Tons of women find that a high-protein diet is the ticket to short-term weight loss. It makes sense: Protein breaks down slower than carbs, so it helps you to feel fuller for longer. Eating enough protein helps you to lose less muscle as you shed weight, which keeps your metabolism humming. Plus, focusing on protein can automatically lead to you swapping some easy-to-overeat carbs for options such as lean meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
That said, there is such a thing as too much protein. People whose diets were made up of more than 20 percent protein—especially animal protein—were significantly more likely to gain more than 10 percent of their body weight compared to people whose diets had less than 15 percent protein, according to one large study published in 2015 in the journal Clinical Nutrition. And while plenty of other research suggests that you can (no, make that should) go higher in protein to lose, not gain, this study was enough to make us scratch our collective heads.
“I think people don’t understand that protein still has calories,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It. ” And, no matter how much protein you’re eating, consuming more calories per day than you burn off will always lead to weight gain, adds Emily Kyle, RD.
Need some help getting your weight loss (and calories) in check? Check out these four ways that a high-protein diet can sabotage weight loss, along with simple strategies for making a high-protein diet work for you.
How can eating too much protein lead to weight gain?
Here are four reasons your protein intake might be contributing to your current weight.
- You’re eating too much meat
While that marbled ribeye will definitely help you feel full, it also packs more calories than you probably bargained for: A 10-ounce steak—a small restaurant portion—can clock in at 1,000 calories. “Those excess calories don’t go to your biceps. They turn into fat,” says Taub-Dix.
- You’re setting yourself up for binges
Cutting out too many carbs can put a damper on your mood and make your body crave starch and sugar, which can lead to binges. “Your brain’s preferred fuel source is glucose, or carbs,” says Kyle. When you do eventually have carbs again, there’s a good chance you’ll overdo it and undo all of the progress you’ve made. “Usually when my patients are really being strict on protein diets, even a piece of Melba toast looks delicious,” says Taub-Dix.
- You don’t have the energy to work out
“Carbs are the best source of fuel for any activity,” says Taub-Dix. Cutting them out entirely to make way for protein can also cause you to feel tired, which means you end up working out less—and that’s counter-productive to any weight-loss plan. “It’s a revolving cycle. You feel lethargic so you don’t work out, and you don’t work out so you feel more lethargic,” adds Kyle.
- You’re not getting enough fiber
Fiber absorbs fluid to help you feel more full and keeps your GI tract in tip top shape by feeding healthy gut bacteria, and lots of studies have linked fiber to weight loss. But if you’re focusing too much on protein, you might not get enough fruits, veggies, and whole grains—major sources of nutrients and fiber that can help you feel more satisfied with more volume for fewer calories. “If you’re eating too much protein, you’re not fueling the good bacteria in your gut,” says Taub-Dix.
What other health problems can be caused by eating too much protein?
As you know, weight gain isn’t really a health issue (it’s normal!) unless it’s impacting other parts of your body or contributing to adverse conditions. That said, there are actual problems that can be caused by eating too much protein, so here are some symptoms to look for if you’re munching on lots of meat.
- You’re feeling super thirsty
If your mouth is super dry, there’s a protein-linked reason for that. Your kidneys have to work doubly hard to flush out excess protein through your urine, and that can make you really thirsty, says nutritionist Christy Brisette, the founder and president of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Because you’re peeing out more sodium, potassium, and magnesium, “people on high-protein/low-carb diets tend to need more of these electrolytes,” she says.
- You’re constipated or have diarrhea
“If you cut out all whole grains, nuts, seeds, veggies, and fruit, all of which are good sources of fiber, it can lead to issues with digestion including constipation,” says Brisette. A high-protein diet can also rid your gut of helpful bacteria. “If gut flora are out of whack, it can lead to bowel irregularities including diarrhea or alternating diarrhea and constipation, and you might experience some bloating and cramping,” she says.
- You’re super moody lately
A quick PSA: Only eating protein-dense foods can put you on edge. “If you aren’t correcting imbalances in your gut bacteria, research links your gut microbiota to mental health, depression and anxiety,” says Brisette. “Carb-rich foods increase levels of serotonin in your brain, which is a happy neurotransmitter,” says Brisette. “By not getting enough carbs, certain people will notice a change in their mood and outlook.”
- Your breath is smelly
If you’re on a super low-carb diet, bad breath is a common sign of ketosis, a process where your body has churned through all your stored carbs and is instead burning fat for energy, explains Vandana Sheth, RD. However keep in mind that going into ketosis can be dangerous, especially if you have other health conditions. Talk to your doctor before committing to a ketogenic diet.
- Your menstrual cycle changed
Cutting out carbs for too long can stop you from getting your period, too, by burning through too many fat stores, which can change your metabolism in a way that impacts your hormone levels and fertility. “Your body is going into preservation mode. It’s a sign your body is under stress, and it isn’t a good time to bring a baby into the world because food is scarce,” says Brisette. Basically, women need a certain amount of fat for proper hormone levels, fertility and overall health, so you should head to the doctor if you notice your protein intake is impacting menstruation.
What is a healthy amount of protein to eat every day for weight loss?
Remember: Everyone’s different, so there’s really no one-size-fits-all prescription when it comes to a healthy amount of protein for you. “Protein intake really depends on your size and activity level, but there are some numbers we can look at,” explains Marissa Meshlaum, RD, who runs MPM Nutrition in New York.
“The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is set at .8 grams of your body weight, but that is a minimum, not necessarily optimal,” Meshlaum notes. TBH, your best bet is to try and get roughly 30 percent of your calories from protein. This rounds out to be about one gram of protein per pound of body weight, Meshlaum says. (And yep, the more active you are, the more protein you will need for optimal muscle recovery.)
How can I make sure I’m eating a healthy amount of protein and not going overboard?
Okay so, now that you know the risks and symptoms associated with eating too much protein, it’s time to focus on how you can keep protein in your daily diet without going overboard. Here are some tips for eating protein in a healthy way, according to dietitians.
- Go for high-protein, low-cal, plant-based foods
As often as possible, opt for veggies and dairy that are high in protein but still low in calories. A cup of Greek yogurt or beans, for example, net you around 15 grams of protein for less than 200 calories. And when you do eat meat, choose lean cuts and keep your portions in check. One serving should be about the size of a deck of cards, says Taub-Dix, and you can try yummy veggie-protein combos like this steak and apple watercress salad.
- Eat your carbs, folks
To keep things in balance, Taub-Dix suggests getting about 50 to 55 percent of your daily calories from healthy carbs. “Carbs are the nutrient we love to hate,but in reality you can still lose weight eating carbs,” she says. Great, weight-friendly sources include whole grains, fruits, and veggies, all of which can be found in this baked potato skins recipe.
- Don’t forget that fiber is your friend
Make sure you’re hitting your daily recommended intake of about 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily. Good sources include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. “One way to ensure you’re eating a healthy amount is to use the plate method,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. “One-quarter of your plate is protein, one-quarter of your plate is carbs, and half your plate is veggies.” For serious inspo, check out this sautéed chickpeas and spaghetti squash bowl.
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