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June 27, 2022

High-protein diets can help people make healthier food choices, research shows

People who increase their protein intake tend to eat more vegetables and cut back on sugars and refined grains, Rutgers researchers found

Healthy Eating Diets
High-protein diets Wow Phochiangrak/Pixabay

Eating a larger proportion of protein while dieting can lead to less lean body mass loss and healthier food choices, a new Rutgers University study shows.

Diets high in protein are not a new phenomenon, but researchers continue to weigh the benefits and risks of following them.

High protein intake is known to help with weight loss and muscle building. And it can help curb snacking because the more protein people eat, the fuller they feel afterward.

A new Rutgers University study suggests that eating a larger proportion of protein while dieting can lead to less lean body mass loss – the weight of everything except body fat – and healthier food choices.

Even increasing the amount of protein a people consume just slightly – from 18% of their overall food intake to 20% – influenced the quality of the food they choose to eat, researchers found. It also reduced the loss of lean body mass, an adverse effect of weight loss.

Study participants who chose to eat more protein lost the same amount of weight as the others – about 5% of their body weight over six months – but they were more likely to choose a mix of healthier foods to eat overall. They increased their intake of green vegetables and cut back on sugar and refined grains.

"It's somewhat remarkable that a self-selected, slightly higher protein intake during dieting is accompanied by higher intake of green vegetables, and reduced intake of refined grains and added sugar," researcher Sue Shapses, a professor of nutritional sciences, said. "But that's precisely what we found."

These new findings may help address concerns over the nutritional deficiencies that can sometimes occur with high-protein diets.

Protein helps with body repair and maintenance, especially of the muscles, bones, skin and hair. Protein is also important for the function of certain hormones and enzymes. Some proteins in body, like hemoglobin, carry oxygen to the body's cells.

Studies continue to show that higher protein intake increases muscle mass, reduces muscle loss during aging, strengthens bones and improves wound healing.

Protein is made up of amino acids. Nine of them must be consumed in food because the body cannot make them on its own. Foods that provide better protein include eggs, dairy, meat, fish and poultry, as well as vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, soy, nuts and seeds. While most animal products can offer "complete protein" on their own, vegetables need to be combined with other plant sources to make complete protein.

People on high-protein diets should consume 0.6-0.75 grams of protein for every pound of body weight, according to Healthline. Protein should account for about 20-30% of their daily calories. Nutritional experts say it is important to spread protein intake evenly throughout the day to make it easier for the body to use it efficiently.

The healthiest way to follow a high-protein diet is to eat a balanced amount of important nutrients. To do this, people should eat meals that don't simply focus on meat and dairy products, but also include vegetables, fruits and other plant foods. It's also important to avoid processed meats such as bacon and deli meats. 

The Paleo diet is an example of a high-protein diet, but certain low-carbohydrate diets such as the Atkins, South Beach and Keto diets also can be considered high protein.

Every high-protein diet comes with its own set of restrictions, so it is important to weight each one carefully before choosing to follow a new, Stefani Sassos, a registered dietitian, told Good Housekeeping.

Too much protein can put stress on the kidneys and lead to dehydration. When a lot of processed foods and fatty meats are consumed, it can increase the risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases.

People with kidney disease should not follow a high-protein diet without consulting a doctor, experts say. And because the body converts excess protein to sugar, high-protein diets may be dangerous for people with diabetes.

The best high-protein diets focus on lean sources of protein and include some healthy carbohydrates.

The nutritional experts at verywell fit suggest focusing on lean meats, seafood, beans, soy, low-fat dairy, eggs, nuts, seed, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, leafy greens, peppers, mushrooms and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and arugula, and whole grains. They also advise avoiding refined carbs such as bread, pasta and white rice, and saturated fats, fried foods and foods high in sugar.

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