High-protein, low-carb diets have been a go-to in the health and fitness world for many years, however, a lot of people are still unsure of what exactly makes up a high-protein, low-carb diet.
To answer all your questions, we’ll cover the benefits and side effects of a high protein, low carb diet, what the very best foods are to guarantee success, and we’ve even got some helpful recipe ideas.
In this article, you’ll find:
What are high-protein, low-carb diets?
There are three macronutrients that make up a diet – protein, fats and carbs. Most diets fall into two camps: low fat/high carb and high fat/low carb. Low-carb diets are high in fats and by default of food choices contain more protein.
Carbs and fats are the body’s two main energy sources. A low-carb diet tends to eliminate most refined carb choices like bread and pasta. Starchy foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes and rice are also often removed from a low-carb diet. Most of the carbs in a low-carb diet tend to come from vegetables and a limited amount of fruits.
A low-carb diet is often associated with high protein. Most foods that are high in protein often also contain fat, so these two macronutrients seem to combine well. Protein is responsible for looking after our lean muscle mass, our metabolic rate, as well as some of our hormones.
There are various forms of high-protein, low-carb diets. A very strict form of this is a ketogenic diet, which only allows up to 30g of carbs a day. There are more flexible options that have a range of carbs from 50g to 150g of carbs a day.
What makes a diet low carb for some could depend on body weight and activity levels. A heavier, more active person could have more carbs in the diet than a smaller, lighter person and still class their diet as low carb. To date, there’s no scientific consensus for how many carbs make up a low-carb diet, but the range of 50g to 150g per day seems to be generally agreed upon.
High-protein, low-carb diets normally allow a nutritional intake of 50 to 150g of carbs per day. This depends on the weight and activity levels of the participant.
Benefits of a high-protein, low-carb diet
1. Increased satiety
When you go on a diet to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. One of the issues with being in a calorie deficit is that hunger increases. This is where protein can really help the situation. A high-protein diet is associated with increased satiety levels. Protein takes much longer to breakdown and digest and this process helps keep us full for longer.1
2. Lean muscle mass retention
When you’re on a diet, there’s an increased risk of muscle loss. That’s is because there’s less fuel from food, so there’s an increased rate of muscle protein breakdown. By eating a high-protein diet, there’s less risk of the muscles breaking down to be used as fuel. By maintaining lean muscle mass, the body’s metabolic rate doesn’t drop as much, which is important for weight loss.1
3. Thermic effect of food
Protein has a high thermic effect compared to other macronutrients. This means it has a high energy cost to break down and digest. Carbs and fats used about 10% of the food’s energy to break it down whereas protein uses up to 30% of the food’s calories to break it down. When a food has a higher thermic effect, it means there are fewer calories to be able to store as body fat. This can indirectly increase the calorie deficit and promote weight loss.1
4. Less choice
The more choice we have in our diets, the more we can be tempted. If foods are limited, then dieting can be made simpler. By lowering the carbs, the diet “removes” a food group. This, in turn, can reinforce the calorie deficit which is responsible for the weight loss. Less choice often leads to less overeating.1
5. Stable blood glucose
A lower-carb diet has shown to favorably impact the blood glucose curve. This is important for those who are at risk of diabetes or have metabolic syndrome. By keeping blood glucose stable and managing insulin, the diet can minimize some of the risks associated with these conditions.1
A higher protein intake leads to increased satiety, meaning you will feel fuller for longer. It also decreases the likelihood of muscle loss, takes more energy to be broken down by the body, while a lower carb diet means you’re less likely to overeat and can keep your blood glucose levels more stable.
Side effects of a high protein-low carb diet
The question that often gets asked is are there any side effects or risks of going on a high-protein, low-carb diet?
There are very little unwanted effects of a low-carb, high-protein diet for most people. There are a few exceptions, such as those with kidney disease, pregnant & breastfeeding women as well as type 1 diabetics. These groups shouldn’t go on a low-carb high protein diet without seeking medical advice first.
For most people, the diet is often well-tolerated and the most common side effect tends to be weight loss, which is generally linked to an improvement in health.
Other than weight loss, there are very few associated side effects to a high-protein, low-carb diet. We recommend seeking advice from a medical professional prior to undertaking such a diet.
The best high-protein, low-carb foods
There are three food groups that will make up any diet. Protein, fats and carbs (a low-carb diet does not mean a “no-carb diet.”)
Protein: When looking at which protein is best, you should choose sources that are complete as they have all the essential amino acids available. Bioavailability is also important. What this means is you want the body to use what you eat for fat burning, muscle building, and health purposes. What you don’t want is a poor-quality protein that’s not broken down and used well in the body.
Try to choose high protein foods such as:
- Eggs and egg whites
- Chicken breast
- Lean beef
- Game meat
- Turkey breast
- Oily fish
- White fish
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
- Soy protein
- Cottage cheese
Try and choose healthy fats such as:
- Nuts (check carb content)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Various nut butters (check carb content)
- Chia seeds
- Fish oil
- Limited amount of dark chocolate
Healthy carbs to include in a low-carb diet:
- Oats (dependent on total carb allotment)
** please note that these lists are not exclusive, or complete.
Now you might be wondering what a good low-carb meal could look like. Here are some examples of what a low-carb day could look like for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a daily calorie amount of 2000Kcal.
Cream cheese pancakes:
- 100g of cream cheese
- 3 eggs
- sweetener of choice, if required
- 1 tsp of Cinnamon
Blend all the ingredients together. Let it rest until for a few minutes. Cook on a pan with medium heat for 2 minutes, then flip for another minute.
- Avocado and vegetable chicken salad:
- 100g of cooked chicken breast
- 1 large bowl Mixed leaves (rocket, spinach & watercress.)
- cupful Cruciferous vegetables of choice (i.e. broccoli)
- Lemon juice 1 to 2 tsp
- Onions, ½ raw
- Salt and pepper to liking
Cut the avocado in half and scoop out the inside into a bowl. Mash the avocado up and add the chopped onion and lemon juice. Add the chicken, leaves and vegetables and stir. Season with salt and pepper to your liking.
Red hot burgers:
- Half a tsp of ground chilies
- 200g 10% lean beef mince
- Chicken broth cubes
- Asparagus spears
Preheat grill to a high heat. Mix chilies & chicken broth cubes into the beef mince. Flatten out and make patties out of the mixture. Grill the patties and asparagus spears until cooked to your liking.
Take home message
High-protein, low-carb diets are very effective for weight loss. That’s because they’re very satiating, have a high thermic effect and help look after lean muscle tissue. This is a great diet to be on if you don’t wish to track calories and still lose weight. By omitting the majority of carbs from the diet, there’s less dietary choice, which often leads to a calorie deficit.
There are minimal risks and side effects to healthy people. For those who enjoy a higher fat diet, this could be an excellent way to go.