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.
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.
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.
Delicious, high-protein recipe suggestions
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).
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