So your friend tells you she’s starving and has a case of hunger pains. After your workout, you both head to lunch. She orders a cheeseburger deluxe platter, no bun, extra cheese, no fries. She explains the carbs are totally bad for her and that she's on a high-protein diet. Whether it's the Atkins Diet, Zone Diet, The South Beach Diet, Meat-Mania, Proteinopia or whatever fancy name they call that high-protein diet she's on, it's doing more harm than good.
The calling card of high-protein diets is that your body burns fat for energy and that, in turn, will result in weight loss. Prolonged consumption of high protein sends the body into a state of ketosis. That’s top of the list of cons of high-protein diets. Ketosis occurs when the liver converts fats into fatty acids for use as energy and the by-product, ketones. Ketones increase the acidity of the blood and can be detected in the urine. In extreme cases of starvation or fasting, the body undergoes gluconeogenesis, which is the production of glucose from sources other than carbohydrates, primarily protein.
Possible kidney damage
High-protein diets place a lot of stress on the kidneys. The initial weight loss on high-protein diets is from water loss. When carb intake is restricted, the body uses muscle and liver glycogen for energy. For each gram of glycogen, two grams of water are used or “lost.” The minute you give into your carb craving, that weight will come back. The diuretic effect of eliminating carbohydrates from your diet stresses the kidneys while they remove urea, a by-product of protein synthesis, from the body. Compounding that problem, when the body is in a state of ketosis, increased levels of calcium are excreted -- that can lead to kidney stones; a build-up of calcium in the urine. Think about the experiment when you put a nail in a cup of Coke: After a few days the acid in the soda starts to dissolve the nail. The same breakdown happens to your bones. Calcium (along with other minerals) is leached from bones and teeth because of the increased acidity of the body. Literally pissing away calcium is a major con of high-protein diets because that will have a negative effect on your workouts. Calcium is a necessary mineral for muscle contraction and nerve impulse. Calcium loss can also lead to stress fractures.
Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
A balanced diet consists of approximately 60% carbs, 25% protein and 15% fats. However, 30% to 50% of calories come from protein on diets like Atkins. That shift also means an increase in fat consumption: up to 50% of calories come from fat, and increased calorie consumption. For every gram of carbohydrates there are four calories compared to nine calories per gram of fat. Meats, cheese and eggs -- animal and dairy products -- all contain saturated fats and cholesterol, even the leaner varieties. When you think about it, how healthy does eating sausage, egg and cheese for breakfast, a cheeseburger and milkshake for lunch and (let’s say you’re trying to be healthy) a salad for dinner with chicken, egg, bacon bits, nuts, and with Ranch, Caesar or blue cheese dressing sound? Over time, consumption of this sort of diet, along with limited fiber and fruit consumption will raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
Negative effect on social interactions
Complex and simple carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is used for energy. Not getting enough glucose is next on the list of the cons of high-protein diets. Glucose is the only fuel source for your brain (not to mention your boys below the belt). When your brain is lacking that vital nutrient, you become fuzzy and can't think straight. You also become irritable and cranky, and may experience dizziness, fatigue and headaches. What causes this change in mood is low serotonin levels and tryptophan. That moody and tired disposition definitely doesn’t make you a fun person to be around. And while you’re telling off your friends or yelling at your boyfriend or girlfriend, they’ll recoil from your breath. Bad breath is a “symptom” of high-protein diets. The body releases ketones through the lungs as well. Your breath will have a sickly, sour or alcoholic odor.
Increased risk of constipation
The restriction of carbohydrates on high-protein diets also reduces the amount of fiber you get in your diet. Fruits and grains are considered off-limits. Limited fiber intake can cause constipation, not to mention the dehydration caused by ketosis and limited carbs. Insoluble fiber found in fruits, veggies and whole cereal grains can prevent constipation. Soluble fiber can decrease blood cholesterol. And when you pop those laxatives, you may still have a hard time eliminating your bowels because diets high in meat can cause hemorrhoids.
Protein isn’t particularly dangerous, but an over-consumption of protein may be associated with:
- Dehydration. Experts advise drinking a half gallon of water per 100 grams of protein.
- Seizures. Seizures have been linked to excess protein intake – but only if insufficient amounts of water are consumed.
- Increase in liver enzymes.
- Nutritional deficiencies. Just focusing on protein intake causes some high-protein dieters to overlook other nutrients. Ensure that your diet is balanced and nutritious.
While this list may seem alarming, it’s important to remember that many of these side effects are only associated with highly excessive protein diets coupled with unbalanced nutrition.
The average person needs about .4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Active individuals may require .6 grams. People that exercise frequently and at a high intensity – like myself – require about a gram per pound of body weight. Bodybuilders and athletes may require even more.
high-protein = high-risk
Remember, any diet that encourages you to limit or totally eliminate a certain food or food group -- such as carbs on a high-protein diet -- should be carefully considered before following. The best diet for health, weight management or weight loss is a balanced diet that will not harm vital organs or systems in your body.