Archive for Wednesday, October 31, 2001

High-protein diet falls short in long run

October 31, 2001


I continue to hear a lot about the no-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. Can you tell me about it? Does it work?

Basically, followers of the diet are told to eat unlimited amounts of protein foods, such as meats, poultry, fish, cheese and eggs. What the proponents don't mention is that these foods are very high in fat, especially saturated fat.

The diet has no or low amounts of carbohydrates, including most vegetables, sweets, rice, pasta, bread, fruits and milk. Alcohol is a carbohydrate, so beer, wine and other spirits would also be forbidden.

As to whether these diets work for weight loss, Mary L. Meck Higgins, an Extension specialist in nutrition education, said "in the first week it does work; however, much of the weight lost is water.

"This is healthy water weight and is regained when the person goes back to eating carbohydrates," Higgins said. "If the person stays on the diet for a longer time, muscle and fat weight will be lost. The diet is so limited in food choices that it is very boring and monotonous, so followers eat fewer calories than are needed to maintain their weight.

"It shouldn't be a surprise that when dieters limit their meal selections to just one food group, they are able to lose weight."

So is there anything wrong with following this diet?

According to Higgins, the more food groups a dieter limits and the longer the reduced intake continues the more likely they are to affect their nutritional well-being. Inadequate diets can worsen chronic and acute diseases, delay recovery from illness and hasten development of degenerative diseases.

Eating a high-protein, high-fat diet that is low in fruits, vegetables and high-fiber grains has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancers, osteoporosis, kidney diseases and even death.

This diet leads its followers to failure. Sooner or later, they go off the diet, regain body weight and feel guilty.

On no- or very low-carbohydrate diets, ketosis occurs. Ketosis is the process where ketones (such as acetone) build up in the blood from incomplete burning of stored and dietary fats. This causes very bad breath and can lead to a life-threatening condition of too much acid in the blood.

A low-carbohydrate diet depletes muscle glycogen stores and can make exercise workouts seem more difficult. Various health problems ranging from fatigue, nausea and diarrhea or constipation can arise. Essential minerals can be lost from too much water weight loss due to excessive urination. Without carbohydrates in the diet, the body breaks down its own muscle.

The kidneys have to work harder when the diet is too high in protein. The body cannot store excess protein, but converts it to fat. Some people are susceptible to gout when they eat a high-protein diet.

High-protein diets also contribute to calcium loss. On low-carbohydrate diets, people limit their milk intake, so they may get even less dietary calcium than they would normally.

Severely restricting certain foods, such as all carbohydrates, is likely to result in binge eating. Many people will give in to cravings by eating highly sweetened carbohydrates, rather than loading up on whole grains, fruits, vegetables and milk. It would better serve the body to eat nourishing carbohydrates throughout the day.

Certain high-carbohydrate foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and milk products are loaded with health-promoting phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. It makes sense to eat foods that contain many nutrients.

Eating more grains, fruits and vegetables is associated with lower blood pressure, and has many health benefits. These foods also add color, crunch and variety to our meals.

In addition, most of the energy we use to move around, work and live is from carbohydrates. The brain usually relies on carbohydrates for its thinking power.

What would be a better way to lose weight?

Adjust your meal and snack selections according to the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, which can be found online at

For instance, are you eating enough fruits? Vegetables? High-fiber grains? Too much of something? If your pyramid is skewed, change your eating habits until your diet looks more like what is recommended.

Decrease fat to 30 percent of calories or less, or about 50 grams to 60 grams or less a day. Eat fewer simple sugars. Cut back on, or avoid, sugary beverages and foods. Read food labels. Respond to daily stress in ways that do not involve eating or drinking.

Increase physical activity to 30 minutes to an hour almost every day. Aim for at least 150 minutes total a week. It doesn't have to be done all at once, and can be done with a friend. (Bonus: This will improve your social support network, too.)

Forget about focusing on weight loss. Work on becoming healthier to feel better and reduce risk of disease. Adopt a healthier lifestyle and be pleasantly surprised at the many benefits to your well-being. Ironically, one benefit just may be lasting weight loss.

Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.

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