A low fat high protein diet is commonly used to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass. For many years this diet plan has been favored among athletes, especially body builders. A low fat, high protein diet works well for those who want to lose weight and build muscle. Athletes prefer to follow this diet because, a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat burns energy slower and helps to maintain stable blood sugar levels while helping to build muscle mass and decrease body fat.
Besides fueling working muscles, fat also performs other functions for the body such as transporting fat-soluble vitamins and providing essential fatty acids (required fats for proper body function). Fat is a concentrated energy source. For good health, it is recommended that we consume fat as one of our sources of fuel. Instead of focusing on eating “fat free”, the smarter thing to do is to get fat intake mostly from unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats, and consume a moderate amount of overall fat intake. Good sources of unsaturated fats are olive oil, canola oil, and fatty fish (omega-3 fatty acids). Olive oil, canola oil, and fish oil from fatty fish contain fatty acids that can lower the risk of heart disease by reducing the total cholesterol and “bad cholesterol” (LDL) levels in the blood.
Fat helps to provide energy for activities such as hiking, marathon running, and aerobic exercise. If you burn a lot of energy, your calorie needs are higher so your fat intake is probably higher too. Fat doesn’t convert to energy as fast as carbohydrates do. It is recommended that both athletes and non athletes eat a diet low in saturated fat (and cholesterol) and moderate in total fat. To get enough calories for sports without getting too much fat, 20 to 30 percent of total calories should come from fat. For athletes, most of your food energy (60 – 65 percent) should come from complex carbohydrates. Good sources of complex carbohydrates are whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. A diet that is high in fat will result in a low intake of complex carbohydrates and protein.
Caution: Consuming too little fat may result in a low amount of food energy (calories). Young athletes may not consume enough essential fatty acids required for normal growth and development. Female athletes including dancers, gymnasts, and skaters – a very low fat diet may interfere with menstrual cycles and create lifelong health problems.
Protein is necessary for many functions in the body including: building and repairing body tissues; making enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals; transporting nutrients; making muscles contract; and regulating body processes such as water balance. It’s not possible to be healthy without being fit. Fitness and a healthy diet are equally important in a healthy lifestyle. Whether athletic or not, we all need protein. For athletic purposes, when enough carbohydrates are not consumed for the high-energy demands, then the body uses protein for energy instead.
Although protein supplies energy, extra amounts do not offer added performance benefits. If the recommended amount for energy has already been consumed, then the extra protein gets stored as fat and is not used for energy. For anyone, whether athlete or not, protein should supply only 12 to 15% of overall energy intake. Base the amount of protein your body needs on your body weight instead of your energy need. The recommended amount for non athletes is slightly less than 0.5 gram of protein per pound of body weight. For most recreational exercisers, the recommended amount is 0.5 to 0.75 gram of protein per pound of body weight. The recommendation for athletes involved in strength or speed training is about 0.75 gram of protein per pound of body weight. So for a 150 pound athlete the recommended amount of protein is about 75 to 115 grams per day. It is also recommended that athletes eat 2 to 4 ounces of more meat, chicken, or fish per day than what is recommended for non athletes.
Caution: Extra protein is not stored in your body for future use as protein. It’s either used up as energy or stored as body fat. A high protein diet may also be high in fat. Consuming too much protein or amino acids can be harmful. The side effects include metabolic imbalance, toxicity, nervous system disorders, and possibly kidney problems. When excess protein is consumed, more water is need to excrete the urea which is a waste product formed when protein turns to body fat. So consuming excess protein increases the chances of dehydration, and also increases the need to urinate in order to excrete urea.
Carbohydrates: whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables.
Fats: unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil and raw cold pressed flax seed oil.
Protein: lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and dairy.
To build muscle, consume enough calories from carbohydrates, unsaturated fat, and protein as recommended. Regardless of where it comes from (carbohydrates, proteins or fats) the body stores extra energy as body fat.
Source: American Dietetic Association: Complete Food And Nutrition Guide (2nd Edition)
Roberta Larson Duyff, MS, RD, FADA, CFCS