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Does the High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet Work for Weight Loss?

by | Mar 10, 2020 | Last updated Feb 15, 2022

Almost everyone who’s struggled with their weight has experimented with restrictive diets to achieve weight loss goals. From the Hollywood grapefruit diet of the 1950s to the explosion of trends like the Atkins diet and the Paleolithic diet, there is no shortage of meal plans that promise rapid weight loss. A great deal of these diets emphasizes cutting out common staples like bread, pasta, and potatoes in exchange for meat and vegetables. 

There are a wide variety of diets that fall into this high-protein, low-carb category. Some of them emphasize eating lean meat and moderate amounts of healthy fats, while others encourage you to eat fatty fish, bacon, and whole cuts of meat. Unlike the ketogenic diet, you won’t be restricting your protein intake. So is there anything to this trend?

Every diet in this category has its own benefits and drawbacks, but they also all share one major weakness: sustainability. Studies have shown that participants who stick with it for sixteen weeks lose fat and improve their cholesterol – but a significant number of these people give up before they see the benefits. And a major review of studies demonstrated two noteworthy things: First, the primary reason people lost weight was because of reduced calorie intake. And second, there isn’t enough evidence to determine whether it’s safe to continue after 90 days. 

Even so, you might still be interested in the high-protein, low-carb approach to weight loss. After all, everyone’s body and eating habits are unique, so maybe this diet is well suited for you! Let’s dive deeper for a closer look at the pros and cons of a high-protein, low-carb diet, so you can make a more informed decision about whether or not it’s worth your time.

Pros and cons of a high-protein, low-carb diet

One of the major advantages of this diet is the elimination of sugar and refined grains. While moderate consumption of either can be fine, it’s all too easy to overdo it. And for many people, sugar can become an addiction much in the same way alcohol and tobacco can. 

People who consume diets high in sugar have a much higher risk of many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It’s worth noting that there are many other factors that contribute to your overall health, and eliminating or reducing your sugar intake isn’t the only step you need to take for a healthier lifestyle. 

Numerous studies have also established that low-carb diets work for short term weight loss – but in the longer term, they aren’t any better for weight loss than other diets. Some people may become more motivated by the quick initial weight loss – but just as many can be disheartened when they hit a plateau, and thus likely to abandon their efforts.

Another major drawback? High-protein, low-carb eating is not without health risks. Sticking to low-carb in the long term comes with a whole set of complications, like heart irregularities, kidney damage, and increased cancer risk. That’s why many experts recommend only following these low-carbohydrate diets in the short term and choosing more sustainable long term diet plans after reaping the initial weight loss benifits. 

You should be aware that the first few days on a low-carb diet might be difficult. Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of glucose. Your nervous system relies on glucose to function properly, but your liver can turn excess protein into glucose via a process known as gluconeogenesis. 

While your body gets used to the transition, you may experience headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. This should level out after a few days, but be mindful of how you feel as you go about your day – you don’t want to overexert yourself.

It’s also crucial to be mindful of how much fiber you’re getting. Drink plenty of water and eat lots of vegetables throughout the diet to avoid kidney issues and constipation. And if you take diuretics or other blood pressure medications, or if you’re diabetic, you absolutely need to consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet. 

Is the high-protein, low-carb diet right for you?

If you enjoy lots of meat and don’t mind prepping a ton of vegetables to snack on, you may be able to stick to the diet and get promising results within a few weeks. But if you’ve had trouble sticking to diets in the past, you need to prepare yourself for a hard few days and find some support to get you through it. 

If you do slip up, it doesn’t mean you have to quit! Keeping a healthy mentality about your imperfections is crucial; we all make mistakes, and that’s part of the journey. But if you are struggling with this diet every day, then it’s probably not the right choice for you. 

Still committed to giving high-protein, low-carb eating a shot? Before you start making your meal plan, you’ll need to get familiar with the foods that will comprise the vast majority of your diet. In general, you won’t be counting calories, so you can eat whenever you are hungry without having to worry about going over your allowance for carbohydrate intake. Read on to brush up on the foods you’ll need to get you through the day!

1. Meat and fish

Most people eating high-protein food rely heavily on meat and seafood to get their calories. Depending on which diet you are following, you might choose lean meat, such as chicken breast, brisket, and sirloin steak. Other diets encourage eating plenty of fat, particularly the healthy fats found in oily fish like salmon and tuna. 

2. Eggs

Eggs can be as simple or decadent as you like. And either way, they are packed with protein, beneficial B-vitamins, and hearty healthy fats. Hard-boiled eggs are conveniently portable so you can take them as a snack wherever you go. They’re great in stir-fries with your riced cauliflower or zoodles. 

3. Cheese

Though milk is out of the picture, cheese can be your best friend on a high-protein diet. With so many varieties to choose from, cheese will help you spice up the endless omelets and vegetables you’ll be dining on. You can also throw sugar-free yogurt in the mix for some breakfast parfaits with nuts and a little fruit.

4. Tofu and tempeh

These low-carb, high-protein options can be a lifesaver if you’re vegan, or if you just need a break from all the meat you have to eat for this diet. Both tofu and tempeh are endlessly versatile and easy to prepare with the right recipe.

4. Nuts and seeds

Nuts are high in fat, and sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seeds are great options for people with nut allergies. Chia seeds and flax seeds are excellent sources of omega-3s, which is particularly important for people who are only eating plant-based protein. 

5. Non-starchy vegetables

Surprisingly, some vegetables have as much as 50% of the calories coming from protein. Leafy greens like watercress, spinach, and kale are high in fiber and packed with essential vitamins and minerals. The best part? You can eat large portions of them without having to worry about your carb intake.

6. Smoothies

If you’re craving a delicious smoothie, there’s plenty of ways to keep them low-carb. Protein powders, nut milk or greek yogurt, veggies, and just a little bit of fruit can make a filling concoction to start your day. Smoothies will also help keep you hydrated and give you something besides water to drink.

7. Bread substitutes

There are a lot of options here, and if you’re used to eating sandwiches and tacos on a daily basis, you may go crazy trying to find new staples. The low-carb wraps and bread are often made with high-protein or high-fat flours, like almond and coconut flour. And while you can’t expect them to taste the same as your old favorites, they are seriously delicious in their own right.

The best source of carbohydrates for your diet

Different diets allow for different amounts of carbohydrates. For example, the Atkins diet starts with an induction phase where you don’t consume more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day and then slowly add more. Other diets maintain anywhere between 50 to 150 grams of carbohydrates per day throughout.

It’s important to choose high-quality carbs with a low glycemic index, so you avoid blood sugar spikes that can lead to unhealthy cravings. That means eating 100% whole wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, whole oats, brown rice, and beans. Be on the lookout for any foods that have added sugar or fruit juice as a sweetener.

Whole fruits can also be enjoyed moderately, but you should avoid drinking juice. Grapefruits, apples, and pears have a lower glycemic index, so if you’re already struggling with cravings, use them as your go-to fruits.

Low-carb vegetables are filling, and they digest slowly because of all the fiber. This leaves you satisfied for longer. But starchy vegetables like potatoes and carrots are high-carb foods, and should only be eaten sparingly. When you do eat potatoes, leave the skin on for the extra protein and vitamins. 

The bottom line

The low-carb, high-protein diet can be an effective short term solution to help you toward your weight loss goals. People enjoy it because they can eat whenever they are hungry, so long as they aren’t loading up on carbs. But this diet – like almost every diet – is based on short-term thinking. In order to maintain your target body weight, you’ll need a long term plan. 

At Noom, we believe that weight loss is only part of a bigger, holistic picture. If your health and fitness goals are going to be sustainable, they need to be based on a loving, nurturing relationship with your own body. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice what you love to feel better about yourself! 
That’s why Noom health coaches will work with you to formulate a personalized plan that accounts for all your unique strengths and challenges. We’ve also built the perfect app – designed by psychologists and weight-loss experts – to help you stay on track. Learn more about how Noom can help.