Is a high-protein diet right for me?

First it was the eccentric health nut 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.

[See: High-Protein Breakfast Ideas.]

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The U.S. government recommends 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from protein. Another way to think about it is that most people should eat about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, expains Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian in Denver and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “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.

What Does a High-Protein Diet Actually Mean?

Any diet that demands a protein intake above the government’s recommendations — like the paleo diet, Dukan diet and Optavia (the newly branded line of products from the team behind Medifast) — is considered a high-protein diet by U.S. News. (While Atkins and the ketogenic diet are often thought of as high-protein plans, technically they are low-carb diet and high-fat diets, respectively, although both could easily include higher-than-recommended levels of protein.)

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 finds. Plus, adds Jim White, a registered dietitian and fitness instructor with studios in Virginia, more and more research suggests that the government’s recommended daily intake may be too low. “Increased intake in conjunction with exercise can boost metabolic rate as well as feelings of satiety, thus aiding in weight loss,” he says.

Some populations, too, can benefit from high-protein diets more than others, since how much any one person needs depends on factors like their muscle mass, gender, age and activity level, Crandall explains. Here are some of the people who may benefit from consuming more protein than the recommended allowance:

Older Adults

Adults over 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. (News flash: Many alternative milks like almond milk are surprisingly low in protein.) One study of 50- to 75-year old adults found that those who ate double what federal guidelines recommend for daily protein intake helped protect against the muscle loss — and accompanying health problems like falls and fractures — that often comes with age.

People Trying to Lose Weight

Some research supports high-protein diets for weight loss. One small 2016 study in the journal Nutrients, for instance, found that women who followed a paleo diet lost over two-and-a-half times more weight in a month than those who stuck to a standard diet emphasizing fruits, veggies, whole grains and some low-fat dairy.

In many 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.”

[See: The 10 Best Diets for Fast Weight Loss.]

People Trying to Gain Muscle

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 best 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.”

What Are the Potential Risks of a High-Protein Diet?

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.

At the same time, an increase in 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 processed meats cause colorectal cancer and red meat probably causes cancer.

Pursued the wrong way, a high-protein diet can also cause followers to gain weight, White says. “Excess protein is excess calories,” he says. “If protein intake is increased without increased resistance training, it serves to provide excess calories, thus potential for unwanted weight gain.”

The one area healthy high-protein dieters don’t have much to worry about is in kidney function, which is often cited as being at risk when protein consumption is high. In reality, researchers have debunked that rumor among people who have normal kidney function. Folks who already have kidney disease, however, should steer clear, White says.

[See: 5 Unintended Consequences of Eating Too Much Protein.]

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) 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 metabolisms and mental health. As Crandall puts it: “You have to think about a dietary approach that’s going to serve you for life.”

More from U.S. News

U.S. News Ranks the Best Diets of 2019

High-Protein Breakfast Ideas

What’s Really in Those Meatless Meats?

Is a High-Protein Diet Right for Me? originally appeared on

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