The Protein Diet

Obesity in the U.S.

According to the Surgeon General, nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. Being overweight increases the risk of several medical problems. Overweight men and women are twice as likely as their normal-weight peers to have high blood pressure. Excess weight is associated with abnormal cholesterol profiles (high triglycerides and low HDL – the good cholesterol) and an increased risk for several kinds of heart disease (such as heart failure, chest pain, heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, and sudden cardiac death).

An excess weight of less than 20 pounds doubles the risk of developing diabetes. Being overweight also increases the risk of certain types of cancer, arthritis, respiratory problems (such as asthma or sleep apnea), pregnancy complications, gall bladder disease, and depression. The Surgeon General estimates obesity contributes to about 300,000 deaths every year in the U.S., and costs this country $117 billion annually.

The Protein Diet Trend

According to the Calorie Control Council, about 24 percent of Americans are currently trying to lose weight. One popular weight loss method is the high-protein diet. There are several versions of the high-protein diet. Generally, they advocate increasing protein intake and restricting carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are used by the body for fuel. When the body runs out of carbs, it turns to stored fat for energy, creating a condition called ketosis.

Initially, many people lose weight on the high-protein diets. There are several reasons for the quick weight loss. First, the diets tend to be low in calories. Second, some of the weight comes off in the form of water stored with the body's carbohydrates. In addition, proteins and fats leave the stomach at a much slower rate than carbohydrates, making a person feel full for a longer period of time.

Despite the claims of success, some health care experts are concerned about the long-term safety of high-protein diets. Ketosis can stress the kidneys. Many of the diets advocate eating foods that are high in saturated fat, such as cheese and butter. Consumption of saturated fat is linked to an increased risk for the development of coronary artery disease and certain types of cancer. The diets also tend to restrict intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Some dietitians are willing to consider a modification of the high-protein diet for some patients, cutting back a little on protein recommendations and increasing carbohydrates. Choose heart-healthy proteins, such as fish with omega-3 fatty acids and lean poultry. Some high-protein diets recommend eating as few as 20 grams of carbs/day. But the body needs some carbohydrates to function well. Aim for at least 100 grams of carbohydrates. In addition, be careful about the kinds of carbs you choose. Limit foods with refined sugar, which are packed with carbs and low in nutrients. Choose five fruits and vegetables a day to get important nutrients and fiber (which is often lacking in traditional high-protein diets).

It can take a little planning and some flexibility to build a moderated high-protein diet. Many people are used to eating a lot of carbs for breakfast (such as pancakes and toast). Instead, try some fruit and cheese. That will provide you with energy to get you going and some important nutrients. For lunch, order a boneless chicken breast with fruit and vegetables or a small salad. Dinner could be fish, such as salmon, half a cup of rice, and a vegetable stir fry.

Research on high-protein diets is limited and many of the published studies have been met with criticism. The National Institutes of Health is undertaking a year-long study to determine the safety and effectiveness of the Atkins Diet, one popular type of high-protein diet. Health experts say no matter what kind of diet you follow, it's important to include a program of regular exercise to burn off excess calories and maintain physical fitness.

For information about weight control:

Weight Control Information Network, 1 WIN Way, Bethesda, MD 20892,

Office of the Surgeon General,

Calorie Control Council,