Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, you’ve undoubtedly heard about “The Keto Diet”.
The Ketogenic Diet is not new, as with all diets, what goes around comes around. The Keto Diet is a moderate protein, super high fat, super low carbohydrate diet, that works to shift your body into using fat as a fuel source, instead of those dreaded carbohydrates. (Damn you, apple! How dare you, potato!) Interestingly, the Ketogenic Diet first appeared in the early 1920’s as a way to treat epilepsy and avoid the horrible anti-seizure medications available at that time. It had significant success. The higher fat ratios of this diet significantly affect the neurological system, reducing seizures by 50% in most patients, and up to 90% in some patients.
The Ketogenic Diet resurfaced recently, as a branch out of the low carbohydrate movement. Think Atkins Diet, but less carbs. If possible. The Keto Diet has been given the “hardest diet to stay on” award (Actually, I’m kidding, there is no award for the hardest diet to stay on). This is because the shift to fat burning is not easy, and it often leaves the dieter exhausted at some points in the process. Some people do well with this diet; like some marathon runners who don’t “hit the wall”, they are able to make the transition from carbohydrate as a primary fuel source to fat burning more easily than others. But many dieters and marathon runners most certainly do “hit the wall”. Hitting the wall may cause ridiculous carb cravings and extreme fatigue. I’ve observed many of my clients who do embrace The Keto Diet end up bingeing on carbs after a couple weeks. I’ve also observed that Keto Diets can lead to impressive fat loss! For some people, the pain and restriction is worth it.
Of course, we are forever in the ridiculous search for the “cleanest” diet or the “healthiest” diet. Hence The Ketogenic Diet, which requires an incredibly strict regimen. This is a self-defeating revolving door approach for many people. We attempt stringent diets, fail after a few weeks….or days…. feel bad about ourselves, and then try again. Brilliant.
The fact is, there is no one diet that fits everyone’s environmental needs, genetics or metabolism. There is no cookie cutter approach. We should never try and punish ourselves or attempt a diet that clearly does not fit our personal needs.
Having said all of this, both the research and my personal experience as a trainer (and person who needs to improve her nutrition) tells us that high protein diets are the most effective macro-nutrient approach to fat loss and overall musculo-skeletal health. And, we don’t have to go all extreme to get the benefits of high protein.
What are the benefits of a high protein diet?
The benefits of a high protein diet are especially significant for those trying to lose bodyfat while working out consistently. Personally, I have noticed better satiety (fullness) each meal, and I seem to stay full much longer after a meal filled with protein. If you suffer from hypoglycemia, or are particularly reactive to carbohydrates, this is a huge plus!
One potential reason why high protein diets result in a lower overall energy intake and improved fullness is due to protein’s effects on leptin (a hormone involved in the regulation of appetite). High protein diets may improve leptin sensitivity in the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates hunger) leading to decreased hunger and increased energy expenditure.
In addition to fullness lasting longer, higher protein diets are very effective at assisting with fat loss because protein is a nutrient that requires additional energy expenditure in order to be digested. Unlike fat or carbohydrates, you actually burn calories digesting protein. This is called The Thermic Effect. How many calories you expend when digesting protein varies, but it may be as much as 25-30% of the calories from protein rich foods, versus 2-8% for fats and carbs!! WOWZA. Frequent small meals consisting of protein will repeatedly create The Thermic Effect, thus increasing metabolism slightly with each meal. Imagine burning 150 more calories per day, just from eating protein!
Lastly, higher protein diets maintain muscle mass in those who are seeking to lose excess bodyfat through caloric restriction. Maintaining muscle tissue during your weight loss regimen is THE KEY to not gaining the weight back. This is because , with caloric restrictions, in addition to fat loss, one always also loses muscle. Since muscle mass drives our metabolism, loss of muscle means the slowing of our metabolism, and hence weight re-gain. Eating higher protein diets provides the necessary nutrients to maintain muscle while in a caloric deficit.
How is “high protein” defined?
It depends on who you talk to.
Traditional medical professionals and Registered Dieticians may recommend protein intake according to the RDA- Recommended Dietary Allowance. The RDA for protein is .8g/kg body weight or approximately .36 grams/pound BW. For me, at 140lbs, the RDA is thus 50 grams of protein. This is absolute minimum and assumes I am not exercising. 50 grams of protein is about 7-8 ounces of any concentrated protein source like chicken, red meat and fish, per day. This equates to about 11% of total calories coming from protein, based on an 1800 calorie/day regimen.
But, RDA recommendations are notoriously out of date. Current research shows a much different recommendation. We hope our medical advisors have kept more current, but, unfortunately, I often see very poor protein recommendations from some medical professionals. Some still hold on to the belief that Americans eat too much protein. I rarely see this. If anything, most of my clients eat excessive carbs and too little protein. Time to switch it up.
Examine.com is an excellent resource for overall nutrition and supplement recommendations. They have summarized protein intake from the existing research. Recommended daily protein intake depends largely on health goals and activity level:
0.8 g/kg body weight (0.36 g/lb) if your weight is stable and you don’t exercise
1.0-1.5 g/kg (0.45-0.68 g/lb) if your goal is weight loss or you’re moderately active
1.5-2.2 g/kg (0.68-1 g/lb) if your goal is weight loss and you’re physically active
(People who are obese should calculate their daily protein intake based on their goal weight, not existing body weight, in order to not ingest too many calories).
Based on their research overview, I recommend 1- 1.5g/kg BW for my clients, minimum. Most of my clients want to lose bodyfat and are strength training consistently. For myself, if I am lifting super heavy, doing active sports and trying to lose bodyfat, I might even try to take in more protein. Many heavy exercisers and elite athletes approach 1 gram per pound body weight.
Now….. is .68 g/lb protein considered high protein? Not yet. For example, given my body weight of 140lbs, .68grams/lb BW is 95 grams of protein per day. 95 grams of protein actually only equates to moderate levels of protein, when we look at the percentage of total calories per day from protein. For me, 95 grams is about 20% of my calories per day from protein, based on an 1800 calorie/day diet. That leaves another 80% of my calories from carbs and fat. Not exactly well balanced.
Today, most educated, current medical professionals and nutritionists recommend a balanced diet of 40-30-30 ; 40% carbs, 30% fat, 30% protein of total calories, or 50-25-25. (40-30-30 is The Zone Diet, and The Keto Diet is 75% fat, 20% protein, 5% carbs)
Can one take in too much protein? People with kidney or liver damage should consult their doctor when determining how much protein to eat. Too much protein can overwork previously damaged organs and can exacerbate symptoms. Otherwise healthy people can eat an extra chicken breast or opt for another protein shake without worrying about their health.
How do get additional protein into your diet
Whether you are a red meat eater or not, it is not hard to get significant protein into your diet. If you are a vegetarian, that is more problematic. Meat/dairy sources of protein are more concentrated than in vegetarian options. But again, it is well worth it to add additional sources of both vegetarian protein and animal proteins if you are trying to achieve fat loss or muscle gains.
-Include a concentrated source of protein at every meal. A “concentrated” protein source means that the food is mostly protein. Eggs, red meat, fish, chicken, legumes, and some dairy all fit the bill. Cheese and nuts, while they contain some protein, are not a primary source. Legumes and other protein containing grains are wonderful, but you need a large amount of these foods to equal the concentrated source of animal products. Dairy can be super helpful for increasing protein intake. Cottage Cheese is very high in protein, and unlike some yogurts, is low in sugar. Greek yogurt has more protein than regular yogurt, as it is strained, so shoot for Greek versus regular. This is why omitting dairy can be problematic for people who are trying to increase protein.
-Consider supplementing with powdered protein sources like whey, soy, pea or rice protein. I often add a scoop of protein powder to my yogurt to up the ante. Protein shakes can be very helpful to get additional protein in as well. But don’t fall into the trap believing that shakes are “magic” for weight loss. They are not. They are just an easy way to get in protein.
-Have protein for snacks, not just quick carbs. You can really make a dent in protein intake by reaching for protein filled snacks.
– Know the amount of protein in the foods you eat. If you are shooting for 100 grams of protein per day, you need to take in 3 meals of 25-30 grams of protein, plus snacks of protein. 1 ounce of meat has about 7 grams of protein. 1 egg has 7 grams. Do your math.
– For a super easy way to estimate protein, use a visual assessment. Assuming a normal meal frequency (i.e. 3-4 meals/day) eat 1 palm-sized portion of protein if you are a woman and 2 palm-sized portions of protein if you are a man, about 3-4 times per day. For most people this works out to 1-2 palms of protein at every meal.
Getting additional protein into your diet is not hard. But, old habits need to be changed up. Most of what we eat is “habitual” and not well thought out. To best assess your nutrition, do a food log for 1 week or more and check out your macronutrient ( carbs, fats, protein) amounts. If food logs make you want to cry, make things even simpler. Look at your plate. Is it filled with veggies and meat? Or bread and pasta? Try the exchange of protein for carbs. Carbohydrates and proteins each have the same amount of calories, but don’t forget The Thermic Effect discussed above. See how you feel.