There is a lot of confusion around the body’s most important macronutrient, protein. Although it has many health benefits, from muscle growth to increased satiety, will it be harmful if you eat too much? Can you get too much protein in your diet?
How Much Protein Do You Need?
In order to function optimally, the body needs a balance of the three macronutrients — protein, fat and carbohydrates. These nutrients provide energy as calories and play many important roles in the body.
The National Institute of Health has identified ideal macronutrient needs based on a percentage of total calories. These are called the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR), which breakdown as follows:
- 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates
- 20-35% of calories from fat
- 10-35% of calories from protein
This means if you eat 2000 calories per day, you would need to eat between 50-175 grams of protein a day.
Another way to calculate protein needs without needing to calculate calories first, is to base your protein intake on your lean body mass. Here is the basic calculation:
Step 1: Figure your lean body mass. If you weigh 200 pounds and you have a body fat percentage of 25%, your lean body mass would be 150 pounds or 75% of your body weight.
Step 2: Divide that number in half. Your body needs about 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean body mass. To continue the example above, if you weighed 200 pounds and had a body fat percentage of 25%, you would need to consume 75 grams of protein per day.
These are just general calculations for figuring out your protein needs. But, how much protein you need to eat can depend on a lot of other variables, such as age, activity level, muscle mass, life stage or illness.
Risks of Eating Too Much Protein
Based on the calculation above, in order to eat “too much” protein on a 2000 calorie diet you would have to eat more than 175 grams a day. This would be the equivalent of eating about 25 ounces of chicken in one day. It would be possible, but you would be quite full.
If you do manage to eat too much protein regularly, here are a few of the risks of too much protein in your diet:
Increased Risk of Cancer
Eating more protein than your body needs, particularly from red meat, can end up fueling the growth of cancer cells in your body. It is believed that too much protein in the diet stimulates a biochemical pathway, which plays a role in the formation of cancers.
Possible Kidney Strain
There have been no studies that have found that too much protein causes kidney damage in healthy people. But one of the downsides of consuming a lot of protein is that it produces a lot of nitrogen wastes. Your body needs to get rid of those wastes, which puts additional strain on the kidneys. If you already have kidney problems, high protein intake can make it worse.
Too much protein can cause constipation. Increasing your protein intake may displace eating high fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains because you simply don’t have enough room in your stomach for all that food. Therefore, you might not have enough fiber for normal digestion.
When you eat more protein, you need to drink more water to help the body eliminate the nitrogen. Many people do not increase their water intake to balance out the protein, which may lead to dehydration.
Calcium and Bone Loss
A 2013 review found that high protein diets may exacerbate calcium loss, which could increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Risk of Heart Disease
A 2018 study found that a high protein intake from red meat increased levels of a compound called TMAO, which raises the risk of heart disease. However, it is important to note that this was not a side effect of all high protein foods.
These are just a few of the risks of a high protein diet, but remember many of these risks are only when you regularly eat beyond the recommended amount daily.
Can Too Much Protein Make You Fat?
Protein is commonly touted as a weight loss food, but it’s also true that too much protein can make you gain weight. So, how does this work? Does protein turn into fat? No, not directly. In order to understand why, you need to understand how the body works.
The body prefers to burn the other macronutrients, carbohydrates or fat, for energy. It will spare protein from being used for energy when possible because it is needed for more important bodily functions.
When you eat food, your body absorbs carbohydrates first, sending them off to the liver to be processed and turned into glucose to burn as energy. Next, it turns to the proteins and fats. Proteins are sent to the liver to be broken down into individual amino acids, which are used for multiple bodily functions. Fats can be used for energy, to make hormones or can be stored for later. This is how your body prefers to function when you eat the number of calories that it needs.
However, many of us over eat. Too many calories, no matter where they come from, will lead to weight gain. However, it is important to note that a 2016 study found that when subjects replaced carbohydrates with protein, they gained weight. This did not happen when the subjects replaced fat with protein. Protein and carbohydrates have the same number of calories, so if you replace them gram per gram, your calorie intake should not change and therefore you should not gain weight. So, what gives? It may be that many high protein foods are also fairly high in fat. Take a look at two of the tastiest proteins around: meat and cheese. Both are animal proteins that are high in fat.
When the body breaks down the protein in your meat and cheese, it also breaks down the fats they contain. As it is using the protein to power your muscles, it is storing the fat for later.
But, when you replace the fat with protein, you automatically cut back on your calorie intake leading to weight loss. So, protein is not a miracle weight loss food. If you are eating a lot of high-fat proteins, you will end up gaining weight. As long as you stick with low-fat proteins (think legumes, quinoa and protein-rich veggies) and moderate your calories, you have nothing to fear.
Best Types of Protein to Consume
If you are going to try to add more protein to your diet, it’s vital that you are careful of your food choices. Here are a few of the best protein sources to add to your diet:
- Protein Powder – Whey protein is one of the easiest for your body to digest and the best choice for protein powder. But you can opt for soy, casein and egg protein powder as well.
- Legumes – Low in fat, high in fiber and an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, legumes like beans and lentils should be a top choice for protein in your diet.
- Fish – Certain fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, are not just high in protein, they are also incredible sources of omega-3 fats. These essential fatty acids offer a wide range of health benefits, from reducing inflammation to protecting the heart.
- Eggs – Eggs have been villainized for a long time. But there is no need to worry about eating them. Although they are high in cholesterol, they do not have a negative impact on heart health. Eggs are loaded with vital amino acids and other nutrients that are hard to find elsewhere.
- Poultry – Eat the white meat of your chicken or turkey, and you’ll get a lot of protein with very little fat. Poultry is one of the leanest proteins around, provided that you remove the skin.
- Grains – Oats, quinoa and barley are just a few of the grains that contain protein. They are an excellent source of amino acids and fiber, without any added fat.
- Grass fed red meat – Grass fed beef is an incredible source of nutrition. Not only is the amino acid profile excellent, but there are also more omega-3 fatty acids in red meat. Plus, there are no pesticides, chemicals or preservatives present in this type of meat.
There is no real concern that you are eating too much protein as long as you eat a balanced diet overall. Make room for each of the macronutrients in your diet and plenty of fruits and vegetables as well. Eating a varied diet is the secret to meeting all of your nutritional needs without overdoing it.