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How Healthy are High Protein Diets?.
by Matt Moody, Ph.D..

The highly popular Atkins Diet is one of the driving forces behind the "low-carb craze" of the new millennium. But here's an ironic twist: The Atkins franchise filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2005. This bankruptcy parallels a similar bankruptcy in how healthy high protein diets are for the human body.

To find credible information, we look to an educated authority on a subject: Gail Butterfield, PhD, RD, director of Nutrition Studies at the Palo Alto Veterans' Administration Medical Center and nutrition lecturer at Stanford University. According to Butterfield:

"Adding more protein but not more calories or exercise to your diet won't help you build more muscle mass, but it may put your other bodily systems under stress. Eating more protein and increasing total caloric intake while maintaining the same exercise level will build an equal amount of additional fat and muscle mass, according to a study published in 1992 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society."

In other words, high protein diets will put your body systems under stress — specifically the kidneys. An increase in protein intake, without an increase in exercise, will add additional fat as well as muscle mass to the body.

Drastically cutting carbohydrates from your diet forces your body to fight back. Butterfield maintains that diets where protein is more than 30% of caloric intake, cause a buildup of toxic ketones. Such diets cause kidneys to work overtime to flush these ketones from the body. As your kidneys rid the body of toxic ketones, people tend to lose a significant amount of water weight — which raises the risk of dehydration, particularly for active exercisers.

That water loss often shows up on the scale as weight loss, but along with losing water, high protein dieters will also lose muscle mass and bone calcium. Dehydration strains your kidneys and puts stress on your heart. Dehydration from a ketogenic diet can make you feel weak and dizzy and give you bad breath (among other problems).

This information from Gail Butterfield partially explains why my oldest brother — the Internal Medicine specialist, a.k.a., Cardiologist — says the "Atkins Diet is bad news!" To be fair, my brother's experience centers upon people whose kidneys could NOT tolerate the high protein consumption suggested by the Atkins Diet.

Many healthy people are able to tolerate high-protein diets for a short amount of time. But what's the point of eating in abnormal ways for a short time, just to lose a lot of water weight? A person will eventually need to transition to a long-term program of healthy eating and regular exercise — after the "fad" diet is over.

How Much Protein Do I Need in My Daily Diet?

For average people, Medicinenet.com identifies RDA minimums thus: "Ideally, you should consume 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight, according to recommended daily allowances (RDA) set by the Food and Nutrition Board." This means that a person weighing 154 lbs requires at least 55.4 grams. Protein should make up approximately 15% of your total daily caloric intake, according to the RDA.

Protein requirements for an athlete or weightlifter are higher, according to weighttraining.about.com
Their formula:

     Divide body weight by 2.2 to get Protein in grams per day.
     This means, a person at 154 pounds would require 70 grams of Protein per day

Joanne Larsen, at her website Dietician.com, describes the daily requirement this way: "Protein requirements of athletes are 1.2 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. Take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms, then multiply by 1.2 to get your protein needs. For instance a 154 pound person would weigh 70 kg and would need 84 grams of protein."

Joanne Larsen has an M.S. in Nutritional Science and is a Licensed Dietician & Registered Dietician. She takes the same kind of approach I do to the facts: "I report research findings not testimonials. I focus on people who want valid info to make lifestyle changes, not supplement pushers."

At TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, Robert M. Russell, M.D., and Carmen Castanada Sceppa, M.D., Ph.D. give the same formula for calculating protein allowances as Joanne Larsen = 1.2 gram per 1 kilogram weight.

Finally, Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. and Nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic say this:

"High-protein diets are generally well tolerated by healthy adults. But a dramatic increase in protein-rich foods may be dangerous for people with liver or kidney disease because they lack the ability to get rid of the waste products of protein metabolism. . . . High-protein diets may limit other healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. In addition, many high-protein foods — such as meat, milk, cheese and eggs — are also high in fat and cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and other health problems."

With her use of the word "tolerated," Katherine Zeratsky is acknowledging that high protein diets make the kidneys work overtime — and this spells trouble for some people who can't tolerate the excessive protein load. Keeping your protein intake to the levels suggested in this article will save your kidneys from abnormal stress.

Matt Moody, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist

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