Too Much of a Good Thing? Investigating Protein

I just finished up an interview where we were discussing issues that can occur with excessive protein intake. So I figured this would make a great topic to discuss.

In general, protein is an important nutrient. Our bodies need protein to build muscle, repair cells, and promote growth. When losing weight, we also need adequate protein to help our body reserve lean tissue (muscle tissue). Protein is also a very filling food. So, when I have clients trying to lose weight, I encourage them to consume protein (along with vegetables) with each meal as a way of increasing fullness and preventing them from overeating less filling/ higher calorie foods, such as refined starches (white pasta, etc).

Athletes need protein as well to help support muscle growth and development. After resistance exercise, you want to consume one to two ounces of protein (7-14 grams) within 30 minutes- 1 hour of completing your workout to maximize the effectiveness of the protein in muscle growth and repair.

But, can there be too much of a good thing? Absolutely! Individuals who follow low carbohydrate, high protein diets, or those consuming large amounts of protein shakes and supplements may very well be taking in far more protein then they need each day. The average adult needs around 50-65gm or protein per day (7-9 ounces of protein). Even elite strength training athletes only need as much as 120 grams/day (based on a 150lbs athlete with protein needs of 1.8gm/kg of body weight/day).

So what about those people who drink protein shakes as meals or eat protein bars all day long? Some of these shakes contain as much as 42grams of protein per serving! If you drink this 3x per day, you are already consuming 126grams of protein just from supplements alone. Then add in the amount of protein you most likely consume from food, and you could easily be taking in as much as 200grams of protein or more per day!

What can happen if you take in too much protein? A lot! If you are an athlete or even a recreational exerciser, you are putting yourself at an increased risk for dehydration. Protein requires additional fluid to metabolize and excrete it’s byproducts. Studies have shown that as an individual’s protein intake increases, their dehydration level decreases. These studies have also shown this happens silently, meaning the individuals did not feel an increased thirst level, so they did not increase their fluid intake. Dehydration can lead to a number of issues. In mild cases, it can decrease athletic performance and endurance, it can also cause muscle cramps, cardiovascular disturbances, and in extreme cases can even put one at risk for heat injury such as heat stroke.

Another major concern, especially for females, is the risk of decreased bone density with a high protein intake. When we consume a large amount of protein, this breaks down into amino acids, which then enter the blood stream. This causes the blood to become more acidic. In order for our body to maintain a healthy blood pH, the body needs to pull calcium from the bones, which is one of the most basic minerals in the body, to neutralize the blood. When calcium is removed from the bones, this can weaken the body and over time put one at an increased risk for osteoporosis.

The excess calcium that is entering the blood stream now needs to go somewhere. It can now find it’s way to the kidneys where it will deposit the calcium. These calcium deposits can develop into painful kidney stones. Your risk for kidney stones is even higher if your dehydrated.

In the absence of adequate carbohydrates, you can also enter into a state of ketosis. This is when the body if forces to use fat for energy rather than carbohydrates. This can result in fatigue, headaches, decreased athletic performance and mental acuity, and if someone has underlying kidney issues, this can cause further decline in kidney function.

So what is the bottom line? For most people, if you consume protein from food sources rather than supplements, you are less likely to over consume protein. I do recommend having a good source of protein with each meal, as this can help regulate appetite. However, unless you struggle to meet your protein needs, I do not recommend protein shakes and supplements. If you are an athlete or recreational exerciser, a busy schedule can make it difficult to have protein after a workout. Having an occasional supplemental protein source after a workout in these situations is fine, but watch which one you choose. Look for a supplement that contains no more than 15-20 grams of protein at most and only have one supplement per day. Real food is always the best choice!

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