Protein and carbs – have I got the balance right?

While many believe high-protein, low-carb diets aid weight loss, is it as simple as that or are there other issues to consider before cutting the carbs? Nutritionist Kerry Torrens takes a look at the latest evidence.

A selection of foods on a table

Typically viewed with suspicion and considered unbalanced, high-protein diets are often classed as another fad. However, various high-protein eating plans claim that cutting carbs in favour of protein can not only help you to lose weight, but do so more effectively.

Can a high-protein diet help me lose weight?

Protein (whether from meat, fish, dairy or grains) is an essential nutrient because we need it to build strong muscles and bones, regulate hormones, support our immune systems and much more. Fats and carbohydrates are considered our main fuels, with carbs said to be the body's preferred source of energy. Our brains in particular need carbs to help maintain alertness and concentration. Certainly for those who compete in endurance sports, carbohydrates are important to optimise performance, although protein intake also plays a role in muscle repair and recovery.

However, if your goal is to lose weight rather than to fuel exercise, it's useful to know a few facts.

Firstly, protein burns comparatively more calories than fat or carbs. Focusing meals around protein-rich foods improves your sense of fullness and satisfaction, helping to regulate your appetite and limit unnecessary trips to the biscuit bin.

What's more, studies suggest a high-protein diet may actually help you lose body fat rather than lean muscle mass, which is the aim if you're looking to lose weight.

A higher protein intake also appears to be beneficial for managing the symptoms of metabolic syndrome, such as poor blood sugar control and insulin management as well as high cholesterol and blood triglycerides.

Flatbread topped with a poached egg

Are there health implications to consider when following a high-protein diet?

As with most diets, there are downsides. A prolonged intake of high amounts of protein has been associated with bone loss and kidney damage. However, in otherwise healthy individuals, there is little evidence to this effect – it's now thought that a high-protein diet is only a problem for those with an existing disease or kidney dysfunction. In fact, in the otherwise healthy (including the elderly), a higher protein intake may help prevent the loss of muscle mass and strength, which can be lifestyle-limiting for the older generation.

For the majority of healthy adults, a high-protein diet followed for a specified period (such as a few months) shouldn't cause a problem. That said, the implications of following a high-protein diet over a long-term period combined with carbohydrate restriction is still being researched and may vary, dependent on age and genetics.

The composition of your diet is an important factor – for example, some high-protein diets restrict carbs so severely that they may lead to nutritional inadequacies and possibly a lack of fibre. Such low-fibre diets may detrimentally impact the health of your gut and potentially increase the risk of colonic disease.

In conclusion, if you do want to increase your protein levels, do so wisely. Protein and carbs both play a part in helping you to shed excess weight. When choosing your protein, it's worth remembering that animal- and plant-based proteins are equally effective. Opt for lean protein such as chicken, turkey, fish and dairy, as well as soy-based protein, beans, nuts and seeds – a healthy portion is about the size of your palm. The type of carbs you choose is equally important. Opt for complex carbs, such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice, and include plenty of fruit and veg in your diet as these are nutrient-dense and full of fibre. A portion is about the size of your clenched fist.

If you have a chronic health condition such as liver or kidney disease or diabetes, or if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, consult your GP before making any significant changes to your diet.

When are the best times to eat carbs and protein, and what are the guideline daily amounts? Find out how to eat a balanced diet, including specific tips for women, men, vegetarians and vegans.

Delicious, high-protein recipe suggestions

Spinach protein pancakes
Berry omelette
Indian chicken protein pots
Tuna Niçoise protein pot
Wild salmon veggie bowl
Rich paprika seafood bowl


This page was published on 19 June 2019.

A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) and the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
 

Comments, questions and tips

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woolly100
24th Feb, 2017
Completely agree with previous posters. Even the NHS is considering reworking the eat well plate or as I prefer to call it, the eat badly plate. But am also disappointed that Good food have jumped on the band wagon and found a nutritionist that doesn't quote any studies and just asks us to believe the same old twaddle. The same tale that seen the obesity rates sky rocket in the last 30 years.
Claire_Cherry88
16th Sep, 2015
Since the year 2002, over 20 HUMAN studies have been conducted on low-carb diets. In almost EVERY SINGLE ONE of those studies, low-carb diets come out ahead of the diets they are compared to. Not only does low-carb cause more weight loss, it also leads to major improvements in most risk factors… including cholesterol. HOWEVER, it must be stated that some cholesterol is GOOD for you, not explained to you by most NHS doctors who will just make you panic when your blood results show any sign of cholesterol. (Something you can't function without may I add). "Health implications" by cutting carbohydrates is absolute nonsense! Studies have shown that their has been major improvements with people with Type 2 diabetes (this is just one added health benefit). By cutting out the carbs and sugar you remove the need for all of that insulin. Both blood sugars and insulin go way down. Studies have shown that over 90% of people managed to reduce or eliminate their glucose-lowering medication within 6 months. That is life changing for people! I agree everything in moderation, vegetables contain carbs and no one is saying cut them out! Your body doesn't need carbs for energy, this is what the world has been told for so long. Your body is a clever thing and will find its energy source from somewhere else (i.e. healthy fats). It is about time the food pyramid for this country is changed! Australia have realised and changed theirs, it's about time we did the same. We are teaching our children the wrong things because we know no better and that's why we have an obesity epidemic!
Symbiotic
21st Apr, 2015
This dietry thinking is becoming outmoded as more specialists realise that carbohydrates are toxic. The body needs fat, yes fat, and lots of it to function effectively. The explosion in obesity and diabetes has been exacerbated by the focus on the outdated and inaccurate low-fat, high fibre diet. You reduce blood sugar by eating high fat protein and little or no carbs. You lose weight by doing the same. Fatty protein has no effect on Cholesterol and can be beneficial by raising HDL. All that carbohydrates do is pump excessive sugar into the blood stream causing the Pancreas to work overtime producing the fat hormone Insulin. This mean all the excessive sugar is converted to fat by insulin - carbohydrates make you fat, sluggish, fatigued and hungry. so you eat more carbs etc...eventually the pancreas can't cope and you become insulin resistant and diabetic; like me! The truth is out there you just need to look and read. Oh, by the way, if you're worried about constipation don't be - high fibre diets don't help it but low fibre diets do.
Trekkiemaiden@s...
8th Jan, 2015
Sorry but this is just the same old dogma that's been spouted for the last 40 years that has got us into the obesity epidemic we are seeing now. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate for the human body, and organs that can only function with glucose (parts of the brain and eyes) can easily and plentifully be supplied by the process of gluconeogenesis - whereby the body produces glucose from the protein it ingests. And you can eat too much protein too - but it won't harm your kidneys unless you have kidney disease!! Excess protein will be turned into to glucose too and cause insulin spikes - insulin is THE fat causing hormone. The only food that causes virtually nil impact on the endocrine system is fat - and you need to eat healthy saturated fats - NOT omega 6 rich rancid so-called "vegetable" oils!! (made from seeds, grain or beans - see http://www.gnolls.org/812/the-term-vegetable-oil-is-false-advertising/). Avoid sugar and starches to avoid insulin spikes and insulin resistance - the downward spiral to diabetes, heart disease and alzheimers - also don't forget glucose is the primary fuel for cancer! As for cholesterol and statins - don't even get me started on that lie - £££$$$$€€€!!
Less Carbfibre
3rd Oct, 2017
I know this thread is a little old but was wondering if anyone could offer some advice please. I have just read Fibre Menace and I'm drawn to the ideas there as it does turn the recommendations for high fibre and lots of carbs completely on it's head. I've just cut down on fibre, resistant starches, fermentable foods and carbs and so far my IBS and digestion have improved dramatically. However I think I am suffering withdrawal symptoms from carbs as I had cut carbs down to about 80gm which is probably about a 50% reduction. I have increased them now to try to transition more gently as I am starting to feel quite listless and brain fog.
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
6th Oct, 2017
Thanks for your question. Unfortunately we can't give individual nutritional advice. We do try to cover new diets so may well feature more on this subject in future. We would always recommend seeing a nutritionist, dietician or other health professional for specific advice. Best of luck.
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