For many people, a high-protein diet is very successful at helping them lose weight. There are lots of reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is that the diet forces people into simplicity. Carbohydrates and sugar are found in all our favorite guilty pleasures. What you’re left with on a high-protein diet are more basic foods: beans, nuts, meats, eggs, seafood and low-fat dairy.
By cutting down on options, you often cut down on calories, too. For many doctors and nutritionists, this is the go-to diet for not only people wanting to lose weight, but also those at risk or already diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
However, new research seems to contradict this long-standing notion.
Here’s what you need to know.
Diagnosis and treatment must start with your doctor.
While overweight people are at greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, it can happen to anyone. When you start to notice some symptoms of Type 2 diabetes, you might feel capable of diagnosing yourself based on the information you can find online, but the only way to know for sure is to go to your doctor. He or she must perform blood tests to measure blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity, and they can use this information to advise you on treatment.
The blood tests will indicate your average blood sugar level for the past two to three months. It measures the percentage of blood sugar attached to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. Even if you haven't yet developed Type 2 diabetes, this test can tell you whether you have prediabetes, as roughly 86 million Americans currently do.
Weight loss is often the first step, but high-protein diets may not be the answer.
Researchers for this new study took 34 obese women aged 50 to 65 and tracked them for seven months. None of them had diabetes at the study's outset. They divided the women into three groups: a no-dieting group where women maintained their weight, a dieting group that ate the recommended daily level of protein and a dieting group that stuck to a high-protein regimen.
At the end of the study period, women who ate a high-protein diet did not show improvement in insulin sensitivity, even if they lost weight. However, the women who dieted but ate the recommended daily amount of protein had a 25–30 percent improvement in their insulin sensitivity.
One of the authors of the study noted that consuming protein amounts beyond your needs is unnecessary, and potentially harmful if you have kidney issues. It can even lead to weight gain since extra calories from protein are stored as fat. The researcher also said the healthiest diet is a balanced one that includes complex carbohydrates, as well as a recommended level of daily protein.
The authors also pointed out that it's not known if the same results would occur in men or in women already diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, but one of the authors said that most who lose weight become more insulin-sensitive.
What are the symptoms?
It's absolutely possible to have prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes without even knowing it. Some people suffer for many years before being diagnosed, and the consequences can be quite significant. They most commonly include increased thirst and frequent urination, increased hunger, weight loss, mild to severe fatigue, blurred vision, slow-healing wounds or frequent infections, and areas of darkened skin.
The reason for such dramatic side effects is the fact that Type 2 diabetes results from a disruption in the way your body gets its main energy source. Glucose, a sugar, is meant to move from our bloodstreams into our cells to give us energy. It does so with the help of insulin. However, Type 2 diabetes makes us insulin-resistant, meaning the process becomes less effective over time. As a result, sugar builds up in the bloodstream instead of being delivered to our cells. In order to keep getting the energy we need, our body demands we eat more and more food. So we end up eating more than we need, and the excess gets turned into fat or remains in our bloodstream, still unable to reach our cells.
Balance is key.
Some of the inner workings of the human body remain a mystery to us, but others are much less complex. If you’re tired, you go to sleep. If you’re thirsty, you drink some water. However, what if you’re in a bad mood? What if you’re chronically fatigued? The reason can be simple, but it isn’t always. The same is true for people who develop Type 2 diabetes. Yes, eating excess amounts of added sugar and carbohydrates together with a sedentary lifestyle will increase our odds, but a marathon runner can still develop the disease.
At the end of the day, the problem starts with a lack of balance in our systems. If we try to fight back from an unbalanced and sugary diet with a high-protein diet, it’s another shock to an already-damaged system. That’s why perhaps eating a balanced diet filled with recommended amounts of protein, complex carbs and healthy fats is the best way to go. If we need to cut calories, we can still do that, but by eating a balanced diet, we give our bodies a chance to stabilize and return to normal. Balance isn’t about moving from one extreme to the next. It requires a slow and patient approach. That’s the only way to guarantee the healthy choices we make every day stick and don’t simply fade away when we lose focus.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.