High-Protein Diets: The Risks You Need To Know

by Ali Gray

Sure, avoiding carbs at all costs may help you drop a few pounds - but is a high-protein diet good for your health?



In recent years, carbs have kind of become the bad guys where diets are concerned. There's a wide variety of diet plans out there that all push a similar agenda: more meat, less bread.

High-protein and low-carbohydrate diets are popular with celebrities and often promise quick weight loss without counting calories. But are they too good to be true?

Let our experts break it down for you...

What does a high-protein diet involve?

A high-protein diet is similar to a low-carb diet, like Atkins or The Dukan Diet. But instead of just limiting or restricting carbohydrates, many high-protein diets encourage you to stock up on protein-rich foods that leave you feeling fuller longer.

'As a rough guide, high-protein diets recommend eating 20-50 per cent of your daily calories from protein-rich foods,' says Dr Shikha Pitalia, GP at Pall Mall Medical. 'For many people this is almost double, if not more, protein-related calories than a typical average diet might have.'

Is it effective for weight loss?

High-protein diets haven't become so popular for nothing. Many people do see success with them - but it's all about eating less. Consuming lots of protein is known to leave you more satisfied, so you're less likely to overeat.

'Scientists don’t yet fully understand exactly how protein reduces appetite,' says Dr. Pitalia. 'But some research suggests that it may be because protein causes the brain to receive lower levels of appetite-stimulating, or hunger hormones, so you tend to feel less hungry and get fewer cravings. You're likely then to eat less and the short-term result is often weight loss.'

Will it cause cancer?

The high-protein diet has gotten an extremely bad rap in the news lately, especially after one study claimed it's as bad for your health as smoking cigarettes. Research from the University of Southern California suggests that middle-aged adults who eat a diet high in animal protein are four times more likely to die of cancer than those who consume a low-protein diet. But Dr Pitalia takes issue with the study.

'It is inappropriate to compare this risk with smoking-related risks of cancer,' she says. 'Smoking is well recognised as an important risk factor in many other common and serious illnesses such as heart and lung disease - not just cancer.' She does, however, agree that a high-protein diet - especially one loaded with red meat - can increase cancer risk.

What are the other health risks?

Of course, cancer is a serious concern - but it's not the only thing to worry about. Dr. Pitalia warns that a high-protein diet has been linked to increased risk of heart and cardiovascular disease, as well as kidney damage.

'Eating too much protein can put a strain on the kidneys, making you susceptible to kidney disease and in some cases even kidney failure,' she says.

Dr Sally Norton, Founder of Vavista.com, also advises that dieters heed the health risks. 'A diet that is high in saturated fat and low in fruit, vegetables and wholegrain is at odds with the international dietary guidelines for heart health, cancer and type 2 diabetes prevention.'

And that's not all. Dr Norton adds that a high-protein diet may also 'lead to side effects such as nausea, fatigue, constipation and bad breath.'

Still want to try it? Know this...

Clearly there are risks involved with this diet. But there are definitely ways to make it more healthy. If you're set on giving it a try, make sure you practice safe protein.

'It is important to choose healthy proteins,' says Dr. Pitalia. 'This would include lean foods that are high-protein, like fish and chicken, but not full of fat. It is really important to restrict your intake of red meat and processed food.

'Remember, there are many great sources of protein other than meat,' she adds. These include beans, nuts, seeds, soya, milk, eggs, cheese and yoghurt.

What's the final verdict?

On top off the health risks, there's always the risk that you'll gain back the weight once you stray from the high-protein course.

Dr Norton says the main problem with restrictive diets is that they're difficult to stick to. 'Most people who lose weight on a diet weigh more after a year than they did before they started the diet.'

And Dr Pitalia says when it comes to weight loss, it's best not to overthink it.

'Remember, most adults are overweight or obese because we eat more than we need.'

Both our doctors agree that a combination of a balanced, sustainable diet and regular exercise is always best. Must be a reason that sage advice pops up so often...

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