If you’re looking for a way to lose weight on the internet, you’re bound to find many articles about high protein diets. These can include well-established and tested ones such as the Atkins diet, as well as fad diets with suspicious science behind them, or increasingly popular varieties like the Paleo or Caveman diet. Despite intermittent criticism from health experts, these diets still remain popular, with countless people reporting that they managed to lose lots of weight as well as reverse the early stages of type 2 diabetes.
The idea behind high-protein diets is fairly simple: twenty or more percent of your total daily intake has to come from proteins. People following such a diet are advised to reduce carbohydrates and increase proteins. Health experts agree that a high-protein diet will cause you to feel full for longer and reduce overall intake of food, but they’re concerned about the potential long-term health risks to your kidneys, bones, and so on, which outweighs the short-term benefits in their opinion.
Still, with some adjustments, a high protein diet can be a highly effective and sustainable way to lose weight. But how does it actually work?
Proteins are built from different amino acids, most of which are metabolized and broken apart by your body’s enzymes in a few hours. The nitrogen released as a result is flushed out of the body through your kidneys and urine. What remains of these amino acids is then transformed into glucose for immediate use, or into glycogen and stored for later use. Overall, carbs are the most efficient and fastest to digest followed by proteins and fats.
Your brain and muscle cells evolved to run on glucose derived from quickly-digesting carbs. Thus, a high-protein low-carb diet (HPLC) can reduce blood glucose levels and decrease energy. At the same time, this triggers glucagon and two related processes called lipolysis and glycogenolysis. The first releases fat stored in cells to be used for energy, the latter releases glycogen from your muscles which is transformed into glucose and also then used for energy. Simply put, glucagon does the opposite of insulin which removes glucose from your blood and stores it as glycogen in fat, liver, and muscle cells.
When this stored glycogen is used, it leads to a significant loss of weight and water. Water weight is lost because glycogen molecules are three-quarters water. Besides that, you lose water because metabolizing proteins produces nitrogenous waste which needs to be flushed from your body. However, with depleted glycogen storage, the body turns to fat cells (lipolysis) for energy and that leads to ketosis marked by ketones in the bloodstream. Putting your body into the second stage of lipolysis is what high-protein diets are ultimately all about.
Ketosis and the build-up of ketones — the byproducts of fats breaking down into fatty acids — lead to acidosis or an increased blood acidity. In response, your body starts producing more urine to clear everything out, which leads to more water weight loss.
Another way you lose weight with such diets is by having to spend more energy digesting food. About 20-30% of the calories you consume from proteins are used to digest them, while only carbs use 5-10%, and fats about 2-3%. Despite that, being in a state of ketosis is what makes the most difference. This is an effective way to rapidly lose lots of weight.
In most cases, HPLC diets start by reducing carbohydrate intake to a minimum amount so that they induce ketosis as soon as possible. Then, through additional phases, dieters start to slowly increase their intake of carbs while achieving their goal weight and slowing down loss.
The biggest downside to these diets are the symptoms involved collectively called the keto flu, which makes them unsustainable for many dieters. Keto flu is caused by your body adjusting to the new diet and may include short term symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, stomach pain, and sugar cravings, as reported by Health Line.
Symptoms don’t affect everybody for the same amount of time and their severity can vary as well. Some people may feel like they’ve transitioned into ketosis almost seamlessly, while others may take a few days or even a week or two to feel like normal again. However, this can be overcome by following all the steps and phases of your diet carefully and making the necessary modifications as you go along. You should also consult your family physician, or perhaps seek out a nutritionist who’s already worked with people on a high-protein diet.
- “Atkins diet,” Wikipedia,
- “What digests first, Protein, Carbohydrates, or Fat?” SF Gate,
- “Glucagon,” You and Your Hormones,
- “A calorie isn’t a calorie,” PrecisionNutrition, Helen Kollias, https://www.precisionnutrition.com/digesting-whole-vs-processed-foods