Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Harms of a High (Animal) Protein Diet: Part 2

The Problems with High Animal Protein Diets

Continuing from the previous blog, recall that a three-pronged approach to prevent the metabolic syndrome seems prudent—weight-lossexercise, and incorporating anti-inflammatory foods in a plant and fish based diet.  Recall also that there is more harm than good in trying to follow the weight-loss recommendation with a high-protein diet.  To continue the list of harms:

·   In the American diet, animal protein (but not plant) is usually linked with saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases LDL-cholesterol (an effect that is compounded when high-carbohydrate, high-fiber plant foods are limited).  It is generally recommended that 10% or less of your total daily calorie intake come from saturated fat, whereas a high-protein diet can have as much as 25% saturated fat.

·   Increased homocysteine levels in blood (a by-product of animal protein breakdown) have been associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.  Hospitals now routinely test for homocysteine.

·   Excess animal protein (but not plant) can crowd out a sufficient intake of protective fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.  High-protein diets are carbo-phobic.  Many high-protein diets intentionally restrict fruit, vegees, beans and whole grains, further reducing your intake of health-supporting, disease-preventing phytochemicals.  Most high-protein diets are based on 30-40% calories from carbohydrates whereas a healthy diet is based on 45-65% calories from nutrient-rich, fiber-rich carbohydrate foods. 

· High-animal-protein diets are low in fiber which can cause constipation and diverticulitis.

·  A high animal protein intake usually means a lower carbohydrate intake.  Since carbohydrates are the “high energy nutrient”, the first source of energy the body uses for fuel, high-protein (low carb) diets often result in fatigue, and sometimes headaches (due to low blood sugar and/or dehydration).

·   Dietary animal protein sources are usually expensive.

·   A high-carbohydrate diet including fruit, vegees, whole grains, and nonfat dairy products has been shown to decrease blood pressure.  Limiting these foods may increase blood pressure as potassium, calcium, and magnesium are decreased and sodium is increased. 

·   Strong evidence has accumulated indicating harmful “meat factors” promote cancer.  Restricting fruit, vegees, beans and whole grains reduces your intake of health-supporting, disease-preventing phytochemicals which further increases your risk of cancer.

·   High animal protein diets (but not plant) increase urinary calcium losses, contributing to osteoporosis and kidney stones.

·   High-protein foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, seeds and nuts are high in purines.  An excess of purines may cause gout in susceptible individuals.

·   People with liver or kidney disease are at increased risk on high-protein diets.  High-protein diets can increase your chances of developing kidney disease, especially in diabetics, because of the high level of protein which puts a strain on the kidneys.  A very high-protein diet, even for short lengths of time, can speed progression of diabetic renal disease.

·   High-protein diets can result in a dangerous metabolic condition called ketosis.  The body normally   burns carbohydrates first for energy.  High-protein diets that are low in carbohydrates force the body to burn fat for energy instead.  The by-product of fat breakdown are substances called ketones.  The very low-carbohydrate intake required in the first “phase” or weeks of many high-protein diets leads to a state of ketosis in which a large amount ketones accumulate in the body.  Ketosis occurs in uncontrolled diabetes (as when a diabetic does not have the necessary insulin), which can lead to coma and death, and in eating disorders (as a result of starvation).  High-protein diets put individuals in a similarly "sickened" state.

·   A high-protein diet can lead to or exacerbate dehydration.  Protein has nitrogen, which breaks down to ammonia, and must be diluted by the body.  Additional water is necessary to remove nitrogen from the body via urine. 

Is it any wonder high-protein diets cause health problems?  Yet even given all of these facts, and the physiological problems and recidivism rate of these popular diets, the high-protein diets continue to be popular because they “tickle the ears” of an American public wanting a quick fix to their problems without making real change.  Americans typically eat 2 1/2 times the amount of protein physiologically necessary.  The message of the high-protein diet authors to Americans—you can have your steak and eat it too.  Sorry, but some things really are too good to be true. 

The fact is despite the reported physical harm and weight-regain experienced by high-protein dieters, because of the insane popularization of the high-protein diets in the media (and I include food product advertising in that) many people now think that a high-protein (carbo-phobic) diet is the best way, even a healthy way, to lose weight.  The recommendation to lose weight to resolve the metabolic syndrome which 1 out of 3 Americans now suffer will likely result in masses of well-intentioned people going on high-protein diets, which will make their metabolic problems (and America’s already epidemic health crisis) worse.  Many Americans will unknowingly be led to slaughter even more willingly because many of the diet books give mention to the metabolic syndrome (often with interesting but not completely correct discussions about insulin and blood sugar) to support their dietary claims. 

The combination of the power of the media to promote high-protein diets and the “success” of quick visible weight-loss on high-protein diets has convinced many Americans that they are healthy.  A big part of the problem is the incessant value we put on weight-loss in America so that we have fallen for yet another false solution.  The bottom line is the public needs to be aware that there are two ways to lose weight—healthy and unhealthy—and wellness professionals need to be careful to not indiscriminately promote treatment for the metabolic syndrome with “weight-loss and exercise” without explaining that vital distinction clearly to patients. 

Let’s do this right,

Diane Preves, M.S., R.D.

N.E.W. LIFE I/ copyright 2013

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  1. I Delimaris (2013) Adverse effects associated with protein intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for adults ISRN Nutrition, vol. 2013, Article ID 126929, 6 pages, 2013. doi:10.5402/2013/126929

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    2. Thank you for sharing this reference. People need to hear this side of the story!

  2. New Diet Taps into Innovative Plan to Help Dieters Lose 20 Pounds in Just 21 Days!


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