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There was a time when high-protein diets were only the concern of body-builders and professional athletes, people looking to lose fat while rapidly increasing muscle mass. But these days, high-protein diets are all the rage as a way to get leaner and, when combined with exercise, fitter. They include the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet and the Paleo Diet, all of which up the protein (and, in some cases, fat) while reducing carbohydrates. Many people subscribing to these diets will add protein through increased consumption of meat, though vegetarians and vegans may do the same adding legumes or soy products to the menu.
There’s plenty of evidence to show these diets can work, but how much protein is too much? And do they have a detrimental impact on our overall health?
The Mayo Clinic suggests a high-protein diet won’t do most healthy people any harm, especially if it’s only adopted in the short term. But that’s the where the problem lies – there’s not a lot of research evidence to show long-term effects of high-protein diets.
The immediate concerns over a lack of carbohydrates in the diet are obvious: if you take away the good things fibre does for the gastrointestinal tract, the result can be constipation, headaches and bad breath, not to mention an overall nutritional deficiency.
The Mayo Clinic suggests if you are increasing protein in the diet, choose it wisely – beans, nuts, fish, lean meats, skinless chicken and low-fat dairy are all good ideas – and steer clear of processed meats. Also consider nutrient-dense, quality carbohydrates – plenty of whole grains, vegetables and fruit.
Adding more animal protein to your diet is also not recommended for anyone with kidney disease, as the body has to work harder to process all that meat. And red meat comes with its own set of concerns, primarily how it increases cholesterol and the chance of heart disease.
Studies have shown that regular consumption of red meat in people ages 50 to 74 may increase the chances of colon cancer. However, switching to fish and poultry can have a positive impact. Moderation is a good idea, or at the very least, mixing up your protein sources.
But moderation and balance isn’t what many of these diets are about. A balanced diet over the long term – which can help maintain a healthy weight – is the real answer, while cleaving to diets that avoid entire classes of food over the long term is never a good idea. High protein diets tend to eliminate carbs, and as the IWK suggests, too few carbohydrates can lead to gout and kidney stones.
Furthermore, a recent study suggest that 50 to 65-year-old regular consumers of animal protein are at an increased risk of both cancer and premature death than those who were eating more carbohydrates in their diet. But over the age of 65, increasing protein, especially evenly over three meals a day, can have a positive impact on health, possibly because of the changes in how seniors’ bodies absorb it.
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