I admit it: I eat a high-protein diet. Not just low-carb, and not just high-fat. It’s high protein.
I thought I should make a public confession because every time some dunce in the media opines that the “high-protein Atkins diet” will kill you, low-carbers around the world jump up and down and yell, “It’s not high protein! It’s high fat!”
Speak for yourself.
It’s true that when most of us switch to a low-carb diet, we don’t replace 300 grams of carbohydrate with 300 grams of protein. We swap a lot of the carb calories for fat calories, and that’s good. But a lot of us also swap a chunk of carb calories for protein calories, and that’s also good. I used to eat pasta with low-fat marinara sauce for dinner. Now I eat meats and vegetables. More fat, more protein. I almost certainly eat more protein — quite a bit more — than people on the standard Western diet. I suspect a lot of people on paleo and/or low-carb diets do as well.
People who aim for a constant state of ketosis are, of course, an exception. Many find they have to restrict protein. Fine, if that’s working for you, keep it up. But as I stated in this post and others, I see “nutritional ketosis” as an intervention that’s useful and perhaps even necessary for some, but not the ideal state all health-conscious people must seek. It’s likely less-than-ideal for a large share of the population.
When ketogenic diets were all the rage, I tried getting into ketosis and staying there, but found it difficult. Restricting carbs to almost zero and eating plenty of fat wasn’t enough. I also had to restrict my protein intake to somewhere around 50 grams per day. Even that barely got me past 1.0 on the keto-meter.
After mulling it over, I concluded that if maintaining chronic ketosis requires that much effort, it can’t possibly be the natural metabolic state of our paleo ancestors – at least not my Irish paleo ancestors. They wouldn’t have restricted protein, and they certainly weren’t importing avocados year-round to keep their fat intake at 80 percent.
Yes, I’m sure they, like other paleo people, prized fat. But that doesn’t mean they were able to live on mostly fat. People prize gold too — because it’s difficult to obtain. There just aren’t that many fatty foods available in the wild, at least not in Northern Europe. Even if you’re a successful hunter of Paleolithic beasts and eating them nose-to-tail, I doubt you end up at 80 percent fat and only 50 grams of protein per day. The Inuits — our poster-boys for a VLC diet — consumed 240 grams of protein per day, according to one study. That doesn’t sound ketogenic to me.
I went back to eating high protein because I listen to my body. I gave myself several weeks to adjust to ketosis, but never felt quite as strong, energetic or alert as when I eat a higher-protein diet. Wondering why that was the case, I looked to simple math for an answer.
Our brains, mucous membranes and red blood cells require glucose. Ketones can substitute for some of the glucose, but not all of it. The bottom line is that our bodies must have glucose – nowhere near as much as the USDA dingbats tell us, but some.
The answer in low-carb circles has always been Yes, but your body can produce glucose by converting protein. It’s called gluconeogenesis. Yup, I’m totally on board with that, and I’m pretty sure I rely on gluconeogensis for at least some of my glucose needs. But we also need protein to maintain muscle mass. Different gurus have different opinions on exactly how much, but the typical figure for a guy my size would be a minimum of 60 grams per day.
See the basic math problem here? If I’m only eating 50 grams of protein per day, that might just cover what I need to maintain muscle mass, or it might just cover my body’s requirement for glucose via gluconeogenesis, but it sure as shootin’ won’t cover both. So if I can only stay in ketosis by going zero-carb and low-protein, I’m either going to run short of biologically necessary glucose or lose muscle mass. (If I’m missing something in the equation, somebody can enlighten me.)
When I’ve mentioned that I don’t aim for ketosis and don’t believe it’s the natural human metabolic state (at least not as a constant state), I’ve had well-meaning people assure me that if I’m not in “nutritional ketosis,” it means I’m still primarily a glucose-burner. Let’s see how that holds up to simple math.
Suppose I consume 150 grams of protein in a day, plus 50 grams of carbohydrate. That would be a typical daily intake for me, and definitely prevent me from going into ketosis. My body will likely use 50 or more grams of protein to maintain lean tissue, but what the heck, let’s say all that protein ended up as glucose for energy. In that case, we’re talking about 800 calories of protein and carbohydrate combined. At my size and activity level, I probably burn at least 2400 calories per day. That means the other 1600 calories come from fat … otherwise known as 67% of the total.
So no, I’m not primarily a glucose-burner. I’m primarily a fat-burner, even at a high protein intake. I don’t know why that doesn’t translate into higher readings on the keto-meter, nor do I care. What I do care about is feeling alert, energetic and strong – which I do on a higher protein diet.
Once we let go of the “but I won’t be in ketosis!” fear, the question is whether going high-protein provides metabolic advantages. For most of us (meaning those who don’t over-produce insulin in response to protein), I believe it does.
This study, for example, found that increasing protein to 30 percent of calories (which is what our friend Jonathan Bailor recommends) produced a spontaneous decrease of 440 calories per day and a reduction in fat mass. As you know, I don’t believe restricting calories is the key to weight loss all by itself. Your body has to be satisfied with fewer calories, or the elephant will panic and run away. (That’s a reference to a post about The Rider and the Elephant, in case you missed it.) When people eat less despite not being instructed to do so, it means their bodies are satisfied.
This study (as well as others) demonstrated that while losing weight, people on a high-protein diet were more likely to maintain their muscle mass. If you’re trying to lose weight (and I’m sure many of you out there are), you don’t want it to come from your muscles. That sets you up for a lower metabolism and a less-appealing body composition. So restricting protein as part of a weight-loss diet could backfire in the long term. A high-protein diet, on the other hand, has been show to raise metabolism.
I don’t feel the need to make major changes in my diet. Going low-carb in 2008 was a major change that provided a slew of benefits, so most of what I do now is tinker. Last year I tinkered by re-introducing a bit of safe starch and adding some resistant starch. This year I’ve been tinkering by reducing my fat intake a bit and increasing protein. It’s still a high-fat diet, but not as high.
Most days I aim for somewhere around 150 grams of protein. Since I don’t want to slog down 75 grams for lunch and another 75 for dinner, that means I’ve started eating breakfast again – well, most days. Some days I just don’t feel like it. I also still pick two days per week for intermittent fasting, meaning I don’t eat until dinner – usually around 7:00 PM. I accept that I won’t get as much protein on those days.
On the non-fasting days, I’ve upped the protein partly by adding eggs whites to my meals. Don’t scream. I know we all think of eggs whites as those icky things the anti-fat hysterics want us to eat instead of whole eggs, but I still eat whole eggs – usually three per day. However, I don’t want to choke down six whole eggs in the morning for the sake of consuming a high-protein breakfast. I like eggs yolks, but not that much. So I’ll eat three eggs with a cup of eggs whites added to the pan. I’ve also been adding lean cuts of meat to my lunches and dinners – which already contain plenty of fat, so the point isn’t to create a low-fat meal. The point is to create a high-protein meal.
After extolling the benefits of a higher-protein diet, I’m probably supposed to tell you how much weight I’ve lost. Trouble is, I don’t know. I’ve mentioned before that we don’t have a scale at home so I only weigh myself at the gym. Turns out even that was useless, or at least it is now.
I realized as much when I stepped on the gym scale a few weeks ago. It’s one of those “medical” scales you see in doctors’ offices, with the sliding weights and the balance mechanism. It all feels so very precise, sliding that top weight over … and a little more … and a little more until the balance is dead center.
But I knew the gym’s scale wasn’t precise when it told me I weighed 206 pounds. That’s not an impossible figure – I weighed more than that 10 years ago – but just a week earlier, the same scale told me I weighed 194 pounds. All I’ve done since then is follow my usual diet and exercise program, which isn’t likely to induce a gain of 12 pounds in seven days.
So I turned to a nearby staff member and said, “This scale has me weighing 12 pounds more than a week ago.”
“Oh, yeah, don’t pay any attention to that thing. It’s all messed up.”
Makes me wonder why it’s still in the gym instead of being fixed or sent to the scrap heap, but that’s not my concern.
Anyway, I don’t know how much I weigh. But I can say I’ve had to cinch my belt a notch tighter since tinkering with a high-protein diet.