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High-Protein, Low-Carb Diets Explained

High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, like The Atkins Diet, have been widely promoted as effective weight loss plans. These programs generally recommend that dieters get 30% to 50% of their total calories from protein.

By comparison, the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program, and the American Cancer Society all recommend a diet in which a smaller percentage of calories come from protein.

Pros and Cons of High-Protein Diets

High-protein diets are a close cousin of their world-famous predecessor -- the low-carb diet. While diets like the well-known Atkins focus on an intense restriction of carbohydrates, high-protein diets are centered on lots of protein-packed foods that leave you satisfied and satiated.

High-protein diets, which in many cases are low-carb diets in disguise, have their own set of pros and cons -- not unlike any other diet out there. But are they the next big thing in the world of weight loss? Experts give WebMD their insights on protein-packed diet plans.

Read more about pros and cons of high-protein diets

How Do Low-Carb Diets Work?

Normally your body burns carbohydrates for fuel. When you drastically cut carbs, the body goes into a metabolic state called ketosis, and it begins to burn its own fat for fuel.  

When your fat stores become a primary energy source, you may lose weight.

The Risks of High-Protein, Low-Carb Diets

Some experts have raised concern about high-protein, low-carb diets.

  • High cholesterol. Some protein sources -- like fatty cuts of meat, whole dairy products, and other high-fat foods -- can raise cholesterol, increasing your chance of heart disease. However, studies showed that people on the Atkins diet for up to 2 years actually had decreased “bad” cholesterol levels.
  • Kidney problems. If you have any kidney problems, eating too much protein puts added strain on your kidneys. This could worsen kidney function.
  • Osteoporosis and kidney stones. When you're on a high-protein diet, you may urinate more calcium than normal. There are conflicting reports, but some experts think this could make osteoporosis and kidney stones more likely. 
  • Unhealthy metabolic state (ketosis). During ketosis, the body forms substances known as ketones, which can dull appetite and cause nausea and bad breath. Ketosis can be prevented by eating at least 100 grams of carbohydrates a day.

Is a Low-Carb Diet Right for You?

If you're considering a high-protein diet, check with your doctor or a nutritionist to see if it's OK for you. They can help you come up with a plan that will make sure you're getting enough fruits and vegetables, and that you're getting lean protein foods.

Remember, weight loss that lasts is usually based on changes you can live with for a long time, not a temporary diet.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 28, 2014

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