The Upside of Protein

Some myths surround this all-star nutrient. Learn the facts.

By Jack Challem

Protein SteakThe word protein comes from an ancient Greek word meaning of greatest importance. And that points to how fundamental protein is to health. It's the chemical workhorse of the body and the building block of skin, internal organs, hormones, and enzymes.

Despite its great importance, protein has endured much controversy over the past 40 years. The reason goes back to Dr. Robert Atkins' high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet — once thought to be dangerous.

How could protein be dangerous? For many years, doctors and dietitians believed that high-protein diets translated to high saturated-fat diets, which could increase the risk of heart disease. But guess what? For one thing, protein isn't always loaded with saturated fat. Second, there's controversy about whether saturated fat deserves its bad rap. And since Dr. Atkins died in 2003, the tide of medical research has turned in his favor. Another reason high-protein diets have been questioned is because some people think that too much protein is bad for your kidneys (see note of caution, below), but this appears to be true only for people with impaired kidney function. Bottom line: For most people, eating more protein may help you lose weight and improve glycemic control.

  • Weight reduction. A major study, published in the July 17, 2008, New England Journal of Medicine, tracked 322 overweight people eating one of three diets for two years: high-protein and low-carb, Mediterranean-style, or traditional low-fat. People in all three groups lost weight, but those on the high-protein, low-carb diet lost the most — an average of 12 pounds. People following a Mediterranean diet lost 10 pounds, while those on the low-fat diet lost 7 pounds. Abdominal fat — the kind that increases heart disease risk — decreased the most in the high-protein, low-carb group.*
  • Blood sugar. The same New England Journal study found that a high-protein, low-carb diet led to a significant 0.9% decrease in A1C levels — roughly twice that of either the Mediterranean or low-fat diet. Among people with diabetes on high-protein, low-carb fasting blood sugar decreased by an impressive 18 mg/dl (1 mmol). But the Mediterranean diet led to an even greater 33 mg/dl (1.833 mmol) decrease. Meanwhile, in a separate four-year study, people on a high-protein, low-carb diet had an average decrease in A1C of 1.2% (from 8% to 6.8%), according to an article in the May 2008 Nutrition & Metabolism.

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Last Modified Date: June 11, 2014

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