using high protein diets for weight loss - the facts

Over the years, many diet marketers have being touting the benefits of high-protein diets for weight loss. They are getting publicity and also growing in popularity with dieters.

These campaigns have lured many weight-loss seekers into eating a lot of proteins to lose weight. In their attempt to burn off excess body fat, protein sources are the main source of their energy fuel. Favorites are chunks of fish, turkey, chicken, and red meat.

But what exactly are high protein diets and why all the fuss about them?

High protein diets are diets in which 20% or more of the total calories are proteins. A very high protein diet is one where 30% or more of the total daily calorie comes from protein.

However, protein only makes up about 12 to 16 percent of daily calorie consumption in the average American diet.

High protein diets try to cut as much carbohydrates as possible from the diets. Therefore, this makes protein the mainstay energy fuel for the body.

So, how does using a high-protein low-carbohydrate diet affect weight loss?

Basics on Protein Foods

Amino acids are the fundamental building block of proteins. There are 20 different forms which the body makes us of.

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Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are essential – indispensable. This is because the body cannot synthesize them from other nutrients. As a result, they cannot only be obtained from our diets.

The remaining 11 are non-essential because the body is capable of making them.

Animals and plants are good protein sources. However, animal protein is of higher biological value as it is a complete protein. This is a term for a protein-containing food that has all nine essential amino acids. Plant proteins are however incomplete as they lack one or more essential amino acids.

Daily Protein Requirements

To maintain body health, there is a recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein intake. This should equal 10-12% of an adult’s total daily calories. It is something in the region of 0.8g/kg of ideal body weight.

An adult male of 150-pounds would therefore require about 55 grams. For a female weighing 120 pounds, that would be roughly 44 grams.

However, most high protein diets have recommendations ranging from 35% to 64%. This translates to about 2.2 – 4.4 g/kg of ideal body weight coming from proteins out of their daily calorie needs.

The body does not store proteins. As a result, enzymes split the extra amino acids apart. The kidney excretes the resulting nitrogen in urine.

Two things happen to the remaining amino acids. First, there is a possible conversion into glucose for use as energy. Second, they can be stored as glycogen which is later convertible into glucose.

Proteins as Energy Fuel

The brain and muscle cells run on glucose and which can be readily gotten from carbohydrates. The brain accounts for about 80 percent of our calorie expenditure while it is at rest. Under normal conditions, it uses only glucose as fuel.

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The body needs protein for constant repair and maintenance of important functions. These are vital functions such as the immune system and hormone production.

However, protein is generally an inefficient source of energy fuel. Proteins are never for energy supply.

When following a high-protein low-carbohydrate diet, the production level of glucose significantly reduces. Nevertheless, the brain needs to survive on glucose for its functioning.

How High-Protein Low-Carb Diets Work

These changes in the role of carbohydrates and proteins force the body into a state called ketosis. Ketosis is a state of increased lipolysis – fat burning. In this state, the body breaks down stored body fats for energy fuel.

High-protein low-carbohydrate diets achieve their weight loss effect through the process of ketosis. First, these diets cause a reduction in blood sugar levels.

The low blood sugar level causes the pancreas to release a hormone called glucagon. This signals cells in the liver and muscles to release stored glycogen. Then there is a conversion of the glycogen into glucose and burned by the body for energy.

This causes two different but sequentially interrelated processes to take place.

First, there is the release of glucagon by the pancreas in response to the sudden low glucose levels. Second, there is the increase in accumulation of ketones in the bloodstream due to the state of ketosis.

Ketosis is therefore an alternative energy state when glucose availability is low. Also, the production of ketones by the liver is a natural process during fasting and prolonged exercise.

The Glucagon-Insulin Effect

Basically, glucagon has the opposite effect which insulin has on blood sugar level.

Insulin is a store-and-save hormone. It removes glucose from the bloodstream for storage. Insulin stores the glucose as glycogen in the liver, in muscle cells, and as fat in fat cells (adipose tissues).

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But glucagon does just the reverse. It releases and converts stored glycogen back into glucose. It also releases stored fat from fat cells for use as energy fuel.

Interestingly, the pancreas secretes both of these hormones. The pancreas thus serves as a mechanism for maintaining a steady blood glucose level.

The release of glucagon causes the body to break down its glycogen stores. It releases them from the liver and muscle cells and converts them into glucose again. This helps to raise blood glucose levels.

Initial Weight Loss Effect

This process initially causes a drastic weight loss. The achieved weight loss is however due to a major loss of water and some amount of fat.

The reason for this effect is related to the end products of the oxidation of glucose and fatty acids. The burning or oxidation of glucose and fatty acids releases the following:

  • Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP – the fundamental unit of energy
  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
  • Water (H2O) molecules

The water molecules eventually leave the body as urine. This loss of water is drastic. The reason is that a stored glycogen molecule (made up of glucose and water) comprises of about 75% water.

Furthermore, proteins generally need a lot of fluid to be effectively eliminated from the body. As it is, both of these processes result in a lot of water loss.

Ketosis and Ketoacidosis

Excessive depletion of stored glycogen forces the body to turn to other available energy sources. This makes the body resort to increased lipolysis to provide enough energy.

However, the ultimate aim of low-carbohydrate diets is the state of ketosis. This is the secondary or advanced state of the process of lipolysis.

Ketosis is a forced state where the body burns its fat stores for energy supply. The effect of this is an increased buildup of ketone bodies in the bloodstream.

Ketone bodies cause an increase in the body’s acidity. Therefore, the body will do about anything to normalize its acidity level.

There has been a lot of disconcerting information about increased ketone accumulation. However, increase in ketone accumulation can be triggered by two different conditions, these are:

  • Ketosis
  • Ketoacidosis

Ketoacidosis is a condition in persons with Type 1 diabetes. This has to do with the availability of insulin and other counter-regulatory hormones. Low insulin levels make the body to break down fat, causing ketone accumulation.

Ketosis is therefore as a result of low blood sugar levels. On the other hand, ketoacidosis results from increased blood sugar level. However, only Type 1 diabetic persons need worry about ketoacidosis.

The Water Loss Effect of Ketosis

With the increased ketones in the bloodstream, the body increases its urinary output. This helps the body to significantly rid itself of the accumulated ketones in the blood. Also, this process leads to more water loss.

Thus, there is a significant loss of water through at least three avenues:

  • Release and conversion of glycogen into glucose
  • Water for processing increased protein in the body
  • Water used for flushing ketones from the body

There is thus a significant loss of water resulting from these processes. Most of these are to rid the body of its increased acidity.

Other Weight Loss Benefits of High Protein Diets

Nonetheless, there are other weight loss benefits of using high-protein diets.

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High-protein diets induce early satiety. This helps to make people eat less and stay fuller for a much longer time.

Also, there is the high thermic effect of protein-containing foods. This plays another significant role. The thermic effect of food is the amount of calories the body uses to digest food daily. This accounts for about 10% of all daily calorie expenditure.

The metabolism of proteins use up about 20-30% of the calories from protein-containing foods. Carbohydrates use about 6-8% while fats use just 2-3%.

So, proteins do not only make you feel fuller. They are also harder to metabolize and thus burn more calories.

However, the real effect of a high-protein low-carbohydrate is from ketosis. This owes to the increased fat burning experienced in this condition. This causes one of the most significant and rapid weight loss experiences possible.

Drawbacks of High-Protein Diets

There is however a major drawback with low-carbohydrate diets. This is the general report of them not being sustainable.

However, following the prescribed phases of the diet can help to overcome this problem. There is the need to also modify the final phases to achieve and maintain your desired weight loss goals.

Most low-carbohydrate diets start with very low amount of carbohydrate intake. This is to induce the state of ketosis. Once induced, the dieter is to eat the amount of carbohydrates that causes neither gain or loss of weight. This is an individual’s Critical Carbohydrate Level for Maintenance (CCLM).

High-Protein Diet Criticisms

However, high-protein diets have come under a lot criticism. This is despite several human studies with proven facts. Like the Atkins Diet, one of the most popular high-protein diets, is not as problematic as thought.

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Most critics of high-protein diets lack significant proof of evidence. There are no large-scale studies on the long-term health risks of a high-protein diet to base their criticism on. The Atkins Diet has been around since the 1970s. Yet, there are no significant studies to dispute the claims of the diet.

Nonetheless, high-protein diets are not without their drawbacks. For one, those with kidney problems should not use a high-protein diet. This is due to the increased pressure placed on the kidneys.

Kidney stones are one other risk that can result from the use of a high-protein diet. Both the Mayo Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Epilepsy Center have confirmed this fact. Beside these, there are a few other minor side effects.

Yet, it can take many years before a significant health risk can result from continuous use of this diet. The Mayo Clinic concludes that high-protein diets are not as harmful as earlier speculated. However, they have to be used by individuals with good kidney function.