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Have Your Steak and Eat It Too

By Mary Jo Feeney

Labor saving devices such as escalators, remote controls and dishwashers save us hundreds of calories a day and can make us lazy.

High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are popping up on radar screens throughout the United States. On the surface, they seem to work — people lose weight. But how do they work and what are the long-term effects?

The truth is, popular high-protein, low-carb diets are a fad. They work simply because they are lower in calories than our usual diets. We typically consume about 2,000 calories each day — these diets, though, hover around the 1200 mark.

The popularity and appeal of these diets lie in one simple fact: you can eat foods that are reputed dietary no-nos. After years of low-fat eating, the possibility of incorporating popular sources of saturated fat in our diets and losing weight seems too good to be true.

What these fad diets fail to mention is the crucial difference between initial weight loss and maintained weight loss. National statistics indicate that 90 percent of dieters regain their lost weight within two years of weight loss. Sure, eating a high-protein diet may be satisfying and help you lose weight in the short-term, but it could be setting you up for a major fall in the long run.

A few inescapable facts

Gaining weight is simply a result of taking in too many calories and burning off too few. Americans' increasingly sedentary lifestyle has only contributed to the problem and made the United States the fattest nation in the world. Labor saving devices such as escalators, remote controls and dishwashers save us hundreds of calories a day and can make us lazy. Without making adjustments in our activity level or food intake, these calories will eventually be stored as extra body fat.

Good weight loss vs. Bad weight loss

High protein, low-carb diets seem to work because of the initial loss of water and sodium — one cup of water weighs half a pound. While the scale may register a weight loss, you are not really shedding fat.

To make things worse, as you lose water and sodium, you begin to lose potassium as well which causes weakness and fatigue. In the long run, the body starts to self-destruct; it breaks down lean body mass, muscle and tissue. This all contributes to weight loss; however, this is not the weight one wants to lose. In fact, it is quite dangerous.

Ketosis and other problems with low-carb diets

Very low carbohydrate intake induces ketosis, a condition that occurs when we eat so little food we are near starvation. Ketosis also occurs in those with insulin-dependent diabetes. When carbs aren’t available for the body to burn as energy, the body begins to burn fat.

But, without carbohydrates, the fat cannot be fully metabolized and the body produces ketones or other byproducts. Ketones are responsible for the nausea or queasiness that some people experience on high-protein, low-carb diets; this, in turn, explains why some people eat less.

Ketosis is a severe metabolic condition that should not be ignored. It puts a severe strain on the kidneys and results in water loss, dehydration and fatigue. Fortunately, ketosis can be quickly reversed by the consumption of carbs. This clearly indicates that you need a minimum amount of carbohydrates to maintain overall health.

The upside: high protein diets satisfy

Why do people stay on these diets, you might ask, if there are serious health risks and they don’t work in the long run.

A simple explanation is that protein foods taste great. Good tasting foods, in turn, fulfill our physiological hunger as well as our psychological appetite. Because it takes longer to digest protein and fat than carbs, we feel satisfied longer and may eat less food. Some dieters say that protein helps them deal with the perpetual hunger that makes dieting such a challenge.

So, what is the secret to weight loss?

The secret to maintaining a healthy weight is calorie control from all foods — proteins, carbohydrates and fat — and exercise. Consumers often focus on eating less fat rather than fewer calories. But low-fat does not always equal low-calorie. Many low-fat foods have as many calories as the ones they are replacing because other ingredients, especially sweeteners, are added to maintain flavor and taste. The best thing to do is read the nutrition facts for both fat and calories.

A lot of diets work in the short term. But only the diets that let you live, and live healthy, will work in the long term.

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