High Protein Diets - Are You Losing More Than Weight?

By Monique N. Gilbert

Protein is a vital nutrient, essential to your health. In its purest form, protein consists of chains of amino acids. There are 22 amino acids that combine to form different proteins, and 8 of these must come from the foods we eat. Our body uses these amino acids to create muscles, blood, skin, hair, nails and internal organs. Proteins help replace and form new tissue, transports oxygen and nutrients in our blood and cells, regulates the balance of water and acids, and is needed to make antibodies. However, too much of a good thing may not be so good for you. Many people are putting their health at risk by eating to much protein. Excessive protein consumption, particularly animal protein, can result in heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and kidney stones. As important as protein is for our body, there are many misconceptions about how much we really need in our diet, and the best way to obtain it.

The average American eats about twice as much protein than what is actually required. Some people, in the pursuit of thinness, are going on high-protein diets and are eating up to four times the amount of protein that their body needs. Protein deficiency is certainly not a problem in America. So exactly how much protein does your body really need? Much less than you think. According to the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health, as little as 50-60 grams of protein is enough for most adults. This breaks down to about 10-12% of total calories. Your body only needs 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. To calculate the exact amount you need, multiply your ideal weight by 0.36. This will give you your optimum daily protein requirement in grams. Since the amount of protein needed depends on the amount of lean body mass and not fat, ideal weight is used instead of actual weight. Infants, children, pregnant and nursing women require more protein.

People on high-protein diets are consuming up to 34% of their total calories in the form of protein and up to 53% of total calories from fat. Most of these people are unaware of the amount of protein and fat that is contained in the foods they eat. For instance, a typical 3-ounce beef hamburger, which is small by American standards, contains about 22 grams of protein and 20 grams of fat. You achieve quick weight loss on these diets because of this high fat content. High fat foods give you the sensation of feeling full, faster, so you end up eating fewer total calories. However, this type of protein and fat combination is not the healthiest. Animal proteins are loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat. Many people on these diets also experience an elevation in their LDL (the bad) cholesterol when they remain on this diet for long periods. High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood clog arteries and is the chief culprit in heart disease, particularly heart attack and stroke. So while you may lose weight in the short-run, you are putting your cardiovascular health in jeopardy in the long-run.

Another reason weight loss is achieved on these high-protein diets, at least temporarily, is actually due to water loss. The increase in the amount of protein consumed, especially from meat and dairy products, raises the levels of uric acid and urea in the blood. These are toxic by-products of protein breakdown and metabolism. The body eliminates this uric acid and urea by pumping lots of water into the kidneys and urinary tract to help it flush out. However, a detrimental side effect of this diuretic response is the loss of essential minerals from the body, including calcium. The high intake of protein leaches calcium from the bones, which leads to osteoporosis.

Medical evidence shows that the body loses an average of 1.75 milligrams of calcium in the urine for every 1 gram increase in animal protein ingested. Additionally, as calcium and other minerals are leached from our bones, they are deposited in the kidneys and can form into painful kidney stones. If a kidney stone becomes large enough to cause a blockage, it stops the flow of urine from the kidney and must be removed by surgery or other methods.

Plant-based proteins, like that found in soy, lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL (the good) cholesterol. This prevents the build up of arterial plaque which leads to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease, thus reducing the risk heart attack and stroke. The amount and type of protein in your diet also has an important impact on calcium absorption and excretion. Vegetable-protein diets enhance calcium retention in the body and results in less excretion of calcium in the urine. This reduces the risk of osteoporosis and kidney problems. Interestingly, kidney disease is far less common in people who eat a vegetable-based diet than it is in people who eat an animal-based diet. By replacing animal protein with vegetable protein and replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat, like that found in olive and canola oils, you can avoid the pitfalls of the typical high-protein diet. You will be able to improve your health and regulate your weight while enjoying a vast array of delicious, nutritionally dense, high fiber foods.

Remember, eat everything in moderation and nothing in excess. Also, the only healthy way to achieve permanent weight loss is to burn more calories than you take in. Anything else is just a gimmick.

For more information about soy, visit the Virtues of Soy website.

Copyright Monique N. Gilbert - All Rights Reserved.
[Printed here with express permission from Monique N. Gilbert]

Monique N. Gilbert has a Bachelor of Science degree, is a Certified Personal Trainer/Fitness Counselor and health advocate. She began a low-fat, whole grain, vegetable-rich diet in the mid-1970's. This introduced her to a healthier way of eating and became the foundation of her dietary choices as an adult. She became a full-fledged vegetarian on Earth Day 1990. Over the years she has increased her knowledge and understanding about health and fitness, and the important role diet plays in a person's strength, vitality and longevity. Monique has a Q&A column at Veggies Unite where she gives advice about health, fitness and vegetarian/vegan diets. Monique feels it is her mission to educate and enlighten everyone about the benefits of healthy eating and living.

Gilbert is also the author of the book "Virtues of Soy: A Practical Health Guide and Cookbook" (Universal Publishers, $19.95, available at most online booksellers).


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