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Are high-protein diets safe?

There is a lot of hype surrounding high-protein diets in the media, within fitness communities, and online. We’re told we need to follow a high protein diet to build muscle mass, to lose weight, or to maintain strength and energy. But do we really need that much protien? As a registered dietitian at the Medisys clinic in Montreal, I’m often asked questions like “how much protein is enough?”, “what are the best sources of protein?” and “when do I need to eat protein to get the benefits from a fitness perspective?” In this article, we look at protein sources and requirements in more detail.

     

 

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FIRST OFF, WHAT IS PROTEIN ANYWAY?

Protein is a compound made up of strings of amino acids combined to create anything from hormones, to enzymes, to cell components, and even hair and nails. It can be found in many different types of food – both animal and plant based, ranging from meats and dairy to legumes, nuts, and seeds. Proteins are essential building block of muscle fibres that are necessary for sports recovery and performance.


HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO YOU NEED TO EAT?

Everyone needs to eat protein, but individual protein needs vary from person to person depending their body type, activity level, nutrition goals, medical status, and age. An average adult who is sedentary (unfortunately, that’s many of us - particularly those of us with desk jobs) needs to eat about 1 g of protein per kg of their body weight on a daily basis. You can calculate your weight in kilograms by dividing you weight in lbs by 2.2. Athletes and active people require more protein, anywhere from 1.2-1.8g/ kg of protein depending on the type of exercise (endurance vs. power), body type, and their aesthetic goals.

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ARE HIGH-PROTEIN DIETS GOOD FOR YOUR HEART?

That’s a tough question. More than 50% of Canadians are either overweight or obese, about one third of the population is diabetic, and 90% of Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Excess weight, especially around the belly, substantially increases an individual’s risk of numerous health conditions such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, several cancers, depression, and others. So at the end of the day, a diet that supports someone in maintaining a healthy weight is arguably heart-healthy. That said, many cardiologists are weary of high-protein diets because often these diets are also high in saturated fats (eg. lard, chicken fat, duck fat, goose fat, butter, heavy cream, fatty red meat, cheese etc.). Saturated fat intake is associated with increased risk of heart disease.

The traditionally accepted “healthy balanced diet” among the medical and dietetics community comprises about 50% healthy carbohydrates(eg. vegetables, whole fruit, whole grains, and legumes), 30% protein (eg. lean meats, nuts, seeds, eggs, and dairy products), and up to 20% healthy fats (with a focus on unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and limiting saturated fats). High protein diets severely restrict carbohydrates and comprise varying combinations of protein and fat.

Relative to carbohydrates, protein is digested more slowly and thus will make you feel fuller for longer. Therefore, by design, high protein diet may help suppress appetite and make it easier to consume fewer Calories in a day than you otherwise might on a high-carbohydrate diet. People like diets that don’t leave them feeling hungry, hence the popularity of higher protein diets.

 

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to follow a high-protein diet. Check out our healthy low-carb living guide for more information.

 

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ARE DAILY PROTEIN REQUIREMENTS DIFFERENT FOR WOMEN VS. MEN?

Generally speaking though, men need about 5-6oz or 150- 180g of protein per meal and women need about 3-4oz or 90-120g. Because protein helps you feel fuller for longer, breakfasts should contain about 15g of protein or more in order to help ensure you feel satisfied for several hours. This is especially true if you work out before you eat your lunch.

If you want to calculate your exact protein needs, consult with a Medisys dietitian to see how to incorporate adequate protein in your diet and how to divide it into healthy meals and snacks based on your lifestyle and food preferences or sensitivities.

 

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WHICH ARE THE BEST SOURCES OF PROTEIN?

There are many great sources of protein including fish and seafood, plant-based sources, dairy products and meat.  As a dietitian, I typically recommend eating a wide variety of protein sources whether you are an omnivore or vegan. Changing up your protein sources is the best way to help ensure you meet your daily nutritional needs. It's also best to get your protein from whole foods rather than protein powders, supplements, protein bars, or other packaged items. 

If you eat meat, I recommend eating fish at least twice a week and chicken or poultry more often than red meat. I recommend limiting red meat to no more than 300g per week. Eggs are another great source of protein. Most adults without high cholesterol can eat up to 8 eggs per week (2-3/week for those with high cholesterol). Egg whites don’t contain cholesterol making egg white omelets with veggies a great option for breakfast.

Everyone should also try to include a variety of plant-based proteins in their diet. I recommend that my clients try to include at least 1-2 vegetarian meals per week and/or to split recipes half meat/half vegetarian protein. Vegetarian protein sources include beans (eg. black, white, kidney, pinto, navy, etc.) as well as lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, edamame, seeds, nuts etc.  

Many dairy products are also rich in protein such as plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese. Dairy-based protein sources that are low in saturated fats (and low in added sugars) make great bases for breakfasts and snacks.

 

WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO GET A PROTEIN BOOST AFTER A WORKOUT?

In the context of sports nutrition, protein is essential not only for building muscle mass but also for muscle recovery and injury prevention. Depending on the type of exercise you are doing and your personal fitness goals, when you eat your protein can make a big difference. There is a “magic window” for protein absorption and assimilation in the body that has been proven to help you build lean body mass and repair muscle the fastest. This window is within 30 minutes after a workout.


HOW MUCH POST WORKOUT PROTEIN SHOULD YOU BE GETTING?

Aim for 10-15g of protein, within 30 minutes after a workout. Those training for muscle gain should get more.

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More articles you might like: 

What a 2,000 Calorie lunch looks like

Healthy-looking meals with more carbs than half a loaf of white bread

Think artificial sweeteners are a better choice? Think again 

The ketogenic diet guide, an interview with leading cardiologist 

The Medisys healthy low carb living guide

30 day no sugar challenge 

 

 

About the author: Kimberley Paré is a Registered Dietitian based out of the Medisys executive clinic in Montreal. She is a member of the Order of Professional Dietitians of Québec (OPDQ) and holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Dietetics and Human Nutrition from McGill University. Over her career, Kimberley has worked both in clinical settings and in private practice, specializing in such fields as internal medicine, oncology, cardiac recovery, pulmonary rehabilitation, obesity, preventative health and most namely, sports nutrition.

As a competitive athlete and advocate for health, Kimberley is the consulting dietitian for the Lethbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer. She has also coached several athletes out of the Medisys executive
clinic, helping all clients to achieve nutrition and performance goals no matter how large or small, long or short term. Most recently, she has delved into the psychology of eating behaviour to understand the emotional and social habits that guide our dietary choices.

Kimberley believes in a balanced approach to eating, focusing on enjoying our food, being mindful of how we eat and using science and the latest research to help guide how we balance the foods that we eat for optimal health, athletic performance and weight management. 

To book a consultation with Kimberley Paré at the Medisys Montreal clinic  (in person or by phone appointments available) or to ask a question about this article, please email: kimberley.pare@medisys.ca.