Lose weight while feasting on steak, burgers, cheese, and bacon? All without feeling hungry? What’s not to love? Meat lovers have flocked to high-protein, low-carb plans like Atkins, Zone, Protein Power, and Sugar Busters. While these diets can work, you need to carefully consider the risks and rewards before deciding if one is right for you.
How Much Protein?
Most Americans get 12%-18% 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.
How Do High-Protein Diets Work?
When you cut out carbohydrates, you lose weight quickly because you lose water. Then, with no extra carbs; the body begins burning its own fat for fuel -- a state called ketosis. This may make dieting easier because you feel less hungry. But ketosis can cause headaches, irritability, nausea, kidney trouble, and heart palpitations.
Are High-Protein Diets Safe?
Medical experts don’t agree. The American Heart Association doesn'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 fat but doesn’t cut too many carbohydrates, may work safely.
Starting a High-Protein Diet
Be choosy. The most nutritious high-protein plans are low in fat and include some carbs. Avoid extreme plans, with huge helpings of fatty meats and not many vegetables and grains. Your doctor may be able to steer you to better plans.
Say Hello to High-Protein Beef
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.
Think White Meat
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.
Don't Overlook Pork
Pork offers plenty of protein without too much fat, if you know what type to buy. Look for tenderloin, top loin, rib chops, sirloin steak, or shoulder blade steaks. What's more, the cuts available today are 31% leaner than they were 20 years ago.
Fish Offers Healthy Fats
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.
Eggs Are a Cheap Form of Protein
Eggs do have a lot of cholesterol, but one a day is safe for healthy adults. The yolk has all of the cholesterol and less than half the protein, so you might opt for egg whites. But even if you eat the yolk, remember that only a small amount of the cholesterol in food gets into your bloodstream. Saturated fats and trans fats are more likely to raise your cholesterol levels.
Soy: It's High in Protein, Too
Tofu, soy burgers, and other soy-based foods are nutritious plant-based sources of protein. An added bonus: Eating 25 grams of soy protein daily may help lower cholesterol.
Beans: Full of Fiber and Protein
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.
Milk, cheese, and yogurt are not only protein-rich; they also provide calcium for strong bones and a healthy heart. Low-fat, nonfat, or reduced fat dairy products can help you keep calorie counts down.
Go Whole Grains, Go Fiber
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.
Leave Room for Fruits and Veggies
Make 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.
More Protein, More Risks?
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.
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