The core market for weight-loss diets in the United States is created by publishing conglomerates and charismatic medical doctors who are willing to tell prospective readers what they want to hear – that you can lose weight quickly and effortlessly by buying and following their books.
All of these “quickie” diets share the same common denominator: a rapid and measurable weight loss. To accomplish this seemingly admirable goal, these diets are intentionally unbalanced, meaning they reduce any one or two of the three primary food groups – carbohydrates, proteins, or fats – to a bare minimum.
Here is how each of these approaches works in real life:
– Low-carbohydrates diets reduce dietary carbohydrates to a bare minimum, but they increase the amount of protein and fat consumed, usually without any restrictions. The initial weight loss results from the loss of phantom weight, the phenomenon I’ve described in my post entitled “The Real Reason Diets Fail and What You Can Do About It.” Long-term weight loss on these diets isn’t sustainable because as soon as the body readjusts itself to a new nutritional pattern, excessive fats and proteins contribute to weight gain just as much as excessive carbohydrates.
– Low-protein diets are typically vegetarian diets that exclude all kinds of meats, fish, and seafood. Muscle wasting and bone loss are the principal mechanism of the weight loss on this type of diet. Long-term weight loss on low-protein diets isn’t sustainable because the deficiency of essential amino acids causes edema (swelling, a persistent accumulation of fluids throughout the body) and excessive carbohydrates turn into fat.
– Low-fat diets reduce the amount of animal fats and, indirectly, animal proteins to a minimum, but these diets also increase the amount of carbohydrates and plant fats without a realistic limit. The initial weight loss results from a loss of fluids that are required for gastric digestion of proteins. Additional weight loss may come from the loss of minerals stored in the bones, because the assimilation of essential minerals isn’t possible without fat and fat-soluble vitamins in the diet.
If a near-instant weight loss is all you want, don’t bother yourself with these kinds of unbalanced diets. A hot bath or sauna along with a cleansing enema will accomplish as good or better results in mere hours by sweating out 4-8 pounds of fluids and expelling another 3-6 pounds of stools from the large intestine, and with less damage to your health, appearance, and wallet.
The rest of this post will provide a detailed rundown of the health risks associated with unbalanced weight-loss diets. If you are an accomplished serial dieter, I am sure you will find some parallels with your own travails.
The perils of low-protein diets
Yes, you will definitely lose some weight by excluding all animal proteins from your diet, for the following reasons:
- First, because of inevitable muscle wasting: the muscles act as the body stores of protein. That is also why vegetarians have such a hard time building muscle, unless they take protein supplements or stimulating hormones.
- Second, you will lose the bone and cartilage tissue that is made from collagen — a most abundant protein in our bodies. A collagen-based bone matrix provides the bones with strength, flexibility, size, and volume, all of which are essential to protect the intricate network of nerves, blood vessels, and bone marrow and to store fat and mineral reserves.
- Third, when the internal reserves of proteins are exhausted, people succumb to edema, fatigue, indigestion, mental decline, hallucinations, depression, and the entire scope of neurological and cardiovascular diseases. This occurs because the brain, the heart, the vessels, the nerves, the cells, the hormones, the enzymes, and everything else in the body are all made from protein or require various amino acids to function.
The average adult body synthesizes approximately 300 grams of protein (amino acids) per day, of which 75% to 80% is reused. The remaining 20% to 25% (i.e., 60 to 75 grams) are lost and must be replaced daily with dietary protein. That is the replacement minimum for a healthy adult of average height, weight, and daily workload, and with healthy digestion.
The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for protein is 0.75 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/day) for both men and women, irrespective of age. I repeat: this is a replacement minimum intended to prevent disease; it is not an amount to enhance health. The DRI is, of course, a part of the Federal Nutrition Policy, and its original principal application was to determine a “humane” diet–in other words, a minimally acceptable ration for the members of captive groups, such as people living in military barracks, prisons, asylums, orphanages, and hospitals, as well as recipients of Food Stamps and welfare. Accordingly, cost-effectiveness, not just health or longevity, was a primary determining factor in setting this standard.
The DRI doesn’t represent a luxurious diet — just a bare minimum. Keep this in mind when looking at the rather stingy 0.75 g/kg/day “for both men and women.” One’s daily requirements can increase because of disease, physical activity, exercise, stress, a demanding occupation, and other factors, and these increases can often be substantial. Brittle hair and nails, underdeveloped musculature, premature skin aging and osteopenia (mild thinning of the bone mass that precedes osteoporosis) are sure signs of protein deficiency.
Infants and growing children require from 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, daily, to accommodate their growth and development. Protein deficiencies are quite apparent in children with narrow, underdeveloped faces and crowded teeth poor musculature, low weight, thin and fragile hair, skin lesions, retarded growth, an impaired immune system, and a host of other problems.
Kwashiorkor is a type of malnutrition that is the extreme form of protein deficiency in children. Its most obvious symptom is edema (swelling). Edema is also quite typical in adults who are on restrictive diets with little or no protein.
Marasmus is another type of malnutrition that often precedes kwashiorkor. The marasmus’ most prominent irreversible side effect is impaired intellect. Marasmus affects adults who may be malnourished because of age, disease, infirmity, gastric disorders, poverty, or other reasons. And for many dedicated vegans–who don’t eat meat, eggs, or dairy–marasmus is an elective affliction.
Pregnant and lactating women, older adults, and people who are sick or recovering from disease require from 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. A bare-minimum DRI requirement for adults is 0.8 grams per 1 kilogram of body weight.
Excess proteins are stored in tissues, primarily in muscles; the rest are excreted in stools and urine. In the absence of endogenous glucose and fats, the liver metabolizes amino acids from protein into glucose. This process is called gluconeogenesis — the anabolic synthesis of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources, amino acids, lactic acid, and glycerol from fat. The visible result of the gluconeogenesis is called muscle wasting.
The protein-free diet immediately leads to a destructive loss of at least 60 to 75 grams of muscle tissue per day for replacement needs, and much more when there is also a shortage of fats and carbohydrates. Once the muscle tissue is used up, the bone tissue is the next to go, and after that comes death. As you can see, a low-protein or protein-free diet is indeed effective for weight loss, but it is also self-destructive.
Nutritionally speaking, animal protein from meats, fish, and seafood is optimal for a weight-loss diet because, unlike proteins from grains, legumes, and nuts, animal protein doesn’t contain abundant carbohydrates. Further, meat and fowl are preferred to fish and seafood, because the latter contains delicate fats that may become rancid by cooking.
There is a good reason why the Japanese enjoy the health benefits of fish and seafood: they consume these foods fresh and mostly raw, so neither protein nor unstable fish oil gets ruined during cooking. Keep this very important point in mind: fish oil contains essential fatty acids that aren’t available from meat and most vegetable oils. For that reason, I recommend a daily serving of liquid cod-liver oil to supplement a weight-loss diet.
Keep in mind that 8 ounces (226 grams) of broiled or grilled steak contains only 2.4 ounces of proteins — which is only 68 grams, barely a daily replacement need. The rest is water (62%) and fat (10%). Some of this protein (20% to 30%) gets denatured (i.e., becomes useless) during cooking. People often forget this important distinction — i.e., that not all meat, by weight, is protein — when they are determining how much meat they need to consume to compensate for daily protein losses.
- Only about one fifth (less than 20%) of the gross weight of raw meat, fowl, fish, and seafood represents usable protein. Calculate accordingly to ensure that you are eating enough to get the protein you need. Then subtract another 20% for losses incurred during cooking.
- To support essential body functions during ultra-low or carb-free diets, the daily requirements for dietary protein increase by another 100 to 150 grams, depending on one’s age, gender, health, weight, workload, pregnancy, lactation, and similar factors.
- Animal protein is the most optimal source of dietary protein in a weight-reduction diet, because it is carbohydrates-free; low in fat relative to protein derived from plants; and doesn’t contain as many allergens, carcinogens, irritants, and contaminants as plants.
- The satiety of nutrients (i.e., the feeling of fullness) is an important physiological point, so select food that provides the highest and fastest satiety to control hunger and appetite. For most people, animal protein is the easiest to cook, most palatable, and most satisfying in terms of satisfying both hunger and appetite.
- If you are unable to consume animal protein for religious, ethical, or health-related reasons, substitute it with professionally-formulated, carbohydrate-free supplemental formulas from either animal sources (such as whey protein) or vegetarian sources (such as isolated protein).
To conclude, let me remind you that the term protein is derived from the Greek word protos, which means “primary.” Eating quality meat, fowl, game, fish, and seafood is one of the safest and most essential human endeavors, and it is a must for successful and permanent weight loss, health, and longevity.
The health hazards of low-fat diets
I lost weight in the past, and I have stayed at a normal weight in the years since by consuming a high-fat diet, meaning that fat represents the highest number of calories in my diet – close to 50%. The table below illustrates the breakdown of my diet by nutrients and their caloric equivalents:
As you can clearly see, my diet includes (on average) 60 grams of protein, 80 grams of fat, and 150 grams of carbohydrates. So why do I call it a “high-fat” diet when it contains almost twice as many grams of carbohydrates than fat (150 g vs. 80g)?
You’ll find the answer in the “Calories per day” column: 720 calories (46%) come from fat and only 600 (38%) come from carbohydrates. In other words, when specialists refer to the diet as “high” or “low,” they do not reference the weight of each nutrient, but their caloric value because fat contains 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates contain only 4 calories per gram.
Unfortunately, some people misinterpret “high-fat diet” definition as a license to consume unlimited fats–which is, of course, a non-starter for any effective diet.
On the opposite side are the people who may also misinterpret my recommendations as “anti-fat,” because I emphasize over and over again that an effective diet must be sufficiently “low-fat.”
Please, don’t make either mistake. A safe weight loss diet MUST contain enough fat to protect your health, but not too much to sabotage your weight loss. Here is what happens when people omit fat from their diets in pursuit of weight loss at any cost:
- Constipation, because dietary fat is a primary stimulant of the gastrocolic reflex, a physiological condition that precedes a natural bowel movement.
- Gallbladder disease, because dietary fat is the sole stimulus for the release of bile. If bile isn’t regularly released from the gallbladder, bile salts may form gallbladder stones.
- Cholecystitis, because unused bile salts or gallbladder stones may obstruct the hepatic (bile) ducts – the outlet tubes that connect the liver to the gallbladder and duodenum.
- Weight gain and obesity, because dietary fat is a primary substance behind the control of satiety, hunger, and appetite.
- Enterocolitis (inflammatory disease of the small and large intestine) because underutilized bile causes inflammation of the intestinal mucosa and diarrhea.
- Bone and joint diseases (including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rickets, scoliosis, osteomalacia (which is the softening of the bones from the loss of minerals caused by vitamin D deficiency), and rheumatoid arthritis), because dietary fat is essential for absorption of vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium in the small intestine.
- Vitamin D deficiency and related disorders, because an absence of dietary fat prevents the absorption of dietary vitamin D and reabsorption of the endogenous vitamin D secreted with bile.
- Heart disease and hypertension, because vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium regulate contraction and relaxation of smooth (blood vessels) and cardiac (heart) muscles.
- All kinds of skeletomuscular disorders, such as fibromyalgia, for the same reasons as above.
- Blood disorders, because dietary fat is essential for absorption of dietary vitamin K (which is a coagulation factor), and because essential fatty acids are required in the “manufacture” of blood cells.
- Impaired immunity, night blindness, and skin disorders, because dietary fat is essential for absorption of vitamin A.
- A broad range of cognitive dysfunctions, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory disease, infertility, amenorrhea, nerve damage, cancers, and other conditions related to acute deficiency of essential fatty acids.
- Cellulite and other skin disorders, related to overconsumption of vegetable fats to satisfy fat cravings while avoiding animal fat.
- Undesirable exposure to unstable trans and rancid fats in all vegetable oils, which are considered the primary triggers of inflammatory diseases (digestive, cardiovascular, atherosclerosis, joints, asthma), and cancer.
To prevent all of the above complications, I recommend consuming at least one gram of animal fat per 1 kilogram (i.e., 2 pounds) of your body weight, and at least 10 grams of these fats should come from liquid cod-liver oil – the best source of essential fatty acids that are difficult to obtain otherwise from cooked food or restricted weight loss diet.
Complications related to low-carb diets
Low- to zero-carbs diets are effective “fat-burners” for younger people (up to age 35 to 40) with perfect gastric digestion (i.e., in the stomach) and a relatively low-stress lifestyle. For all others–especially people who are not as well, not as young, morbidly obese, or already diabetic, or who have digestive disorders and/or high-stress jobs–these diets may cause a great deal of harm for the following reasons:
- A person may no longer be as responsive to endogenous insulin (i.e., insulin that is produced by the pancreas), a condition known as insulin resistance. A high concentration of insulin in the blood inhibits fat loss and causes a broad range of cardiovascular complications.
- A person may be affected by thyroid or adrenal disorders that disrupt the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates and may cause rapid wasting of bones and muscles.
- A person may already have digestive disorders (for example, atrophic gastritis, pancreatic insufficiency, enteritis, or gallbladder disease) that may prevent foods from assimilating. Alternatively, dieters develop these disorders if they suddenly change the composition of their diet from being predominantly carbs to being predominantly proteins and fats, a rather common occurrence.
- A complete withdrawal or significant reduction of carbohydrates may cause a continuous wasting of muscle tissues (with commensurate weight loss at a rate of 50 to 100 grams daily, which will be much more in people with impaired digestion of protein) related to gluconeogenesis – a process of turning protein into glucose required for proper functioning of the blood, brain and central nervous system.
- Low-carb diets have a tendency to cause dehydration in early stages. Because water represents up to 60% of an adult’s body weight, severe dehydration alone may demonstrate a 5- to 10-pound weight reduction even in moderately overweight adults.
In addition to all of the above concerns and complications, low- to zero-carbs diets are inappropriate for people with pre-diabetes or diabetes because they may exacerbate metabolic acidosis and are well known for their complications. These complications include unstable blood sugar, delayed stomach emptying, chronic gastritis, severe dehydration, crippling fatigue, diet-breaking constipation, brittle nails, hair loss, amenorrhea, infertility, birth defects, and others.
A proper weight-loss diet must be balanced, which means it is neither too low nor too high in any single food component. Unfortunately, the “one-size-fits-all” formula for a balanced diet doesn’t exist because the optimal ratio of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates varies from individual to individual, and it depends on the diet’s phase. I will address all of these factors in future posts.
Previous posts from the “Why Diets Fail” series:
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For your health and safety, please read these important Weight Loss Common Sense Warnings and Disclaimers before commencing a reduced calorie diet.
Cover illustration: © 2013 iStockPhoto LLP;
Konstantin Monastyrsky holds a degree in pharmacy. He is also an expert in forensic nutrition and has written four books about health and nutrition, including the acclaimed Fiber Menace. He’s twice been featured speaker at the international Wise Traditions Conference.