High Protein Low Carb Diets

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High protein low carb diets have been widely promoted in recent years as being an effective approach to weight loss. These diets generally recommend dieters obtain 30% to 50% of their total calories from protein.
The American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program and the American Cancer Society on the other hand, all recommend a diet wherein only 10% to 15% of calories are derived from protein. There is much debate, and the objective of this article is to throw some light on the issues supporting both sides of the argument.

The Atkins diet is a typical example of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. As this approach goes against the teachings of the medical institutions mentioned above, let us look at the kind of risks are we up against if we follow this type of diet.

The Health Risks Associated With High Protein, Low Carb Diets

High protein diets that strictly limit carbohydrates can cause a number of health problems, including:

Cancer
Some high protein low carb diets go against the latest World Cancer Research Fund Report, entitled Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer. One of the reasons high protein low carb diets increase the risks of certain health problems is because of the avoidance of carbohydrate-containing foods and the vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants they contain.

Kidney failure
Consuming too much protein puts undue strain on the kidneys, which can make a person susceptible to kidney disease.

Fatigue
Some high protein low carb diets may overly restrict carbohydrates, the nutrient group most readily converted to energy. Even moderately active people will notice this lack during exercise.

High cholesterol
It is well known that high protein diets (consisting of red meat, whole dairy products, and other high fat foods) are linked to high cholesterol and saturated fats that can lead to heart disease.

Osteoporosis and kidney stones
High protein diets have also been shown to cause people to excrete more calcium than normal through their urine. Over a prolonged period of time, this can increase a person's risk of osteoporosis and kidney stones.

Unhealthy metabolic state (ketosis)
Low carb diets can cause your body to go into a dangerous metabolic state called ketosis since your body burns fat instead of glucose for energy. During ketosis, the body forms substances known as ketones, which can cause organs to fail and result in gout, kidney stones, or kidney failure. Ketones can also dull a person's appetite, cause nausea and bad breath. Ketosis is prevented by eating at least 100 grams of carbohydrates a day.

"There are many concerns with eating diets high in animal fat," said Dr. Walter Willett, chief of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If people do want to cut back on carbohydrates, it's really important to do it in a way that emphasizes healthy fats, like salads with salad dressings."

Typically the high protein low carb diets, such as the Atkins Diet, have two fundamental rules:

  • The diet is based on eating lots of protein, such as meat and eggs but almost no carbohydrates like bread, potatoes, pasta, or rice, at least for a period of time.

    Most versions recommend large quantities of protein in unrestricted amounts, including red meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, and cheese. They forbid (or limit) pasta, bread, potatoes, fruit, many vegetables, plus any foods with large amounts of refined sugar.

  • The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently published an interesting article (July, 2005), entitled “Science-Based Solutions to Obesity: What Are the Roles of Academia, Government, Industry, and Health Care? - Protein, body weight, and cardiovascular health”


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    The article comments on high protein low carb diets and the effects, if any, on the heart:

    Widespread popularity of high-protein diets has drawn controversy as well as scientific interest. By reducing intake of carbohydrates and increasing consumption of fats and proteins, such diets are thought to increase satiety, facilitate weight loss, and improve cardiovascular risk factors. In recent years, many randomized controlled studies have compared the effects of higher-protein diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors with those of lower-protein diets. The aim of this review was to provide an overview of experimental and epidemiologic evidence regarding the role of protein in weight loss and cardiovascular risk.

    Emerging evidence from clinical trials indicates that higher-protein diets increase short-term weight loss and improve blood lipids, but long-term data are lacking. Findings from epidemiologic studies show a significant relationship between increased protein intake and lower risk of hypertension and coronary heart disease. However, different sources of protein appear to have different effects on cardiovascular disease.

    Although optimal amounts and sources of protein cannot be determined at this time, evidence suggests a potential benefit of partially replacing refined carbohydrates with protein sources low in saturated fats.

    High Carb diets and health risks

    There are two sides to every story and high protein low carb diets are no exception. Several studies, in no way related to the Atkins Diet, illustrate a number of health risks associated with eating high carb diets.

    High-carb diets may increase more than just waistlines. New research suggests they might raise the risk of breast cancer. Women in Mexico who ate a lot of carbohydrates were more than twice as likely to get breast cancer than those who ate less starch and sugar, scientists found. Previous studies have also linked high carbohydrate diets to colon cancer. However these studies are small and cannot really have the last word in the risks, or otherwise, of high carb diets.

    The Institute of Medicine recommends that carbohydrates constitute 45 percent to 65 percent of calories, and that no more than 20 percent should come from added sugars. New dietary guidelines are due to be released in 2006.

    More and more studies are being done on the risks or benefits of the high protein low carb diets, such as the Atkins Diet, and only time will tell who is right and who is wrong.

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