Tag Archives: high protein diet

High-Protein Diets Harmful to Bones? Nah!

Contrary to accepted wisdom, high  protein intake does not seem to be harmful to mineralization of bone, according to Seattle-based researchers reporting in the American Journal of Clinical Nutriton.  Mineralization of bone is important because higher bone mineral content generally translates to lower risk of fractures.

A consistent criticism of low-carbohydrate diets in the past is that they are detrimental to bone health.  How so?  If you reduce carb consumption, you have to replace at least some of the calories with either fat or protein.  Some low-carb diets lean towards higher protein content, others towards higher fat, still others increase both fat and protein.  The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, and some amino acids are acidic.  Acid-rich biochemical states may promote removal of calcium from bone and, ultimately, loss of that calcium in urine.  The calcium-poor bones are more prone to fracture.

If that theory is correct, women eating greater amounts of protein should demonstrate lower bone mineralization.  [The primary bone minerals are calcium and phosphorus.] 

ResearchBlogging.orgInvestigators tested the theory in 560 women aged 14 to 40 by measuring bone mineral density (via DEXA scans) over two or three years and monitoring food consumption via yearly questionnaires.  This was an observational study, not interventional.

They found that bone mineral density had nothing to do with protein consumption.  Higher protein intake was not associated with lower bone density.

Women in the low-protein group ate 52 g of protein daily, compared to 63 g in the medium group and 77 g in the high-protein tertile.  As best I can tell, the low-protein third of participants ate 12% of total calories as protein, compared to 20% in the high-protein third.  [Study authors could have put this in the appropriate table, but, mysteriously, opted against that.]


We can’t tell from this study whether these findings apply to protein intakes outside this range, to men, or to women older than 40.  To their credit, the study authors review much of the pertinent literature and note that research in this area produces results all over the map.  To me, this suggests that the association between dietary protein and bone mineralization in the general population is weak, if not nonexistent.

Bottom Line

Looks like you can stop worrying so much about hurting your bones if you’re on a low-carb, high-protein diet.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Reference: Beasley, J., Ichikawa, L., Ange, B., Spangler, L., LaCroix, A., Ott, S., & Scholes, D. (2010). Is protein intake associated with bone mineral density in young women? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91 (5), 1311-1316 DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28728



Filed under Protein

Are High-Protein Weight-Loss Diets Safe and Effective?

Animal protein

Animal protein

According to researchers at Tufts University, high-protein weight-loss diets may be effective and safe except for people prone to kidney stones, chronic kidney disease, and people with diabetes.  Long-term effects on bone health – osteoporosis, specifically – might be a problem.

High-protein weight-loss diets have been popular for a while.  “Protein Power” by Drs. Michael and Mary Eades is an example.  The Atkins diet may be, too.  If you increase the protein in your diet, you generally are decreasing carbohydrates or fat, or both, at the same time.   

I found a scientific review article from way back in 2002 and thought I’d share some of the highlights.  The authors seem very thorough; the article has 150 citations of other research articles. 

Note that the RDA – recommended dietary allowance – for protein is 0.8 gm/kg.  The typical U.S. resident eats about 1.2 gm/kg of protein daily, which is about 15% of total energy (calorie) intake.   Public health agencies recommend that we get 15% of our energy from protein, 30% from fat, and 55% from carbohydrate.  The authors of the study at hand propose that a high-protein diet be defined as:

  • protein intake of at least 25% of energy in weight-stable individuals, or
  • at least 1.6 gm/kg (of ideal body weight)  in people actively losing weight

Here are some of the authors’ points I found interesting:

  1. Higher-protein meals do seem to suppress hunger and enhance satiety, so high-protein dieters probably eat less (average 9% less calories).  It’s unknown if the effect lasts longer than six months.  Most of the evidences is much shorter-term.
  2. High-protein intake increases the thermic effect of feeding, meaning energy expenditure increases simply as a result of eating protein.  In other words, it takes energy to process the food we eat.  Compared with fats and carbohydrates, protein contributes twice as much to the thermic effect of feeding.  Most of the thermic effect of protein results from protein synthesis, i.e., the production of new proteins, which requires energy.  This has a minimal influence on body weight. 
  3. The authors write that “these studies do not support a role for high dietary protein in preventing loss of lean tissue during negative energy balance [actively cutting calories to lose weight], provided that dietary protein intake at least meets the RDA.”   
  4. They found only one study comparing a high-protein diet (25% of calories) with a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet (12% protein).  Both diets were 30% fat.  Both groups could eat all they wanted.  Weight and fat loss were greater in the high-protein group, about twice as much. 
  5. High-protein diets over the long run may cause low-grade metabolic acidosis, leading to net loss of body calcium through the urine, with associated weak bones and kidney stones.   Animal proteins in particular do this.  Bone loss may be alleviated by calcium supplementation.  Fruits and vegetables may counteract the acidosis effect.  Nearly all of these statements are based on short-term studies.
  6. People with chronic kidney disease (ask your doctor) have slower disease progression and live longer if they limit protein to the RDA level. 
  7. Animal protein intake is directly related to risk of symptomatic kidney stones.
  8. Protein produces a blood glucose response, although not as much as with carbohydrate.  Insulin response is also seen.  In type 2 diabetics, the insulin response to 50 grams of animal protein was the same as to 50 grams of glucose.  A few studies suggest that in type 2 diabetics a high-protein diet may be detrimental to glucose control and/or insulin sensitivity.  Also note that people with diabetes are prone to chronic kidney disease, which could be worsened with a high-protein diet.  

Take-Home Points

See first paragraph.  The article authors may have different opinions now, based research published over the last seven years. 

Steve Parker, M.D.

Reference:  Eisenstein, Julie, et al.  High-protein weight-loss diets:  Are they safe and do they work?  A revew of the experimental and epidemiologic data.  Nutrition Reviews, 60 (2002): 189-200.

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Filed under Diabetes Complications, Protein, Weight Loss

High Protein Ketogenic Diet Beats High Protein/Medium Carb Diet in Men, at Least Short-Term

Low-Carb Steak

Low-Carb Steak

Scottish researchers last year reported greater weight loss and less hunger in obese men on a high-protein ketogenic diet compared to a high-protein, moderate-carbohydrate diet.


Dietary protein seems to be more satiating – able to satisfy hunger, that is – than carbohydrate and fat. 

The typical Western (especially American) diet derives about 55-60% of total calories from carbohydrates.  When carbohydrate intake is very low, under 20-30 grams per day for example, fat stores are utilized as a source of energy to replace carb calories, resulting in fat breakdown waste products called ketone bodies.  These are ketogenic diets.  In them, carbs are replaced usually by both extra fat and extra protein. 


Each of 17 obese men, 20 to 65 years old, were placed on two separate diets for four weeks each time.  Average weight was 111 kg.  Average body mass index was 35.  This was a residential program, but the subjects were allowed to leave and go to work.

  • Diet 1:  high-protein, low-carbohydrate, ketogenic.  30%, 4%, and 66% of energy (calories) as protein, carbohydrate, and fat, respectively.
  • Diet 2:  high-protein, medium-carbohydrate, nonketogenic.  30%, 35%, and 35% of calories as protein, carb, and fat, respectively.

Actually 20 men signed up, but three dropped out for personal reasons after starting. 

They could eat as much as they wanted. 


Subjects had no overall preference for either diet.  No differences in the diets for desire to eat, preoccupation with food, or fullness.  Weight loss was greater for the low-carb diet tahn with the medium-carb diet: 6.34 kg vs 4.35 (P < 0.001).  Subjects lost more weight on their first diet than on their second.  Fasting glucose and HOMA-IR (a test of insulin resistance) was lower than baseline for the low-carb diet but not the other.  Total and LDL cholesterol were tended to fall in response to both diets, but to a statistically significantly great degree only on the medium-carb diet.  When eating the low-carb diet, subjects ate 300 calories per day less than on the medium-carb diet.  [ketones were measures?]


We have to assume that study subjects were of Scottish descent.  Applicability of these results to other ethnic groups is not assured.  Similarly, results don’t necessarily apply to women.

I’m surprised the medium-carb dieters, eating all they wanted, lost weight at all.  Must be a result of the high protein content or lower-than usual carbohydrate content of the study diet.  Study authors cite others who found that doubling protein intake from 15 to 30% of calories reduces food intake, which should lead to weight loss. 

Since protein content was the same on both diets, the greater weight loss seen on the low-carb ketogenic diet was the result of lower caloric intake, in turn due to less hunger.  The reduced energy intake could be due to lower carb or higher fat intake, or both.  The researchers cite one study finding no satiating effect of fat.  Some say that ketone bodies reduce appetite. 

Although the medium-carb diet showed greater improvements in total and LDL cholesterol, the low-carb diet changes trended in the “right” direction (down).

On the low-carb ketogenic diet, lower glucose levels and insulin resistance would tend to help people with (or prone to) type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, and some cases of metabolic syndrome. 

Steve Parker, M.D.


Johnstone, Alexandra, et al.  Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87 (2008): 44-55.

Weigle, D.S., et al.  A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82 (2005): 41-48.

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Filed under Carbohydrate, ketogenic diet, Protein, Weight Loss