Protein Diets: What's The Beef?

Fad diets come and go, but some are more resilient than others. Protein diets such as the Atkins diet seem to pop up again and again, so here to separate the fact from, as he puts it, the bollocks, is Chris Hirons.
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Just an average breakfast on the Atkins diet.

As a fairly new recruit to the health & fitness industry in 2003, two vivid memories stand out professionally in my mind. The first being MTV blaring out nu-metal from the then state-of-the-art plasma televisions on the gym floor, the second was knowing that within 15 minutes of my shift starting I would be tapped on the shoulder by a sweaty member asking a question to the tune of:  “What do you think of the Atkins diet?” or “Does the Atkins diet work?”. Yes, protein-mania had once again landed and the weight loss messiah was reborn in the shape of a rump steak, while carbohydrates were now on the western world’s most wanted list – or in this case, most unwanted list.

The early 21st century was by no means the birth of low-carb/high protein diets, although it could have been considered a reboot. The Atkins and Dukan diets were originally launched in the 1970s, while the Cambridge diet stemmed from the early 60s. Every ten or fifteen years, however, they get dusted off, repackaged and sent out once again into the never-ending calorie cold war. As soon as these diets emerge on the battlefield they find themselves under fire. Launching an attack from one front is the negative media controversy, laying claims that low-carb diets are just the latest quick-fix fad in dieting. Meanwhile, further guerrilla assaults come in from clinical trials, with claims that protein-rich diets may be responsible for bringing on long-term risks such as kidney disorders, various cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes, and short-term effects such as bad skin, mood swings, hair loss and bad breath. The fires were once again stoked earlier this year when Dr Pierre Dukan took a nutritionist to court for claiming his name-sake diet could cause heart disease and breast cancer.  Dukan lost.

There is no doubt that the practitioners that have devised these diets are smart men but let’s not confuse smart with rational.  In a telephone interview with The Times Dukan said: “For me, fat is enemy number two behind carbohydrates…”   This lynch mob mentality against carbohydrates baffles me. I don’t think I’m alone when I say I would blub solidly, loudly and uncontrollably for a good 10 minutes if I knew I would never eat a roast potato again.  It is outright ridiculous for one to inflict entire self-deprivation of a food group that in some form or other brings us all so much delicious satisfaction.  Why do we need make an enemy out of any food group? Why does the word “enemy” even have to be used at all?!  I’ve always considered public enemies to be the likes of terrorists and X-Factor contestants, not a packet of cheese & onion crisps.   It will be a sad sad day when the complex carbohydrate – which has been relied and depended on since the beginning of time for the sustenance of the human race – is treated as the Colonel Gaddaffi of the food groups. Are we eventually going to get to a point where Special Forces are raiding Tesco’s and neutralizing sacks of spuds? Can we not all just get along?  In moderation of course

So what is the global attraction to these diets? And how have they managed to stand the test of time when research suggests they may be linked to long-term health complications?

The answer isn’t too difficult to figure out. As soon as the mother of the then bride-to-be of our future king casually mentioned she used the Dukan diet to shed a few unwanted pounds before her daughter’s big day, quicker than you can say “acne” low-carb diets are catapulted back into the pop-culture good books.

At the peak of royal wedding fever – whether it had been eating habits, clothes or toilet paper –  if a female Middleton had mentioned she trims her fingernails by blasting them short with a handgun, then A&E’s throughout the country would have kept busy. Like so many trends in modern day life, if the celebs do it, a band of followers will copy it soon enough and hang the consequences.

Having worked in the health and fitness industry for 10 years I frequently come across individuals that will schedule their weight loss and exercise around those big annual events: holidays, re-unions, weddings etc. As soon as the flights are booked or the invitation to that special event where judgmental eyes will be upon them hits the doormat, the quick-fix dieting begins, shedding whatever we can to make the weigh-in. In fairness to low-carb diets, most of them do not encourage short-term “binge” dieting and advise long-term participation; however the long-term effects are not yet conclusive.

before the last half-drunk glass of bubbly has gone flat you’re back on the Monster Munch. Then let it all hang out until a few months before the next fixture, and if you’ve managed to impress the right people and got a few nice Facebook profile pictures out of it then it’s mission accomplished.

Rich and famous indulging aside, the reason we love these immediate pound shedders is the same reason why we use e-mail and fast-forward through the ad breaks: we want to have our cake (or non-carbohydrate alternative) and eat it. There is no longer any profundity to the claim that we are a “want now” generation when it comes to entertainment and communication, and weight loss is no different.  It is true that short-term, quick-fix or binge dieting has been embraced with open, bingo-winged arms by many. The Ricky Hatton approach to (yo-yo) dieting has become convenient for many people: shed the weight before the big event of the calendar, and then before the last half-drunk glass of bubbly has gone flat you’re back on the Monster Munch. Then let it all hang out until a few months before the next fixture, and if you’ve managed to impress the right people and got a few nice Facebook profile pictures out of it then it’s mission accomplished.

After using just over 900 words to prod and blow raspberries at extreme dieting, I feel I have a duty as a health & fitness professional to not just criticise but also advise on how to get to and maintain your ideal weight in a healthy way. The answer, I’m afraid, is as dull as dish water and you’ve probably heard before, some of you may even let out a groan when you read it: A balanced diet. Not very exciting is it? And no, there is not yet a magical fat burning iphone app yet.  But before you are tempted to pop on your Atkins hat so you can show you ex and their latest love interest how great you look at cousin Sammy’s wedding next month, consider this: If you can muster up the will power to banish the oh-so tasty carbohydrates from your diet, put up with the bad skin, tiredness and constipation, surely that means you have the discipline to eat a little less and a bit more sensibly but also be able to have everything?

If spuds, pasta and rice could put one message to the slimming community I think they’d quote Jean-Claude Van Damme from cult movie No Retreat, No Surrender- “Stick with me guys; you’ll never go hungry”…

Example of a balanced weekday diet:


Small bowl of Muesli with a sliced banana on top


Scrambled eggs on dry granary toast with grilled flat mushroom


Roast Beef and tomato sandwich on brown bread, handful of cashew nuts, fruit salad.


Oven baked Salmon/cod fillet with 2-3 small boiled potato’s and small portion of steamed baby sweetcorn, green beans


If you are an office bod, fruits such as grapes, blueberries and strawberries are ideal to have on you desk to graze on throughout the day. I don’t need to tell you that crisps, chocolates and sweets are not part of balanced and healthy diets, however, if you are keen on them you shouldn’t completely deny yourself as this may lead to failure and “bingeing”. One packet of crisps or a SMALL bar of chocolate a day, 2-3 times a week is fine in my opinion as long as you are consistently eating sensibly and exercising regularly.

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