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Charles H. Booras, MD.
Co-Founder and Editor
Jacksonville Medical Park Online

For the week of: 8/17/98

Question:"Are the new high-protein diets the latest answer to weight loss or just another fad?"

Answer: If you’ve been in bookstores, you’ve probably seen the new diet books that boast the promise of losing weight on high-protein diets and claim that high carbohydrates are dangerous to your health. But trying to lose weight and lower cholesterol via a high-protein diet is not your best bet.

The high-protein hype started in the ‘60s with the Atkins diet. In the’ 70s, it was reincarnated as the Stillman diet. Then in the ‘80s it peaked again as the popular Scarsdale diet. But despite high protein’s questionable past, a new crop of high-protein diet books, such as The Zone and Dr. Atkin’s New Diet Revolution have caught the public's attention again.

Today’s high-protein diet has been modified to include 40% of total calories from carbohydrates, a little more than what was advocated in the past, with fat and protein each providing 30% of total calories.

Keep in mind that all of the major professional health organizations, including the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, and the American Cancer Society, endorse a diet that is composed of 10% to 15% protein, 55% to 60% carbohydrates, and 25% to 30% fat.

To determine your protein needs:

  1. You must first calculate your calorie needs. If you are overweight, multiply your current weight by 10. If you are at your desired weight, multiply your current weight by 15. Example: 160 lbs x 10 = 1600 kcals/day
  2. To find your protein needs: Multiply your caloric needs by 12% (.12).
  3. Divide that number by 4 to see how many grams of protein you should consume daily. Example: 1600 kcal/day X .12 = 192. Divide by 4 calories per gram = 48 grams of protein.

Why High Protein?

The resurgence of high-protein diets is based primarily on the misconception that carbohydrates alone induce weight gain. All of the best-selling high-protein diet books insist that carbohydrates and insulin are the true villains in the battle of the bulge. These programs claim that eating carbohydrates triggers the secretion of insulin, which causes carbohydrates to be taken to the cells and stored as fat instead of being used for energy.

Reader Beware...these claims rely on unpublished research or studies that have not been peer reviewed or controlled, meaning they have little respect in the scientific community.

The truth is, all calories from food are converted into glucose to be stored for energy. Glucose is stored as fat only when you have consumed excess calories.

So, it’s your overall calorie intake and not carbohydrates that cause fat to be stored. And besides, foods that are high in protein, such as meats and cheeses, are also high in saturated fat, which we now know will increase blood cholesterol levels if eaten in excess.

High-Protein Pitfalls: Quick Loss, Short Term

High-protein diets have always had the reputation of being able to produce quick weight loss. However, quick doesn’t mean lasting and most of the initial loss from protein diets is water rather than fat. People who manage to stay on high-protein diets also lose weight because these diets restrict carbohydrate calories such as fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals, and legumes. By eliminating so many foods from your diet, you automatically reduce your calorie intake, resulting in a negative calorie balance and therefore weight loss. Unfortunately, you also reduce your intake of fiber and essential vitamins and minerals.

If you look at populations where people have good health and a long lifespan, you’ll find that their eating habits support the wisdom of a high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein diet which is also low in fat. The Japanese eat a diet abundant in rice and vegetables with only small amounts of protein and have a very low incidence of heart disease. Seventh Day Adventists are strict vegetarians who consume mainly grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables and also have a lower incidence of heart disease compared to the general population. Of course Seventh Day Adventists do not smoke cigarettes and exercise regularly as well.

Healthy Alternatives

If you want to manage your weight and your blood cholesterol level, skip the fad diets and stick with a low fat diet which accounts for less than 30% of your total calories. If you have heart disease, a diet less than 25% fat calories is probably to your advantage. Make sure your diet includes plenty of whole grains, beans, cereals, low fat and non-fat dairy products and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables everyday. Protein foods should be limited to approximately six ounces per day, preferably of lean meat, poultry, fish, low fat dairy products and vegetarian sources.

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