Does a High-Protein Diet Work? New Research Shows Those Paleo People Could Be On to Something

As we all know, you should stay away from processed foods. They contain too many trans fats, too little fiber, too much sugar, too few vitamins, and so on. But recent work from David Raubenheimer of the University of Sydney suggests that the underlying problem is that processed foods offer macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) in messed-up ratios. Eating more protein from real foods can help you to balance this ratio and sustainably lose weight.

As a "nutritional ecologist," Raubenheimer has studied the way that primates eat in the wild. Baboons, spider monkeys, and orangutans all seem to prioritize getting the right amount of protein in their diets. Depending on the foods available that season, these animals eat until protein needs are sated, with some variation in the total amount of carbs and fats that are also eaten along the way. What does this mean for humans? 

Like spider monkeys and orang-utans, humans prioritise protein over carbohydrates and fat. This means that if we have a diet with low protein, we will over-eat fats, carbs and energy to get the target level of protein. This may explain why human obesity cases in the Western World have soared over the past 60 years whilst the proportion of protein in our diet has dropped during this time.

You may enjoy your chips and cookies, but the human animal in you needs protein. If Raubenheimer is right, then that means your appetite systems will keep you hungry and foraging as long as your protein intake is low — even if that means eating a bunch of nutritional trash (and getting fat) in the process.

This line of thought contradicts claims that high-protein diets don't help with weight loss at all. Other recent recommendations hold that a high-protein diet is good for weight loss, but that it should only be followed temporarily (due to risks for constipation and unknown long-term side effects). This position implies that the high-protein diet is actually more macronutrient-imbalanced than standard American diets (which already allegedly provide more than sufficient amounts of protein). Raubenheimer is currently conducting studies with mice to determine more about how to exactly optimize our naturally preferred macronutrient balance.

However, in the meantime, the whole point is for people who struggle with their weight to try something new, since the status quo diet isn't working for them. Perhaps the American Heart Association's recommendations regarding macronutrient balance, especially the specification that only 35 percent of calories per day come from fat, are themselves imbalanced.

Successful long-term adherents to high-protein diets choose lean protein sources some of the time, but anecdotally find that their fat intakes are somewhat higher than that. As long as your blood lipid levels remain healthy (or even improve!) in addition to the weight loss, this seems like a good bet. After all, what's more important — following some one-size-fits-all diet recommendation on paper, or doing what you can tell is actually best for you?

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