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The "skinny" on high-protein, low-carb diets

» Weighing the options

» Fleeting gains

» Is bad breath a benefit?

» Success over time

Shed fat safely—and for good

Here’s how:

  • Eat a variety of foods. The key is to balance and burn calories. Have at least 100 grams of carbohydrates a day to avoid bad breath and other ketosis side effects.
  • Decrease fat to 30 percent of daily calories, less than 7 percent from saturated fats.
  • Cut down on soda, sweets and other empty calories. Read food labels to find out how many calories are contained in a single portion.
  • Exercise for at least 60 minutes most days of the week if you need to lose weight. Include both aerobics and strength training.
  • Find other ways to ease stress than with a container of double-fudge ice cream. Listen to music, surf the Internet or soak in a hot tub. Do what it takes to avoid a trip to the refrigerator.

Given all the hype surrounding high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets, you may be tempted to try one. After all, who wouldn’t want to eat bacon and eggs cooked in butter every morning and still lose weight. Right?

Unfortunately, people go on high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets without knowing how and why the programs work, whether they will be able to keep the weight off in the long term and what health risks are involved.

Weighing the options

The Atkins diet, the Zone diet, Sugar Busters and Protein Power are all high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. To lose weight on these programs, you must cut back on bread, rice, pasta, cereal and fruits and eat mainly meat, fish, eggs, nuts and dairy products.

To date, there is no proof that these diets are safe and effective for long periods. On the other hand, both the American Cancer Institute and the American Heart Association recommend eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less meat and saturated fats to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Fleeting gains

If you try a diet that’s rich in protein and fat but bankrupt in carbohydrates, chances are you will lose weight—but not for the reasons you think. There really is no “magic” in the diet that helps you to shed pounds. You’ll get leaner because you’ll consume fewer calories. Period.

High-protein diets usually restrict dieters to 800–1,200 calories a day. Most adults will lose weight quickly eating so few calories, regardless of whether the calories come from a cheeseburger or just the bun.

Weight loss is also possible on high-protein diets that don’t restrict calories. Most of the loss is attributable to water weight; if you stop the diet when weight loss is slow, you’ll regain all the weight as your body replenishes itself. Dieters who stay on these programs for longer periods run the risk of losing valuable muscle, along with fat.

Is bad breath a benefit?

People also lose weight initially on high-protein diets because they aren’t as hungry and therefore eat less. That’s because it takes the body longer to digest protein and fat, so the dieter’s cravings are satisfied for longer periods. The excess protein also causes the body to produce ketones, which are natural appetite suppressants.

The problem is, ketones are associated with bad breath, headaches, fatigue, nausea and dehydration. Ketosis may increase levels of uric acid in the blood that could worsen gout or kidney stones. Eating large amounts of protein also can cause calcium loss and osteoporosis.

Success over time

A diet’s true worth is measured by whether you can live and be well on it over time. The truth is, it’s difficult to maintain a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for long periods. After a while, many people report being sick and tired of eating steak and unable to resist some fries or a bowl of pasta. Bingeing is inevitable.

So don’t be so hard on yourself, especially since carbohydrates don’t make people fat; excess calories do. Too many calories, no matter where they come from, cause people to gain weight. The good news is that you can eat a variety of foods and still shed those unwanted pounds.

Just remember that the body must burn 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat and that, if you lose more than two pounds per week, the extra weight loss is from water.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media