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The High Protein Diet: A Balanced Approach

Most Americans get 12%-24% of their daily calories from protein. With a high-protein diet, it can be much more than that. Protein may be half of your day’s calories. Most of this extra protein comes from animal sources like meat, eggs, and cheese. Often, these diets severely restrict foods like cereals, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Do they work? Research says yes.

When you cut out carbohydrates, you lose weight quickly because the body begins burning its own fat for fuel.  First it breaks down the glycogen stores in the liver,  a process known as glucogenesis.  When the glycogen is gone, then a state called ketosis ensues in which the body breaks down its usable fat to satisfy the carbohydrate needs of the brain and other organs and tissues. This forces the body to work harder to produce its energy, and that facilitates weight loss.  Since the body is producing the carbohydrates through ketosis, blood glucose levels don’t rise and fall very much and that may make dieting easier because you feel less hungry.  Just be aware that ketosis sometimes causes headaches, irritability, nausea, and heart palpitations.

Still, most medical experts, including the American Heart Association don’t recommend high-protein diets. Too many fatty meats and dairy foods can raise your cholesterol and risk of a heart attack. Not eating vegetables and grains robs your body of fiber and critical nutrients. However, high-protein diets can help fight obesity. A more moderate diet, which cuts some but not  too many carbohydrates and fats, may work safely.  Be choosy. The most nutritious high-protein plans limit fat intake and include some carbohydrates. Avoid extreme plans, with huge helpings of fatty meats and not many vegetables and grains.

Nothing says protein like a nice juicy steak. And if you choose a lean cut, you will get all of the protein with far less fat. In fact, a lean cut of beef like a top round steak has barely more saturated fat than a similar-sized skinless chicken breast.  Chicken and poultry pack plenty of punch in a high-protein diet. If you choose white meat you’ll get a lot less fat than if you eat dark. To slim your meal down even further, remove the skin, which is bursting with saturated fat.

Fish is a no-brainer; it’s loaded with protein and almost always low in fat. Even the fish that have more fat, such as salmon or tuna, are good choices. That’s because the fat in these fish is generally the heart-healthy kind known as omega-3 fatty acids. Most diets don’t contain enough of this good-for-you fat that may lower your risk of cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.

Other options include tofu, soy burgers, and other soy-based foods; they are nutritious plant-based sources of protein. An added bonus, eating 25 grams of soy protein daily may help lower cholesterol.  Beans pack a powerful one-two punch; they are loaded with protein and full of fiber. Along with protein, fiber helps you feel full longer and also helps lower cholesterol. One and a half cups of beans has about as much protein as 3 ounces of broiled steak.

Most high-protein diets limit grains, so make sure the grains you do eat are pulling their weight. Stay clear of white breads and pastas and choose their whole-grain cousins instead. Whole-grain versions are rich in fiber, which can be lacking in a high-protein diet. High-protein cereal or energy bars can give a quick boost, too. Just make sure they’re not high in sugar or fat.   Also, ,ake sure you leave room for fruits and vegetables in a high-protein diet. These nutritious gold mines contain powerful antioxidants that aren’t found in most other foods, and research suggests that people who eat plenty of fruits and veggies may lower their risk of cancer.

The medical community has concerns about high-protein diets, especially when used long-term. Diets that are high in saturated fat and low in fiber, like many high-protein diets, can increase cholesterol levels and may raise the risk of heart disease and stroke. Other potential health risks when high-protein diets are used long-term include brittle bones (osteoporosis) and kidney disease.  Short term gains need to be weighed against long-term consequences.  Be wise.

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