While there’s no doubt that a high-protein low-carb diet can be an abominably unhealthy way to lose weight, you may be surprised to know this method of weight loss can also be all-natural, highly nutritious, and as healthy as it is effective. Researchers at the Functional Medicine Research Center near Seattle have designed and tested a high-protein low-carb weight loss plan that helps burn stored fat and maintain muscle mass the healthy way—by eating only natural, whole, nutrient-dense foods.
The ideal weight loss method is one in which fat burning is enhanced while muscle mass is maintained. Most diets cause a loss of muscle mass. This is unfortunate because your muscle mass is your body’s fat burning furnace. The more muscle mass you have, the more fat you burn. Muscle cells burn up to 15 times more calories per day than fat cells. Loss of muscle mass with dieting is associated with rebound weight gain. Exercise can help maintain muscle mass during weight loss, but the right kinds of foods and nutrients also make a big difference.
The Functional Medicine researchers designed a weight loss plan utilizing the right kinds of foods and nutrients for healthy weight loss. The high-protein, low-carb diet they designed not only supports cells’ fat-burning pathways and protects healthy lean tissues, like muscles, it also promotes healthy blood sugar management and cardiovascular health and helps keep dieters feeling energized and satiated.
The 5 keys to healthy, natural weight loss
The weight loss program consists of a simple set of 5 keys. The research conducted at the Functional Medicine Research Center shows that by sticking to the 5 keys for 3 to 6 months, you will burn stored fat and maintain muscle in a way that supports healthy blood sugar balance and overall health. The 5 keys for healthy weight loss are:
- Limiting carbohydrates
- Increasing protein
- Restricting unhealthy fats and enhancing omega-6/omega-3 balance
- Increasing fiber
- Increasing phytonutrients
Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the 5 keys. The remainder of this article will cover the first 2 keys: limiting carbs and increasing protein. Then, in part 2, we will cover the 3 remaining keys and discuss how you can put them all together for a healthy weight loss plan.
The emphasis for healthy weight loss should be on consuming only “quality” carbohydrates while restricting grains and other carbohydrate-dense foods. Quality carbs, according to the researchers, are those that are rich in phytonutrients and fiber, and promote a lower glycemic response (smaller increases in blood sugar and insulin), a sensation of fullness, and overall health.
Eating too many carbs, especially those with a high glycemic load, such as simple sugars, breads, rice, and pasta, makes you more prone to gaining fat because the rise in blood sugar levels and corresponding rise in insulin triggers your body to utilize these sugars for energy rather than burning fat. The high insulin levels also encourage fat storage and decrease satiety, so you crave more carbs. This helps explain why high-carb/low-fat diets may make it difficult to maintain weight loss long-term.
In contrast, if you really limit your carbohydrate intake (to less than around 50 grams a day, not counting fiber) you promote ketosis, which is a shift in your metabolism from the use of sugar as the preferred fuel source toward the use fat (in the form of fatty acids and ketones) for energy. This results in healthy weight loss: reduction in unhealthy fat and the preservation of healthy lean tissues, such as muscle.
The optimal low-carb strategy, according to the researchers, is to eat six servings of low-carb veggies per day, plus 5 ounces of fresh greens. They recommend limiting fruit to one serving every other day, and completely avoiding grains, potatoes and other root vegetables, corn, legumes and simple sugars during the weight loss period.
Protein-rich foods are another key to healthy weight loss. As your body’s essential building blocks, proteins and the amino acids they provide will help keep you feeling satisfied and decrease your total caloric intake. And, most importantly, eating more protein-rich foods will allow you to maintain muscle mass while you lose fat.
Maintaining muscle mass is paramount to successful long-term weight management, according to the Functional Medicine researchers. Your muscle mass is directly related to your metabolism and your ability to burn fat. Most people lose muscle mass during weight loss, which ends up decreasing their metabolism and increasing the likelihood of “rebound weight gain,” say the researchers. A healthy weight loss program is therefore one that ensures adequate protein to protect you against the loss of metabolically active muscle. If you increase the proportion of protein in the diet while controlling carbohydrate, fat, and total calories, studies show you can improve your body composition, accelerate fat loss, and better maintain your body weight after weight loss.
As for how much and what types of protein you should eat, the functional medicine researchers recommend 2 palm-sized plus 2 half-palm-sized daily servings of the following proteins:
- Beef: flank steak, very lean ground beef
- Fish and shellfish (all fresh/frozen varieties without sauces, breading, etc.)
- Fish (canned): light tuna, sardines, salmon
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, Cornish hen, duck
- Wild game: venison, elk, buffalo, pheasant, bison, quail
- Eggs: free range
- Cottage cheese: lowfat
- Lowfat cheese: cheddar, Colby, feta, Monterey Jack, Swiss, Jarlsberg or part skim mozzarella
- Ricotta cheese: part skim
- Seitan (wheat gluten)
- Tofu/tempeh (soy)
- Nuts/seeds/unsweetened nut/seed butter: almonds, hazelnuts, pecan or walnut halves, pistachios, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, or sunflower seeds
- Protein powder: can be mixed with unsweetened varieties of soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk (boxed, not canned) or ice and fresh/frozen fruit to make a smoothie. (Fruit is limited to 1 serving every other day.)
Summary of the first 2 keys to healthy weight loss
The first two keys, limiting carbohydrates and increasing protein, are integral keys to healthy weight loss using this natural high-protein, low-carb plan. Straying from the recommendations by eating too many carbs or too much protein is the biggest culprit in stalled weight loss. But the fats, fiber, and phytonutrients you eat are also vitally important to successful, healthy weight loss. In part 2 of this article, we will pick up where we left off in this discussion of the five keys. You will see how crucial it is to restrict unhealthy fats, enhance your ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids , and boost your fiber and phytonutrient intake.