Among the exercise and dieting community there is often a strong push to always get more and more protein. But how much protein do you need? Can you get too much protein? And what happens if you do eat more protein than you need?
It’s been my experience that the average fitness client or weight-loss aficionado often under-eats protein, while the average gym rat or bodybuilder gets plenty.
If you’re a personal trainer or a dietitian, you’ve probably noticed that many of your clients’ food journals consistently show too little protein and too many carbohydrates.
Eating enough protein is important if you’re on a quest to lose weight. Protein spares muscle tissue when you’re cutting back on calories. Most importantly for weight loss, protein helps slow down the entry of carbohydrates into the bloodstream. This means a lower insulin response, which is important if you’re trying to lose weight. Always combine protein and carbohydrates together when you eat.
If you’re an athlete or an experienced weight lifter, you’re most likely eating plenty of protein, because you’ve already gotten into the habit of consuming a high-quality protein source at every meal.
Here is a recap of some of the questions I answered in an interview with Malia Frey in Muscle & Fitness magazine:
What are the signs that you’re eating too much protein?
It is possible to eat too much protein, but you’ll have to go far overboard for months in order to show any real problems. If you DO end up eating too much protein over an extended period of time, here are some side effects that you may encounter:
- Dehydration: Your body has to use more water to flush out the additional nitrogen from excessive protein intake, so if you don’t drink enough water with a high-protein diet, you can become dehydrated.
- Constipation: High-protein/low-carb diets are often low in fiber. Couple that with some mild dehydration, and you’ve got a recipe for constipation.
- Weight gain: Protein has calories (approximately 4 calories per gram), so eating too much protein can cause a calorie overload just like over-eating fat or carbohydrate.
What are the problems from consuming too much protein?
Side effects from excess protein intake are pretty rare in healthy individuals. Unless you have a kidney or liver problem, you’d have to eat a LOT of protein for a long time in order to create a serious problem. In people with healthy liver and kidney function, excess protein is broken down into ammonia and (without getting too technical) carbohydrate. This is a process called deamination. The liver cleans up the excess ammonia, and the newly-formed carbs are either burned up for energy, or stored as fat.
You can damage your kidneys from long-term excessive protein intake. The nitrogen waste products from deamination can build up in your system and overload your kidneys to the point that they actually become damaged.
Bone loss is another possibility of long-term excessive animal protein intake. Too much protein will cause your bones to start leaching calcium, unless you eat enough calcium, potassium, and alkali-ash fruits and vegetables to cover the loss.
Kidney stones: Dehydration and excess urinary calcium can lead to kidney stones.
Gout: If the liver can’t clear the excess ammonia from too much protein fast enough, the leftover uric acid can accumulate in the joints in a painful, inflammatory condition called gout.
Most likely the biggest risk of eating too much “protein” is eating too much of the bad stuff that often comes along with protein foods:
- Sodium, nitrites, hormones, and preservatives are common in processed meats.
- Lots of canned tuna can mean lots of mercury and BPAs.
- Over-cooked meat is a known carcinogen.
- Eating a large percentage of your calories from animal protein may mean that you’re under-eating plant calories, and that spells trouble for your long-term health.
Protein doesn’t have to be animal flesh! Substituting whey protein and vegetable protein for some of your animal protein can add healthy protein without adding some of the unhealthy “extras” that come with meat.
How much protein do you need?
Research supports protein intake between .8 g per kilogram of body weight (this is the US Recommended Dietary Allowance figure), up to just under a gram per pound of bodyweight. So in US measurements, that’s roughly somewhere between half your bodyweight in grams, and your bodyweight in grams.
My interpretation of the research is that the low end of the spectrum (.8 grams per kilogram of body weight) is too low for optimal health and physical performance. I’d typically suggest a minimum of 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. Your maximum protein intake would be about 90% of your bodyweight (in pounds) in grams of protein per day, split into 5 or 6 servings.
If you weigh 180 lbs, your maximum daily protein would be about 162 grams, or about 32 grams 5 times a day. Any more than that is unnecessary. Under-eating protein will hamper your muscular gains and physical performance, but eating more protein than you need is not going to improve anything.
Can you meet your protein requirements without using supplements?
You certainly can get enough protein without using protein supplements, although protein supplements like powdered whey or hemp seed are easy ways to consume protein. Treat powdered protein supplements just like food, because that’s what it is. Just make sure that you use clean protein – no added sugars or artificial flavors. Some commercial “protein shakes” are loaded with chemicals. Make your own shakes with whey or vegetable protein. I recommend hormone-free whey and non-GMO plant protein.
If you need help with a customized nutrition plan, contact Dan DeFigio for a free consultation.