Here’s why the trendy, ultra-low carb diets go too far

Protein is a remarkable, life-sustaining nutrient used by every cell in your body. It’s an essential building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. And your body even uses it to repair damaged cells and to make new ones. Plus, unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body can’t store it, so you must constantly replenish it.

Though, for something so vital to human life, there’s an astonishing lack of research into the topic.

Of course, some of the earliest research on the importance of protein in the human diet dates back to an early, 20th-century Arctic explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As part of his study of the Inuit culture, Stefansson spent a total of five years in the “field” eating only meat. His diet closely resembled what we might today call a ketogenic or “zero-carb” diet.

Then, in 1928, Stefansson repeated the diet back in the United States as a one-year, controlled experiment. His doctors found that he needed the addition of some essential fats because lean meat alone did not sustain him. In fact, he seemed to develop something akin to “rabbit hunger” or “protein starvation,” as experienced by Native Americans when they couldn’t obtain large game animals and had to subsist on small, lean animals like rabbits.

Steffansson continued to follow a low-carb, high-protein, and high-fat diet for the rest of his life, until he died at the age of 83.

But while Steffansson’s story speaks to the importance of protein in the diet, I do still urge caution. Because his extreme approach (like most of today’s trendy, ultra-low carb diets) went too far.

These ultra-low carb diets limit total carbs to under 50 grams a day. Plus, they eliminate whole categories of healthy foods, such as fruits and dairy—which research consistently links to lower chronic disease risks.

And, what’s worse, many devotees of these extreme diets rely on some seriously questionable products to maintain their “low-carb” lifestyle…

Skip the protein bars, potions, and powders

As the extreme low-carb diet has grown in popularity, so too has the popularity of processed protein bars, shakes, and powders.

But these products are a waste of money and are filled with added ingredients. Worse yet, they can even pose serious dangers to your health. In fact, as a former Medical Examiner, I investigated notable cases of deaths from protein powders—one of which was quite notorious.

Marketing companies try to claim that consuming these products after exercising helps with the growth and repair of muscle tissues.

But there are two big issues with that claim…

First of all, if your workout requires tissue repair, then it’s the wrong kind of exercise! In fact, as I often report, studies show getting just 2.5 hours of light-to-moderate physical activity total each week is all you really need to improve your longevity. And that amount includes light yardwork, housework, and even climbing stairs. On the other hand, over-exercising (or “excess-ercise,” as I call it) to the point where it harms your tissues is not a healthy endeavor.

Second, it’s questionable whether these protein bars and shakes even work as promised to “repair” tissues. In fact, according to a recent survey, two-thirds of people who take protein products following exercise can’t tell whether it has any benefit. Plus, research from 36 studies has found that protein supplements show no benefit on lean mass and muscle strength during the first weeks of exercise training. Benefits have not been established over the long term either.

Follow the right kinds of diet and exercise

Most experts suggest you should strive to get 0.75 grams of protein (750 mg) for each kilogram of body weight. Which means most people should eat about two fist-sized portions of fish, meat, and/or legumes each day. Though, if you’re older, you may want to increase that to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight, in order to maintain muscle mass.

And remember, experts agree (and Steffansson’s diet showed) that it’s difficult to get “too much” protein from real foods in your diet.

So—instead of eliminating whole categories of foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as Steffansson did—focus on adding some extra protein into every meal of your healthy, balanced diet. And remember my motto: All things in moderation!

For me, I enjoy starting the day with some Greek yogurt and berries—or sometimes an egg, bacon, and a piece of whole grain toast (especially “Ezekiel bread,” as I recommended before). Then, for lunch, I often add some fish or meat from the previous day’s evening meal onto a green salad with nuts, berries, lemon juice, and olive oil. Then, at dinner, I may enjoy something from off the grill, such as a tender steak and some root vegetables. It goes great with my glass of wine!

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