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Are high-protein diets healthy?
 
Dr. Bob Arnot
reports on the
latest diet fad

By Dr. Bob Arnot
NBC NEWS

 Everybody’s talking about the protein diet: Instead of filling up on fruits and veggies to lose weight, you can eat all the meat, eggs and fat your little heart desires. But how healthy is the protein diet for your heart, and the rest of your body? Amidst all the steak and sizzle, is there cause for concern?
 

IT’S THE KIND of breakfast that would make most people feel guilty: pork sausage links, bacon in all its drippings, eggs fried in gobs of butter. But 36-year-old Jerry Voss of Windfield, Kan., feels no remorse.
       Voss had a weight problem all his life. He tried to lose the pounds but nothing worked. Then two years ago, after ballooning to 315 pounds, he read a book called “Dr. Atkin’s New Diet Revolution.”
       Arnot: “What was it that was so appealing to you about the Atkin’s diet?”
       Voss: “I’m a meat man. I can eat all the meat I want — prime rib, steak, shrimp, pork, pork ribs, pork chops. And I love meat. And I make a meal just out of meat.”
       Voss became one of the millions of Americans to try the latest diet craze — high-protein/low-carbohydrate diets. Dr. Robert Atkins, a cardiologist, and a slew of others have written books that recommend eating lots of meat, eggs and fats while drastically reducing or eliminating pasta, bread and even many fruits and vegetables — virtually anything with sugar. If it sounds familiar, it should.

 

       “Carbohydrates really can contribute to the formation of fat, and the restriction of carbohydrates can allow for a person to lose weight,” Atkins says.
       Atkins first sold Americans on his low-carbohydrate diet in the 1970s.
       “The revolution is really the urging of the populace to give a second thought to this old hackneyed idea of counting calories to lose weight,” Atkins says.
       But his controversial philosophy soon lost momentum. Low-fat diets rich in healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grains and vegetables, were considered more nutritious. So why 30 years later is his diet back again and more popular then ever?
       “It’s about the only major diet which doesn’t have quantity restriction,” Atkins says. “Therefore, people with a major appetite who can’t follow a low-calorie diet or a low-fat diet can follow this one and lose quite rapidly and feel quite wonderful.”
       
MEAT AND MORE MEAT
       Voss was ready to give it a try. He stocked his freezer with every kind of meat imaginable.
       “You get hungry, you go to the fridge, open it up, grab a couple of ribs, microwave them and you’re ready to go,” Voss says.


       Following Atkin’s program, Voss totally changed the way he and his family ate — no more attempts at low-calorie, low-fat food. Now it was eggs, bacon and sausage for breakfast, and steaks, hot dogs and hamburger patties for lunch — along with deviled eggs. There were also green beans — smothered in butter. And for variety?
       “I’d have two quarter-pound hamburger patties with colby cheese in between ‘em and on top, in a bowl. Throw it in a microwave, hit the button, go over there and open up my bag of pork rinds,” Voss says.
       For dinner? You guessed it — more meat, leftover steak from lunch. He’s allowed a limited amount of vegetables but hardly any fruit. And that’s not all. He can’t eat bread, rice or pasta.

 

       Atkin’s theory is that by not eating carbohydrates and sugars, your body is forced to burn fat for fuel. And for Voss, remarkably, the pounds seemed to melt away. After a year, Voss lost a hundred pounds — a third of his original body weight.
       “I don’t remember ever feeling this good before,” he says.
       
A HEALTHY DIET?
       Voss has kept the weight off for a year. And because he’d lost so much weight, his cholesterol went way down — at least for the short-run. But can a diet so high in saturated fat with little in the way of fruits and vegetables really be very good for you?
       “I have outrage that somebody would dare to prescribe this diet,” says Cathy Nonas, a registered dietitian and director of the Vanitaly Obesity Center at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.
       

 

       Arnot: “What is so bad about this diet for Jerry?”
       Nonas: “It puts him at a greater risk for colon cancer. It puts him at greater risk for heart disease. It puts him at greater risk for an increase in his blood cholesterol over time. And it puts him at greater risk to become fatter, because he’s eating a high-fat diet.”
       Many nutritionists and health organizations are highly critical of extreme protein diets such as the Atkin’s diet. Critics say, initially, weight loss comes mostly from water. They also say it robs dieters of essential nutrients and vitamins — that bones can become brittle, leached by calcium. Even worse, Nonas says she’s seen people end up in emergency rooms.
       “You can have a heart arrhythmia or heart attack because you have a drop in potassium, because you’re losing all this water,” she says. “You put a tremendous strain on your kidneys. You can have kidney stones. You can have gout, which is incredibly painful, in your joints.”
       “There is no scientific evidence whatever that the diet has harmful effects,” Atkins says.
       Atkins believes many of the lost nutrients in his diet can be made up with vitamin supplements. He also says many diet followers like Voss have actually improved their cholesterol levels. As for kidney failure ...
       
“The idea that it would hurt the kidneys, never been, never been, never a single case, not even an isolated case has ever been published,” Atkins says. “This sort of misinformation is dietitian talk.”
       Arnot to Voss: “Do you worry that you’re gonna pay a price down the road, whether it’s cancer or fractured bones, high blood pressure, kidney damage?”
       Voss: “No, I don’t. I don’t worry about it. I don’t see that happening.”
       
IS IT FOR KIDS?
       Voss is so fearful that his children will become overweight, as he did as a child, that he’s put them on a slightly looser version of his diet.
       Arnot to Nonas: “Jerry is so enthusiastic about this diet that he’s put his children on it.”
       Nonas: “I would never put a child on a high-protein diet. You want a child to grow healthy. And if they’re missing certain good nutrients in vegetables like fiber, they’re not going to grow up healthy.”

 

       Critics also contend that once dieters go off the program, they gain weight quickly. Voss himself gained 12 pounds in a week when he went off the diet. But he’s not complaining. Instead, he’s back to eating.
       Voss: “If you’ve got something that’s working, you stick with it — especially if it’s as easy to follow as this diet is.”
       If you’re interested in seeing whether eating more protein could help you lose weight, you don’t need to try a diet as extreme as the one Voss is on. Nonas says try boosting the percentage of protein in your meals, and focus on low-fat proteins like chicken and fish instead of red meat. But keep eating moderate amounts of carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. And of course, you should consult your doctor before starting any diet.

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