Debunking the High-Protein Diet Fad: Is It Right For You? How Do You Do It With Special Dietary Needs?

When I picture a summer barbecue, I typically envision rows of sizzling hashtag-charred hamburgers and hot dogs. 🌭🍔

Meat – and even meatless “meat” – seems to be the latest dietary craze these days. But is a high-protein diet right for you? How do you attempt it with special dietary needs?

As a dietitian and nutritionist, I’m here to dispel some myths and dig into the facts! 

First, let’s start with the basics. 

Protein is the building block for muscles. But did you know that our liver is the organ that makes protein? The liver makes 13 of the 22 amino acids that form a complete protein, and we get the other nine essential amino acids through food sources. 

Complete proteins are from food sources that contain all 22 amino acids and include red meat, chicken, fish, dairy, quinoa, soy, and eggs. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, or you limit your animal protein consumption, you can combine incomplete, plant-based proteins to create more complete proteins. Examples include: nuts or seeds with whole grains (peanut butter on whole-wheat toast), or beans with nuts or seeds (a salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds). 

Make sense? 

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is 0.8 grams for every one kilogram of body weight per day. For a 150-pound female, that means 54-55 grams of protein per day. For reference, a three-ounce portion of boneless skinless chicken contains about 30 grams of protein. 

What is a high-protein diet? Why is it the hot trend? What does that mean if you have special dietary needs?

High-protein diets have been around for a while. In fact, diet trends tend to be fairly cyclical. In 1972, Dr. Atkins published his first book on low-carbohydrate diets (i.e. the first high-protein diet). A high-protein diet is typically considered to include 1/1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight—or 30 grams of protein at each meal. Some studies have linked high-protein diets to weight loss. There are numerous studies showing that protein consumption can increase satiety and weight loss. 

While high-protein diets are often recommended for those interested in building muscle or losing weight, they’re not the right fit for everyone. Consuming higher amounts of protein can lead to higher rates of kidney disease and an increased risk of colon cancer. Additionally, diets full of red meat can lead to higher levels of uric acid and a greater chance of contracting gout.

Is there a way to achieve a high-protein diet in a healthy way?

High-protein diets are often paired with low-carbohydrate diets because when you increase one nutrient, you typically need to decrease another to counterbalance the calorie intake. Some great high-protein suggestions include low-saturated fat meats, dairy products, nuts, legumes, seeds, and unrefined whole-wheat grains. Here are some examples according to the daily recommended intake:  

– 3 ounces of boneless skinless chicken breast

–  6 ounces of Greek yogurt

– ½ cup of tofu

– 2 large eggs

– 2 tablespoons of nut butter

– ½ cup of beans (pro tip: rinse and drain your canned beans to reduce sodium intake by about 20 – 25%)

– 1 cup of cooked oatmeal 

What if I have special dietary needs? 

If you have special dietary needs, it’s important to consider whether or not you are required to eliminate an entire food group. If you are, it might be difficult to follow a high-protein diet. I highly encourage individuals to seek out a registered dietitian to help with nutritional advice. Food allergies and specific dietary needs can be challenging, and dietitians are trained to help navigate diets to achieve your specific nutritional goals!  

Rebecca Noren is on the Allergy Amulet health advisory board and works with chef Ming Tsai. Rebecca holds a master’s degree in nutrition and is a registered dietitian. She is dedicated to bringing her expertise in public relations, marketing, and culinary production to the intersection of food, health, and food allergies. 

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