With Nutritional Ketosis being held up lately as the Holy Grail of low-carb eating, there’s a lot of confusion regarding protein consumption, and just how much you need. Most of those who are turning to the Nutritional Ketosis way of eating are doing that because they have stalled in their weight-loss efforts. They are not dropping their protein intake because it’s healthier than a traditional low-carb diet. They are doing what they need to do to succeed.
Some of the numbers being tossed around lately are as low as .6 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass, but that’s the bare minimum a sedentary person needs to keep up with muscle repair. That doesn’t cover gluconeogenesis to supply the amount of glucose the brain, red blood cells, and kidney needs to function properly or the extra damage you do to your muscles during heavy exercise. That’s just the bare minimum a person who’s eating carbohydrates needs if they’re sitting at a desk or in front of the computer all day.
If you’re chasing after kids, running them to activities, lifting weights, participating in some form of aerobics or cardio, or have a job where you’re on your feet all day, the body needs at least 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass (and sometimes more) if you’re eating a low-carb diet. The fewer carbs you eat, the more protein you need to keep your body from losing muscle and going into protein deficiency.
When the body is deficient in protein, it reacts by going into starvation mode and shutting down body systems not immediately necessary for survival. This is especially true if you’re following a low-carb diet because the brain cannot survive without a certain amount of glucose every day. While the body can make that needed glucose from amino acids, if it can’t get those amino acids from dietary protein, it will turn to its protein stores – your muscles and body organs.
Starvation doesn’t just occur when you don’t eat enough calories. Starvation mode also happens if you don’t eat enough protein.
The typical low-carb dieter tends to blame carbohydrates for their cravings, but cravings for sugar, caffeine, chips, chocolate, candy, pastries, cakes, and cookies are a sign of protein deficiency. Protein releases satiety hormones that other nutrients do not. Even fat carries less immediate satiety than protein. Dietary fats can have satiety value over the long term, which is why many low-carb dieters believe it’s more satisfying, but that isn’t true for everyone. If you don’t absorb dietary fats properly, eating fats instead of protein will make you hungrier, not less.
Protein deficiency produces a wide variety of signs and symptoms with hair typically being the first place that most nutritional deficiencies surface. Despite what most people believe, your hair is not dead. Hair roots need constant nourishment. Since hair is made from protein, when you don’t get enough, your iron levels drop, your ends split, and your hair color begins to fade. If protein deficiency continues, your hair becomes brittle and starts falling out.
Muscle wasting is also common. When muscles can’t repair themselves, they become weaker and their appearance and size lessens. You may think you’re losing fat as the inches decrease, but you’re actually losing muscle. You also lose strength, and can even experience pain in your neck, muscles, and joints due to the tightness and stiffness that results as the body uses its protein stores. Additional problems are:
a full, moon-shaped face
sleep issues or insomnia
exhaustion, lethargy, or less energy than you had before
wanting to take naps when you didn’t before
apathy (a general lack of motivation to do anything)
the body takes longer to heal
nails become brittle and break easily
ridges in fingernails and toenails
edema (water retention and swelling, particularly in legs/abdomen)
skin rashes, dry skin, or scaly skin
unstable blood sugar
Bones, organs, muscles, lung function, immune system reaction, and even your red blood cells all require an adequate protein intake. In fact, protein is essential to almost every chemical reaction our body has. But if protein deficiency continues for more than a few days, organs begin to malfunction, cholesterol levels rise, and your white blood cell count suffers making infections and sickness more likely.
A high fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet has been preached within the low-carb community for years now – even though Dr. Atkins’ take on protein and fats differed. Dietary fat has been held up by most low-carb dieters to be some kind of miracle that will help you reach your weight-loss goals. No matter what ails you, the typical advice is to eat more fat. While that might be true for someone who has extreme metabolic resistance to weight loss, that isn’t true for the average dieter.
“The rest of the diet should consist of those combinations of protein and fat which occur together in nature and which traditionally constitute our main courses.” (Dr. Atkins Nutrition Breakthrough: How to Treat Your Medical Condition Without Drugs, pg. 35) The whole idea of the Atkins diet has always been to correct the “dysnutrition caused by our twentieth-century diet.” The purpose is to educate the overweight and obese about personal tolerance.
However, Dr. Atkins did tell us not to fear fat. He told us to eat it liberally and design luxurious menus, so we’ll be satisfied and not stray back into carbohydrate territory. Fine. But what do we do with that little tidbit? We apply our own definition as to what liberal and luxurious means and begin preaching high-fat religion. What Dr. Atkins considered to be not fearing fat and what we call not fearing fat isn’t necessarily the same thing.
“One of the biggest reasons this diet works so successfully is because you eat protein and fat. And you eat them in just about the sixty to forty proportions in which they usually occur together in nature: in a reasonably lean cut of beef for example.” (Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, pg. 132)
The low-carb community has traveled quite a ways away from the original Atkins Diet, where fat was eaten in reasonable quantities, mostly in the same proportion as it’s found in nature. Today we do a higher-calorie Fat Fast and call it the Atkins’ Diet. Dr. Atkins knew that 58 percent of the protein we eat is converted into glucose. He saw that as a good thing. He saw that as an advantage for the average dieter because of protein’s ability to keep you from being hungry.
If you come to the low-carb table from a low-fat, high-carb diet, you’re going to have a very different idea about what constitutes luxurious eating and what’s gluttony. You’re going to have a different idea about what not fearing fat means. The truth about protein is that it all comes down to the degree of Insulin Resistance you have because the Atkins Diet has never been a standard, across-the-board diet. It’s always been about finding your own personal tolerance for carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
If you’re extremely resistant to weight loss and it’s preventing you from reaching your goals, then a normal protein intake as found in nature might be too high because protein consumption causes an insulin spike the same as carbs. That’s how the amino acids get into your body’s cells. In that rare case of extreme hyperinsulinemia that doesn't respond to a typical low-carb diet, a Fat Fast may be appropriate, but Dr. Atkins has always warned that a Fat Fast is dangerous for those who are not severely insulin resistant.
So be careful when lowering your protein intake that you don’t lower it too much.