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
Study Title: Quantity of dietary protein intake, but not a pattern of intake, affects net protein balance primarily through differences in protein synthesis in older adults.
This study from the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences showed that after six months, people ages 52-75 who doubled up on protein were found to be better at building and keeping muscle. These high-protein diet side effects show positive results in all aging individuals’ health. By grabbing protein from beans, nuts, fish, and whole grains, people of this age can avoid high cholesterol and maintain proper protein levels. (American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism)
Study Title: Randomized trial on protein vs carbohydrate in ad libitum fat reduced diet for the treatment of obesity.
This 6-month study involved two groups of 65 individuals who were overweight. The study concluded that those who participated in the high-protein group lost 43% more body fat than those who participated in the high-carb group. This shows that a high-protein diet with few carbs can be beneficial to those who suffer from weight gain and that they can adhere to a high-protein diet to lose weight. (International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders)
Study Title: Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women.
This study was done with ten women who were given a high-protein diet for a single day. This study concluded that two times the amount of daily protein intake increased the metabolic rate after meals than if they were to consume a high-carb diet in a single day. (Journal of the American College of Nutrition)
Study Title: A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow-up investigation.
The study was done on 48 resistance-trained individuals, including both men and women. Research concluded that pairing heavy-resistance training with a high-protein diet showed no deleterious effect on the body. (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition)
Study Title: The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals.
This study was done on 37 healthy women and men who were resistance-trained. Each person was either assigned to a control group or a high-protein group. The control group maintained the same dietary and training habits for over eight weeks. The individuals who participated in the high-protein group were to consume 4.4 g of protein daily for each kg of their body weight. The results of this study concluded that the consumption of 5.5 times the daily recommended protein intake showed no adverse side effects on resistance-trained individuals. (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition)
Final Word on High-Protein Diets
High-protein diets can take on a variety of different looks and rules. If you’re trying to lose weight, partner a high-protein diet with higher fat content to reach ketosis – the process of burning fat for fuel in place of carbohydrates. If you’re looking to grow and maintain muscle mass, consume a good source of protein after meals, if you’re trying to decrease the risks of certain diseases, again partner high-protein with higher fat intake.
These are just a few of the benefits of a high-protein diet, but you must also consider the risks. Too much protein can wreak havoc on your system and potentially cause constipation.
While there are pros and cons with a high-protein diet, there’s reason to believe that eating more protein can be beneficial for overall health, including weight loss and bone health.
Questions and Answers (QA)
Q: What are high protein foods for weight loss?
A: Depending on the eating plan you’re following – keto, paleo, vegetarian, vegan, there are a variety of high protein foods for weight loss. Some of the best do fall into the plant-based protein category because of the nutrient profile. These foods include nuts, seeds, milk-based foods like yogurt, and lean meats and fish.
Q: Why do you lose weight on a high protein diet?
A: If a high-protein diet is partnered with an extreme reduction in carbohydrates and extreme increase in fat intake, you will likely lose weight. This is because the body needs fuel to function and when the preferred glucose isn’t available because of the low carb intake, the body turns to fat stores. The body essentially feeds off its own fat stores. Protein has also been shown to reduce hunger, which could help with weight loss.
Q: What foods are the highest in protein?
A: For meat eaters, the foods highest in protein include eggs, chicken breast, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, leaf beef, and fatty fish. For vegetarians and vegans, incorporate plant-based proteins like those found in nuts, seeds, beans, and oats.
Q: What happens to your body if you eat too much protein?
A: When you eat too much protein the body converts the protein to glucose and stores the energy for later use. This can happen on a low-carb diet and is one reason why the body falls out of ketosis.
Q: Is high protein bad?
A: Anything in excessive amounts is “bad,” if you will. High-protein diets have been followed for hundreds of years as a solution for all kinds of health conditions like difficulty sleeping and epilepsy.
Q: How much protein is too much?
A: Research suggests that eating upwards of 2g of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight can lead to health problems, when adopted long-term. In a 200-pound person, too much protein would fall at around 175g.
Q: Are oats high in protein?
A: Oats supply about 6g of protein per cup.
Q: How much weight can you lose on a high protein diet?
A: The amount of weight you lose on a high protein diet depends on your current weight, age, activity level, and the type of high protein diet you’re following. The most popular low-carb, high-protein diets has been used for weight loss for decades.
Q: Can too much protein make you gain weight?
A: Yes, too much of any food can cause weight gain. Any time the body produces more energy than it needs, it stores the excess in fat cells for later use.
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