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Benefits and Drawbacks of a High-protein Diet

Benefits and Drawbacks of a High-protein Diet

From protein powders to high-protein breakfast cereals, it seems like protein is everywhere these days. Plus, a lot of popular high-protein diets have been making waves—the macronutrient is central in both keto and paleo plans. It’s also not uncommon for legions of runners to whirl up protein shakes after hard runs. So, are carbs no longer king?


In general, protein is a crucial element of good nutrition. One of the three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fat, protein is incredibly important for our health. It’s responsible for several vital functions in the body, including building muscles and bone, regulating acid-base balance, increasing immunity, and it’s involved in the production of essential hormones, antibodies, and enzymes.


The amino acids that makeup protein are part of every cell in the body, so it’s no wonder that protein is a part of our daily diet, and it’s a nutrient we can’t live without.

The amount of protein you should eat depends on a few factors, including age, sex, body size, and activity level. High-protein diets encourage eating more of the macronutrient than what you might be accustomed to, in order to boost weight loss, improve energy, and enhance athletic performance. But if you’re considering starting a high-protein diet, there are a few things you need to know about.


This article takes a deep dive into the advantages and disadvantages of going bigger on protein and helps you determine the right amount of the mighty macro for you.


What It Means to Eat a High-Protein Diet

 In general, a high-protein diet is individual but it’s one in which you’re making an effort to eat more protein each day than you normally might and more than what is typically in the standard American diet.


Overall, though, it means making sure to get no less than 30 percent of your total calories from protein. That typically means eating fewer calories from carbohydrates or fats to keep your calorie total in balance. Some diets will encourage an even bigger allotment of daily calories to protein—up to 40 percent of total caloric intake hailing from this macronutrient.


It’s important to know that each gram of protein supplies 4 calories; carbs also have 4 calories, while a gram of fat has 9 calories. So if a runner or other endurance athlete is consuming 2,800 calories a day, then a higher protein eating plan with 30 percent of calories coming from this macro means an intake of 840 calories of protein, or 210 grams.


Following a high-protein diet requires:

  • Eating enough protein at every meal
  • Moderating your intake of carbs and fat to allow for the extra calories from protein
  • Snacking on protein between meals
  • Using protein powders to get enough if you can’t consume the required amounts from whole foods


Some of the best choices for high-protein diets are foods with a higher percentage of their calories hailing from protein. The protein percentage of a food tells you how much protein per calorie it contains. Here are some examples:

The Benefits of a High-Protein Diet


There are several reasons why you might want to try a high-protein diet, including:

1. More Muscle


Many endurance-focused athletes neglect their protein intake, but that can be bad news for their muscles, since many endurance sports like running are very catabolic, higher amounts of dietary protein can be beneficial in the maintenance of muscle mass.

 In fact, according to research, higher protein intake is considered one of the nutritional strategies for reducing injury occurrence in endurance athletes.



2. Stronger Bones


Your bones aren’t built on calcium alone. You also need sufficient amounts of protein in your diet to help keep your bones strong and break resistant. The protein you eat provides the amino acids necessary for building and maintaining bone tissue.


3. Better Nutrition


Protein-rich foods include seafood, eggs, meat, legumes, and dairy products. These foods are not only high in protein but high in a range of important nutrients in general. That means a high-protein diet can also be a high-nutrition diet overall for athletes. 


Certain protein-rich seafood, like salmon and sardines, will also deliver a dose of heart-benefiting omega-3 fats. Plant proteins like tempeh, tofu, and lentils will give you a lift in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and various antioxidants.


People on higher protein diet plans will often not just choose to reduce their overall carbohydrate intake but also limit their consumption of highly processed carb-y foods like white bread, baked goods, and sugary drinks. While there is a place for these foods in an athletic diet, for the most part, we are better served by eating fewer of them and eating more protein can help accomplish this goal.


4. Improved Body Composition


There is a fair bit of scientific evidence that if you need to shed a few pounds or maintain previous weight loss, prioritizing protein in your diet can help in this pursuit. There are a few ways eating a greater percentage of your daily calories from protein can lend an assist with this goal.

Protein can increase production of appetite-regulating gut hormones, like peptide YY and GLP-1, both of which help you feel full and satisfied. For some people, this can help better manage overall calorie intake. However, there is some research that suggests that different types of protein can have different effects on satiety.


What’s more: Higher protein eating may also raise a person’s metabolic rate, which can increase the daily caloric burn to make weight loss and maintenance easier. Protein has a higher diet-induced thermogenesis—the production of heat that occurs after eating, which contributes to the body’s resting metabolic rate—than carbs and fat. The increase in protein synthesis in the body that occurs after eating sufficient amounts of protein will also contribute to torching more calories.


Helping to preserve muscle mass, which is more metabolically active than fat mass, during periods of lower-calorie dieting and weight loss makes eating more protein important for keeping up the calorie burn. With this said, it’s still a bit controversial as to what degree of an impact the bump in metabolic rate can have on short- and long-term weight loss.


For runners who don’t need to or should not be looking to lose body weight, it’s important to focus on the other benefits of eating a higher protein diet like building muscle. And always remember that weight loss is certainly not a given if you simply toss a bunch more protein into your diet.

The Downsides of a High-Protein Diet


High-protein diets are not without some risks for athletes:

1. Fewer Carbs


Increasing your intake of protein means that overall calorie intake must increase or consumption of either carbohydrates or fat must decrease. In many cases, high-protein diets restrict carb-rich foods, like grains and potatoes, to varying degrees. That means a high-protein diet could crowd out carbohydrates, which can have a detrimental impact on both health and performance, particularly for runners.


2. Poor Gut Health


Here’s another reason why you may not want to go huge on protein at the expense of carbs: It could alter the make-up of the gut microbiome and this may be one of the mechanisms why low-carb eating can hinder endurance performance.

3. Health Complications


There is potential for some health repercussions if a significant amount of the protein comes from meat, especially red meat and cured meats. For example, higher intakes of red meats have been linked to an increased risk for death from cardiovascular disease, which may, in part, be explained by unfavorable changes in cholesterol numbers.


There appears to be less worry if people source more of their protein from other animal sources including fish, lean poultry, and yogurt, instead of fatty cuts of steak, deli meat, sausage, and bacon. 


Contrary to popular belief, research has found that higher protein intake doesn’t cause kidney problems in people with normal kidney function. However, clinical evidence does suggests that people with poor kidney functioning should not eat a high-protein diet.

4. Low Fiber


If one is not careful, a high-protein diet that is heavy in animal-based foods can come up short in fiber, which can cause constipation and other health concerns. But this is easily remedied by including enough higher-fiber foods like legumes, vegetables, and whole grains in a higher protein eating plan. For example, you can serve a big piece of chicken for dinner alongside some quinoa and steamed broccoli—a plate that will deliver both high amounts of protein and fiber. You certainly can still eat plenty of protein while also nailing your fiber needs, which is at least 14 grams per 1,000 calories of food you eat.

5. Higher Cost


You should also consider the cost of a protein-rich diet, more so if much of that protein in your diet hails from animals. Animal-based proteins like steak, Greek yogurt, and fish are some of the most expensive purchases from the grocery store. And if you are using protein powders to get numbers up that won’t be cheap, either. This means a protein-rich diet can hit your food budget hard.

 Given the pros and cons, overall many runners should strive to consume a moderately high-protein diet to support training. But there is little evidence for the need to take it to extreme levels where you are getting 40 percent or more of your calories from protein.


 The bottom line: There is no magic number here and it’s super individualized. Ideally, it helps to work with a sports dietitian so you can understand where your macro numbers should land, based on your age, weight, gender, level of activity, muscle mass, and general energy expenditure.


Easy Ways to Eat More Protein


Track your eating for a few days and see where you land in terms of protein intake. You might be surprised that you’re not hitting your protein goal. If you struggle to take in enough of the macro, here are some sneaky ways to work more into your diet:

  • Make creamy dressings with Greek yogurt
  • Stir a scoop of protein powder into oatmeal
  • At meals, serve an extra ounce of meat, like chicken breast
  • Toss edamame onto salads
  • Sprinkle hemp seeds on yogurt and cereal
  • Use hummus as a sandwich spread
  • Include a hard-boiled egg with breakfast
  • Blend cottage cheese into postrun smoothies

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