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The High Protein Myth

Issue September/October 1998

Fats and carbohydrates frequently make headlines as key players in the fight against excess weight and achieving optimal health. Whether the mantra of the day is to eat more or less, these two food components seem to be constants in communications about weight loss and health. But, protein, an old standby that has enjoyed dietary stardom in the past, has come back on the scene and is being touted for weight loss and muscle building.

Protein, among other things, builds skin, muscle, bones and hair and is used for energy. In fact, every cell in our body is constructed from the protein we get from foods.

Yet, too much protein in the diet is an example of where too much of a good thing may not be healthful, and consuming excessive amounts of protein over an extended period of time may even have damaging consequences. For instance, too much protein increases the workload of the kidneys and liver and may affect the absorption of calcium and other minerals. High-protein diets may also be too low in calories and other important nutrients. All in all, you may be better off choosing a balanced meal over a high-protein shake.

Weight Loss

Popular diets that are low in carbohydrate and high in protein claim to be the most effective for weight loss. In fact, some people do lose some weight in the beginning on these high-protein diets because they provide very few calories. But, over the long term, they may deprive your body of the energy it needs to function, and they are often inadequate in some other major nutrients. These diets may do more harm than good in the long run.

"Any diet will work for some people," stated Ann Grandjean, Ed.D., director of the International Center for Sports Nutrition at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. However, Dr. Grandjean reiterates what many experts attest to as the tried-and-true method for weight loss, "Decrease the amount of food you put in your mouth and increase your physical activity." Muscle-BuildingThere is ongoing controversy about whether athletes and serious weight lifters have additional needs for protein for endurance and muscle building. Currently, there is evidence that the only sure-fire way to build muscle is through exercise and training.

The fact that many Americans consume more protein than needed places some athletes ahead of the game when it comes to protein intake—they are already consuming all the protein they need for optimal performance. It may be true that endurance athletes and serious weight lifters have a need for more protein. But, then again, they also have a need for more fat and carbohydrate. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that they need more total calories, not just protein, which they can get from a balanced diet.

Last fall, four health-promoting associations denounced high-protein diets. The American Dietetic Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Women's Sports Foundation and the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research issued a joint statement saying that high-protein diet plans are not the solution for weight loss or for athletic performance. They suggested that these diets might even be harmful.

Blanket statements suggesting that there is only one effective way to achieve weight loss and optimal physical training are misleading. "There is no one regimen that works for everyone," suggests Dr. Grandjean, but she offers that there is something that works for everyone.

Alas, there still is no quick fix for achieving that lean, fit body. The healthiest way to lose weight remains the age-old standby—increased physical activity coupled with a balanced diet.

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