First it was the health devotee in your circle who swore by the paleo diet. Then, your social media friends started to convert to diets rich in eggs, nuts, meat and cheese. Suddenly, news headlines declared bacon and burgers were way healthier than pizza and pasta, and even your dad began the Dukan plan, a diet that wraps burrito fillings in lettuce “tortillas.”
No question, high-protein diets are hot. But are they healthy? That depends. Here’s exactly what you need to know to determine whether a high-protein diet is right for you.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
“The US Recommended Daily Allowance requirements for protein are 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day,” says New York City-based registered dietitian Jamie Feit of Jamie Feit Nutrition LLC. “This translates to approximately 6 to 8 ounces of protein per day. This translates to approximately 47 grams of protein per day for a 130 pound person to 65 grams per day for an 180 pound person. You can meet these needs with about 6-8 ounces of meat or fish per day, though well-balanced vegetarian diets can also meet these protein needs easily through various combinations of yogurt, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu and/or other beans/legumes. Athletes require 1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.”
Though there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what makes someone an athlete, per se, most health guidelines recommend engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity, or a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise per week. If you’re getting more than that, you may need more protein.
Another way to think about it is that most people should eat about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, explains Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian and founder and owner of Vital RD, a nutritional coaching and personal training company based in Denver, Colorado.
“What we’re looking at is usually 20 to 30 grams per meal at breakfast, lunch and dinner to support muscle mass and activity,” she says. Broken down further, that means a container of nonfat Greek yogurt with breakfast, a half-cup of chickpeas on a salad at lunch and grilled chicken breast at dinner will do the trick.
“Your protein intake should technically change daily according to your metabolism; however, a rule of thumb is generally to increase it the more active you are,” says Michal Mor, co-founder, head of science and chief of product at Lumen, a Tel Aviv-based company aiming to bring metabolic health products to the general public.
Adam Potash, a certified personal health coach and executive chef based in Boca Raton, Florida, says that most people probably don’t need to focus on eating more protein. “Generally, people get plenty of protein for their daily activity level. If you’re training for something particular or starting a new gym workout, I might increase my protein by about 10 to 20 grams per day.”
But you may not need to. “Listen to your body,” he says. A number of signs could indicate you’re not getting enough protein, including:
- Losing muscle mass.
- Mood changes.
- Changes to the hair, skin and nails. These include brittle nails and hair, flaky skin and deep ridges on the fingernails.
- Fatigue or weakness.
- Constant hunger or cravings.
What Exactly Is a High-Protein Diet?
Once you start exceeding 1 gram per kilogram of body weight daily, “that would be considered a high-protein diet,” Feit says.
Any diet that demands a protein intake above the government’s recommendations – like the paleo diet, Dukan diet and Optavia (the line of branded products from the team behind Medifast) – is considered a high-protein diet by U.S. News.
On a paleo plan, that may mean eating broiled salmon at breakfast, six shrimp at lunch, almonds and a pork chop for a snack (yes – a snack!), two more pork chops for dinner and more almonds for dessert. All in all, it adds up to more than 200 grams of protein a day. While that may be appropriate for some people, for most, it’s overkill.
What Are the Potential Benefits of a High-Protein Diet?
It’s possible to see health benefits from following a high-protein diet, especially if it means you’re cutting out processed junk foods and sweets and focusing on lean meats, fruits and vegetables instead, Crandall says.
“For healthy individuals, consuming a high-protein diet can increase satiety and therefore promote less grazing or snacking throughout the day,” Feit adds. If you crave carbs, struggle with snacking or have trouble making healthy food choices when you’re hungry, then a high-protein plan might be a good option for you, she says.
Plus, adds Jim White, registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia, more and more research suggests that the government’s recommended daily intake may be too low.
Some populations, too, can benefit from high-protein diets more than others, since how much any one person needs depends on factors like muscle mass, gender, age and activity level, Crandall explains.
Some of the people who may benefit from consuming more protein than the recommended allowance include:
Adults over age 50 have reason to add a handful of nuts to their salads, or wash their morning oatmeal down with a glass of protein-rich cow’s milk. (Many alternative milks like almond milk are surprisingly low in protein. One glass of almond milk clocks in at just 1 gram of protein – while a glass of cow’s milk or soy milk contains 8 grams.)
One study of 50- to 75-year-old adults found that those who ate double what federal guidelines recommend for daily protein intake were spared much of the muscle loss – and accompanying health problems like falls and fractures – that often comes with age, related to thinning bones and declines in physical fitness and mobility.
In some cases, though, the weight loss associated with a high-protein diet may result from a calorie deficit, not the protein. Optavia, which U.S. News experts rank No. 2 for fast weight loss, for example, typically doesn’t provide more than 1,000 calories a day, so followers are bound to lose weight – at least temporarily.
Still, no matter how you do it, weight loss in itself can improve some health markers. “People can have metabolic improvements in cholesterol and blood sugars (on high-protein diets),” Crandall says. “The reason for that is that they’re losing weight.”
A 2018 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, for instance, concluded that people need double the recommended daily allowance of protein in order to build muscle. To get really specific, it found they should eat between 0.4 and 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass at least four times per day.
“Muscle is made of protein, which is made of amino acids,” White says. “Adequate amounts of amino acids must be available in the diet to build more muscle.”
Potential Risks of a High-Protein Diet
“High-protein diets are safe, provided they’re adapted to your lifestyle and levels of exercise,” Mor says. Still, even among healthy adults, there can be some risks associated with taking in too much protein, including:
Deficiencies in other nutrients. Any diet that emphasizes one macronutrient at the expense of others can mean missing out on important nutrients. “Whenever you’re restricting, you have to think about the consequences,” Crandall says.
With high-protein diets in particular, you can easily become deficient in calcium, vitamin D and fiber, the latter of which is critical for good cholesterol, strong digestive health and even to ward off colon cancer, Crandall says. There are a number of high-protein fruits and vegetables you can incorporate into your diet to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
Increased fat intake. Boosting your intake of unhealthy types of protein won’t serve you long-term. “People are justifying really high-fat proteins – things like bacon and sausage – and that’s not healthy, and we know that,” Crandall says.
Indeed, a 2015 report from the World Health Organization found a connection between processed meats and colorectal cancer, as well as higher rates of cancer in those who consume red meat.
- Potential for weight gain. Pursued the wrong way, a high-protein diet can also cause followers to gain weight, White says. “Excess protein is excess calories. If protein intake is increased without increased resistance training, it serves to provide excess calories, thus potential for unwanted weight gain.” Potash agrees, noting “The problem with high protein diets is if you don’t use it, it potentially can turn into fat.”
Unsustainable. Perhaps the biggest downside of popular high-protein diets is that they’re too restrictive to be sustainable. While most people lose significant weight (often, of mostly water weight) on some high-protein diets, they typically gain that back and then some in the long term, Crandall says.
That can also defeat the dieter’s spirit and make them vulnerable to other fad diets that will further damage their metabolism and mental health. As Crandall puts it: “You have to think about a dietary approach that’s going to serve you for life.”
Feit adds that there is not enough research on the long-term effects of following a high-protein diet for a healthy individual, but these diets are definitely not recommended for people with kidney dysfunction or kidney disease.
That’s because the kidneys are responsible for removing the waste products of protein metabolism in the diet. An excess of these byproducts can put a bigger strain on already compromised kidney function.