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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