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Low-protein diet

Overview, foods, benefits, and side effects

Opting for a low-protein diet can be beneficial for managing specific health issues. Dive into everything you need to grasp about embracing a protein-restricted nutritional plan.

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
We look at both sides of the argument and strive to be objective, unbiased, and honest.
Low-protein diet: Overview, foods, and benefits
Last updated on November 18, 2023, and last reviewed by an expert on August 17, 2023.

When exploring a low-protein diet, it is recommended to increase your intake of grains, fruits, and vegetables while reducing animal products. However, it is important to note that consuming only low-protein foods may lead to nutritional deficiencies and should only be attempted under the supervision of a medical professional.

Low-protein diet: Overview, foods, and benefits

Such a diet is frequently suggested as a remedy for specific health issues.

Common conditions that might necessitate a low-protein approach include compromised liver function, kidney ailments, or disorders affecting protein metabolism.

Recent studies have also indicated that low-protein regimens might enhance lifespan and provide a defense against chronic illnesses.

This piece delves into the advantages and drawbacks of a low-protein regimen, helping you evaluate if you should recalibrate your protein consumption.

In this article

What is a low-protein diet?

A low-protein diet requires you to restrict the amount of protein you consume, typically so that it constitutes 4–8% of your daily calories.

This equates to approximately 20–50 grams of protein daily, depending on your caloric consumption.

For context, most individuals are advised to derive around 10–15% of their daily calories from proteins. This suggested proportion can be higher for athletes, seniors, and individuals with specific health challenges.

While proteins are crucial for overall health, curtailing protein consumption can benefit individuals with certain medical conditions.

Notably, those experiencing reduced kidney or liver capabilities might benefit from a low-protein diet.

It’s also a potential necessity for individuals with metabolic disorders impacting protein processing, like homocystinuria and phenylketonuria.

Adopting a low-protein regimen necessitates meticulous planning to avert health complications and potential nutrient shortfalls.

Furthermore, if you’re contemplating a low-protein diet, consider its potential risks and limitations.

Summary: A low-protein diet typically entails protein representing about 4–8% of daily caloric intake. While it can be advantageous for certain medical conditions, potential risks must be weighed.

Health benefits of a low-protein diet

Low-protein diets are primarily beneficial for individuals with specific health issues or illnesses, as opposed to those who are generally in good health.

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Excess protein is typically broken down by the liver, producing a waste product called urea, which is excreted by the kidneys.

Decreasing protein intake can ease the workload of the liver and kidneys, which can benefit people with liver disease or impaired kidney function.

This helps improve protein metabolism and prevents a buildup of urea in the bloodstream.

Having high levels of urea in the blood causes symptoms like fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, and changes in mental status.

It may also be associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and death in heart failure patients.

Reducing protein intake is also necessary for those with genetic disorders that affect protein metabolism, such as homocystinuria and phenylketonuria.

These disorders impair the breakdown of specific amino acids, so reducing protein intake can help minimize symptoms.

Some research has also found that low-protein diets may be associated with several health benefits for the general population.

According to one review, restricted protein intake in middle-aged adults was associated with increased life expectancy and reduced risks of chronic conditions like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

However, more studies are still needed to evaluate the potential long-term benefits of protein restriction in healthy adults.

Summary: Limiting protein consumption can provide significant advantages for individuals with liver and kidney disease, phenylketonuria, and homocystinuria. Furthermore, it has the potential to extend lifespan and lower the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses, according to a recent study.

Potential side effects of a low-protein diet

Protein is an essential nutrient crucial to growth and development.

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Your body uses it to form the foundation of your muscles, skin, and bones, produce essential enzymes and hormones, and build and repair tissues.

Studies show that a protein deficiency can harm health, including impaired immune function, muscle loss, and decreased growth in children.

Other possible symptoms of a protein deficiency include swelling, anemia, fatty liver disease, hair loss, and reduced bone density.

Besides the possible health risks involved, decreasing your protein intake can be very challenging.

Not only does following a low-protein diet take a bit of creativity, but it also requires careful planning to ensure you meet your other nutritional needs.

This is because high-protein foods supply many calories and critical micronutrients.

For example, beef is rich in B vitamins, iron, and zinc, while beans are a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.

When following a low-protein diet, it’s essential to ensure you’re getting these nutrients from other sources to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

However, because of its potential dangers and health risks, a low-protein diet is not advisable unless you have an underlying health condition and are under direct medical supervision.

Summary: Protein deficiency can cause impaired immune function, muscle loss, and decreased growth. Reducing protein intake can also be challenging and requires careful planning to meet your nutritional needs.

Foods to eat on a low-protein diet

In most diets, meals tend to center around high-protein foods like meat or plant-based proteins.

However, on a low-protein diet, your meals should be focused on the low-protein components of meals, such as grains, vegetables, or fruits.

You can still include meat and plant-based proteins in your diet, but you should use them as side dishes and consume them only in small amounts.

You may also need to increase your intake of healthy fats, which can provide extra calories to help you meet your daily needs.

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Healthy low-protein foods to include

Summary: On a low-protein diet, you should consume plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains, healthy fats, and minimal amounts of high-protein foods.

Foods to avoid on a low-protein diet

Protein is still a necessary part of the diet, even if you’re on a low-protein diet. So don’t avoid it altogether.

However, if you’re on a low-protein diet, you should consume high-protein foods like animal products and plant-based proteins in moderation.

To do this, up your intake of healthy, low-protein foods like fruits and vegetables. At the same time, you may need to scale back on your protein serving sizes.

For example, a serving of chicken is generally about 4 ounces (113 grams).

However, on a low-protein diet, you may need to cut that amount in half and stick to a 2-ounce (57-gram) serving to keep your protein intake in check.

High-protein foods to limit or avoid

Summary: To successfully adhere to a low-protein diet, it is recommended to restrict consumption of high-protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs, legumes, dairy products, soy, nuts, and seeds. Conversely, incorporating more nutrient-rich, low-protein options like fruits and vegetables into your diet can be beneficial.

3-day sample menu of a low-protein diet

Here’s a three-day sample menu to get you started.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Should you try a low-protein diet?

For those with conditions impacting the liver, kidneys, or protein metabolism, a diet low in protein could help alleviate symptoms.

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Yet, for the average healthy person, sparse evidence supports its health benefits.

Embarking on such a diet demands meticulous planning to dodge potential health hazards and nutrient shortages. It’s paramount to proceed only with medical guidance.

It’s crucial to consult a doctor or dietitian before starting a low-protein diet. They can help determine if it’s a good option for you and provide guidance to ensure your diet is still healthy and well-rounded.

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