Make sense of highfalutin’ diets

A high-protein diet is fine for rapid weight loss, but is it sustainable? Nope—and it’s also dangerous.

If you’re looking for a sustainable nutrition plan—something that’ll suit you 20 years from now—you should stop looking at high-protein diets.

They’re popular now for dropping pounds quickly but they’re simply not a practical solution beyond the horizon, said Harland Holman, MD, medical director at the Spectrum Health Family Medicine Residency Center.

“You can pick the high-protein diet to lose weight, but what you want to think about is the long-term,” Dr. Holman said. “If you go back to normal dieting, you’d put all that weight right back on. I’d recommend picking a diet you can stick with that’s healthy.”

America is deluged with new diets from year to year—high-fat, low-carb, high-protein—but in the end it seems the basics are best: a plant-based diet with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and lean meats and seafood.

One diet in particular fits the bill: The Mediterranean.

“You’ll lose weight on it and you can also look at all the positive effects, even much later,” Dr. Holman said.

Ample evidence supports the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet, including reduced risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Among the most recent findings, researchers determined a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive or nuts is associated with improved cognitive function in older adults.

Calling it a Mediterranean “diet,” in fact, may be something of a misnomer.

Dietician Jessica Corwin, a community nutrition educator at Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, prepares a "One Dish Italian Skillet" during her "Farm to Fork Cooking Series" class. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)
Dietitian Jessica Corwin, a community nutrition educator at Spectrum Health Healthier Communities, prepares a “One Dish Italian Skillet” during her “Farm to Fork Cooking Series” class. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

“It’s not a diet—it’s not something you go on and quit,” said dietitian Jessica Corwin, a community nutrition educator at Spectrum Health Healthier Communities. “It’s a way of thinking about meals differently.”

Remember the old Clinton-era food pyramid, early 1990s or so? That majestic work of art featured bread, rice, cereal and pasta prominently at the bottom, recommending a carbtastic 6 to 11 servings per day.

Some illustrations of the Mediterranean food pyramid, meanwhile, don’t even show food at the bottom. They feature families playing and people interacting.

Seriously.

“The very base of the pyramid is about having fun, living an active lifestyle, and enjoying your food,” Corwin said. “It’s a stark contrast to our culture’s habit of racing through a meal while standing, driving or watching TV.”

As for actual food, the diet places heavy emphasis on leafy greens, vegetables, fruit and whole grains, building out from there.

Said Corwin: “Those following a plant-based Mediterranean Diet plan their meals around the vegetables, rather than the meat. Instead of saying, ‘OK, Monday we’ll have beef with something else,’ the focus switches to, ‘We have a ton of leafy greens we need to use up tonight, so what should we do with that?’”

First add nuts, beans, legumes, seeds, herbs, spices and olive oil, then fish and seafood. Poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt would come once every other day, or perhaps a few times per week, with red meat and desserts just once or twice a month.

But the takeaway here is not simply that the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet outsize any high-protein diets.

High-protein diets can increase your health risks. Research has shown that people who regularly consume high-protein foods—red meat, in particular—are effectively increasing their lifetime risk of chronic disease.

“Red meat, animal protein, has been linked to increased cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,” Dr. Holman said.

A person with kidney problems, meanwhile, may see their condition worsen on a high-protein diet.

“When you have tons of protein, it’s harder for the kidneys to process and clear it,” Dr. Holman said. “Super-high protein levels can affect your kidneys. Most of the time, healthy people are OK, but if you’re predisposed to problems with your kidneys it can cause you to retain fluid.”

And a predictable side effect of the diet craze: People are protein-crazy.

“Sometimes people don’t think they’re getting enough protein, but they are,” Dr. Holman said. “Most people overestimate how much protein they need.”

A protein calculator at Kashi.com can help you determine a proper intake.

“You can kind of plug in how much you weigh and how active you are, and (determine) how much protein you should be eating,” Dr. Holman said.

Smart dieting is the first step to positive lifestyle change, but don’t feel pressured to make dramatic changes immediately. Dr. Holman said he’ll first ask his patients to maintain a 24-hour food journal, carefully documenting the foods they typically eat in one day.

“You have to think about lifestyle change,” he said. “They’ll pick one or two things they can change. Sometimes it’s just as simple as cutting out soda. And most people don’t realize how healthy nuts are—they should switch to nuts as one of their snacks.”

The payoffs are real: Studies have shown people who adhere to a Mediterranean diet are about 30 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, Dr. Holman said.

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Comments (2)

  • Great Info! My husband & I are just starting this after 3 years of trying everything else when he was diagnosed with Typ. II Diabetes.
    We were not happy with his numbers or the results of these other “Diets” but after just 3 weeks on the Mediterranean Way of eating, his numbers are down 50 points and are at a much more manageable & healthy range.
    His A1C is even down from 8 to 6.3!
    So we highly recommend this “life style change”/ way of eating and the bonus is the foods are fresh, fabulous and filling!
    Thanks again for the information 😉

    • Awesome, Sherry! Great to hear. Best wishes to you and your husband on your continued good health!

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