Can You Eat Too Much Protein?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard a lot about protein consumption, and recommendations to get higher levels of protein in your diet. Especially if you’ve heard about keto, paleo, low carb, gluten-free, carnivore, and others that focus a lot on getting more protein from lean sources. Even if you’re more on the side of the greens with a vegetarian or vegan diet, you know, and probably have been told, that you need to manage protein intake to ensure good health.
So you might be wondering. Is protein really the holy grail and worth all the effort? Will I benefit from getting more protein? Do I really need that much? Well, we’re here to help and shine a bit of light on a topic that might not be so simple to grasp and more importantly apply to your own life.
TLDR: Yes, protein is good for you, No you probably are not getting enough, Yes you might benefit from getting a bit more into your diet and No you probably don’t need to stress that much about it.
So let’s start at the beginning.
What exactly are proteins?
Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids, truly the building blocks of all life since you can find them in every part of your body. Your bones, muscles, organs, skin, hair, and eyelashes are all made of amino acids, every single cell. So by that alone, you can start to realize the importance of proteins, or more accurately amino acids, for us humans.
Now, these amino acids come in two forms: essentials and non-essentials. This basically means that some of these amino acids your body can make on its own, the non-essentials, and others it needs to get from food, the essential amino acids. And even there’s a small group that is conditionally essential, which means our body could create on its own but under some specific circumstances, like high levels of stress, might not be able to and would need to get from our food.
Now all of these amino acids will combine in different ways through chemical bonds and start twisting and rearranging to form tridimensional structures that are the building blocks of our body structures, cells, enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, immune cells like antibodies, etc.
Now you see why it is important to consume protein in our diets, but we all knew about this somehow, so let’s move on a bit further.
Why is it important to get enough protein?
The protein that we consume in our diets gets digested and broken down into their individual amino acids, these get absolved and go to our plasma pool of amino acids which circulates with our blood and is the source from where all tissues and cells in the body can draw when needed and trade with the amino acids and proteins in our cells.
As we have already seen proteins are used to produce very important molecules in our body. So a limited without an adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function well at all.
Protein helps replace worn-out cells, transports various substances throughout the body, aids in growth and repair, regulates our bodies' function, protects our bodies through the immune system, and many others.
For example, protein consumption can increase levels of a hormone called glucagon, which helps control body fat It is released when blood sugar levels go down and stimulates the liver to break down stored glycogen for energy, but can also signal the liberation of fatty acids from stored adipose tissue and turn it into energy.
So as you can see if you don’t get your protein, there are a lot of body functions that won’t go as planned and that is not good, not good at all.
How much protein do you really need?
The World Health Organization (WHO) sets a recommendation for protein intake at 0.83 g per kilogram per day, which is expected to meet the minimum needs of 97.5% of the world's healthy adult population. Note that, contrary to popular belief, the RDA doesn’t represent an ideal intake. Instead, it represents the minimum intake needed to prevent malnutrition and the optimal level for ourselves depends on several factors and is related to our age, height, weight, level of physical activity and to our personal goals. However, a more appropriate statistical analysis of the data used to establish the RDA suggests this number should be higher: 1.0 g/kg.
The intake of protein will also depend on specific personal situations and will not be the same for athletes as it is for someone with a chronic disease, some who is pregnant, for children or adults, for vegetarians or vegans, etc.
Can you eat too much protein?
There can be, but probably not in a harmful way. A couple of studies test the different effects of different protein intake per sitting (5g, 10g, 20g, or 40g, and 30 or 90gr) on the stimulation of skeletal muscle protein synthesis, or basically the muscle-building effect. And it showed an optimal range at 20-30 gr, showing that higher amounts of protein per meal might not have added benefits due to the bioavailability and our body's capacity to absorb and process it.
So it might look like a better way of eating is in smaller meals throughout the day, at least for muscle building.
But what about other health effects? Can too much protein harm me in any way? Well, the most likely scenario is that overconsumption of protein will be like overconsumption of anything else, the extra protein can be converted into sugar or stored as fat in the body. However, this process isn’t as easy or fast as it is for carbs or fats due to the thermic effect (the amount of energy required to digest, absorb, transport and store protein).
On top of this, you most likely heard about a high protein diet being too harsh and demanding on the kidneys and that could harm them. However, this is a bit misguided since the studies that support these claims were conducted on people who already had kidney impairment. In fact, even a fairly high protein intake – up to 2.8 g/kg (1.2 g/lb) – showed no effect on renal function in people with healthy kidneys.
Think of it this way: running can be very beneficial to your heart health, longevity, weight loss, mental health, and many others unless of course, you have a broken foot or ankle.
What if I don’t want to build muscle, will I still benefit from a higher protein diet?
There are plenty of other tangible benefits of having a healthy protein intake and even considering upping the amount of protein you ingest every day. Just to mention a few:
Increased thermic effect of feeding: while all nutrients require some amount of energy and have a metabolic cost to processing, the thermic effect of protein is roughly double that of carbohydrates and fat. This means eating more protein is actually thermogenic and can lead to a higher metabolic rate, greater fat loss when dieting and less fat gain during high caloric diets.
Increased glucagon: as mentioned before consuming protein increases the plasma levels of the hormone glucagon responsible for antagonizing the effects of insulin in adipose tissue, leading to greater fat mobilization, decreasing the activity of the enzymes responsible for making and storing fat in adipose and liver cells. Again, fat loss.
Increased IGF-1: an anabolic hormone that’s related to muscle growth, and tissue reparation in our whole body.
Reduction in cardiovascular risk: Studies have shown that an increase in the percentage of protein in the diet with a simultaneous decrease in the percentage of carbohydrates aids in lowering LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in blood and at the same time increase in HDL cholesterol levels.
Summary and recommendations.
So if you’re ready to try a higher protein diet here’s a few takeaways:
You should get clearance from a health professional that your kidney function is not compromised and you can try upping your protein consumption.
For basic protein synthesis, you don’t need to consume more than 1.4 to 2.0 g/kg (around 0.64-0.9 g/lb) of protein per day.
Consuming higher levels of protein (upwards of 1g per pound of body weight) may help you feel satisfied after eating as well as maintain a healthy body composition and good immune function and a miriad of other health benefits.
You should consume some protein before and after training to ensure adequate recovery, stimulate muscle growth and fat loss.
If you’re not sure on how much protein you need or how to go about consuming more you could benefit from a coach or meal prepping service to guide you through the process.
Let us know if you’ve tried this one our and what results you’re getting, we’d love to hear from you.