12/16/2014 01:29 EST | Updated 02/15/2015 05:59 EST

Is a High-Protein Diet Good for Your Health?

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Protein has been getting a lot of attention lately. In fact, nothing short of a "high-protein craze" is taking place according to press reports, and food manufacturers of breakfast cereals to ice cream are cashing in on sudden concerns about protein deficiencies in people's diets. The truth is that most Canadians are consuming enough protein, perhaps even too much, based on Canada's Food Guide. The same goes for populations across the developed world.

So why should we worry? Besides the usual hype that accompanies new dietary trends, there are also some serious reasons why protein intake deserves a closer look. One is demographics. People live longer, and age-related health problems are becoming more predominant. One of those is loss of muscle mass (primary sarcopenia), which begins around the age of 30 but accelerates significantly after 70. Natural muscle atrophy as part of aging can be worsened by nutritional deficiencies, including lack of protein. Another possibility is muscle loss due to exceedingly sedentary lifestyles or long periods of recovery from an illness (secondary sarcopenia), which can occur at any time in life. Here too, unsound nutrition can make matters worse.

And not only the elderly and the sick have to deal with such issues, vegetarians and dieters who abstain from entire food groups can risk inadequate protein intake, with sometimes serious consequences.

We are not just talking about keeping your arms and legs in shape or your skin and hair shiny. Because proteins in the body break down due to daily wear and tear, they need constant replacement from the foods we eat. So, insufficient protein supply negatively affects every organ, tissue and cell.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to cover protein needs. Most adults fare well if they get 10 to 35 per cent of their daily calories from protein-containing food sources, or about 46 grams of protein for women and 56 grams for men, according to the Canadian Food Guide'srecommendations. These can come from meat products, dairy, and also from plant foods if taken in the right combination. Amounts can vary from person to person, depending on activity level and other factors.

Vegetarians and vegans need to pay greater attention to their protein consumption because plant-based diets can fall short of what is called "complete protein," which is found only in animal food products and provides all essential amino acids (protein building blocks) the body needs but cannot produce otherwise. By contrast, plant foods are considered "incomplete protein" sources, and can only be made "complete" if consumed in certain combinations such as vegetables with legumes, grains, nuts and seeds -- although not necessarily all at once.

Another question is whether it is possible to overdose on protein? The answer is, yes and no. Most healthy people who eat more protein than necessary don't experience harmful effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, many protein-rich foods, especially animal products, also tend to be caloric and sometimes high in saturated fat, which is linked to elevated LDL ("bad") cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Also, too much dietary protein can be detrimental to kidney functions in people suffering from kidney disease.

Rather than exclusively focusing on protein needs, it is preferable to adhere to an overall balanced and health-promoting eating regimen that provides sufficient amounts of protein as well as all other important nutrients, the CDC advises.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.


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