Skip to content

Too Good to Be True?

Lose weight while eating steak, burgers, cheese, and bacon? High-protein, low-carb plans like Atkins and the Zone can work. But you should consider the risks and rewards before you decide to try one.

How Much Protein?

Most Americans get should get 10%-30% of their 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.

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 more fat for fuel. This can lead to ketosis, which may make dieting easier because you feel less hungry. But ketosis can cause headaches, irritability, and nausea.

Pros and Cons

You can lose weight on a high-protein diet. But eating too much of fatty meats and dairy foods can raise your cholesterol and risk of a heart attack. If you're also not eating vegetables and grains, you miss out on  fiber and other important nutrients. 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 best 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. Ask your doctor, or a dietitian, to help you pick the right diet.

Choose Lean 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.

Tips for Picking Poultry

If you choose white meat when you're buying chicken or poultry, you’ll get a lot less fat than if you eat dark meat. Also, remove the skin, which is loaded 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. Pork cuts are much leaner than they were decades ago.

Fish Offers Healthy Fats

Fish is loaded with protein and almost always low in fat. Even the fish that have more fat, such as salmon and tuna, are good choices. Those fish generally have omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. Most people don't get enough omega-3s.

Eggs for Low-Cost 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.

Try Soy

Protein doesn't come only from animals. Tofu, soy burgers, and other soy-based foods are plant-based sources of protein. Bonus: Eating 25 grams of soy protein daily may help lower cholesterol.

Eat More Beans

A cup and a half of beans has about as much protein as 3 ounces of broiled steak. Along with protein, the fiber in beans helps you feel full longer and also helps lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Low-Fat Dairy Adds Calcium

Milk, cheese, and yogurt give you protein and 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. Favor whole grains. You'll get fiber and nutrients. If you're buying products made with whole grains, check the labels to make sure they're not high in sugar or fat.

Leave Room for Fruits and Veggies

Keep fruits and vegetables in your diet. They have nutrients you can't get in most other foods, and they're so good for you that they deserve a spot on your plate, even on a high-protein diet.

Loading Next Slideshow:

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on October 13, 2014