On Your Health

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Can You Eat Too Much Protein?

Many diet and lifestyle plans extol the advantages of limiting carbs and eating most of your calories from protein and fats. Whether you have tried the Keto Diet, the Paleo Diet, the Atkins Diet or any of the others that call for a high protein intake, you may have wondered just how much protein is too much. We’ve asked an expert at INTEGRIS for the answer.

Protein—the building block

Protein is essential for life. The protein you eat creates the building block of every cell in your body and is vital for nearly every function of your body. Protein is especially important for growth, tissue development and more. So, yes, eating enough protein is necessary for a healthy diet and to help your body create and preserve muscle mass and strength.

How much protein do you actually need?

"The Daily Reference Intakes (DRIs) are based on age and gender as well as for pregnancy and lactation. For adult men and women, the DRI for protein is 56 and 46 grams per day, respectively," says Karen Massey, who is a registered licensed dietitian and community education coordinator at INTEGRIS Health.

"Adults can also calculate protein needs based on weight by multiplying their weight by .4 grams per pound," she says. "Be aware, however, that DRIs are less than the amount advocated in sports nutrition."

Other nutrition experts suggest that for an adult, approximately 10 percent of your calories should come from protein, and those who are more active may need more.

That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t. Protein is abundant in many foods and both plants and animals provide protein. Meat, poultry, fish, dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) and eggs are all excellent sources. Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds also supply protein. In addition, many side-dishes like cereal grains and vegetables contribute protein as well. For instance, eating one hard-boiled egg, a banana and a cup of Greek yogurt equals on average 19 grams of protein.

Protein recommendations for teenagers

The amount of protein a teen needs depends on height, weight, gender and activity level, but according to (the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) teens need about .5 to .8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. In general, this breaks down to most teenage boys needing about 52 grams of protein per day, while teenage girls need about 46 grams per day. However, if teens are small or large for their age, or very active, their needs are different.

Protein and athletes

Protein recommendations for athletes are higher than for sedentary people. Both strength and endurance training increase protein needs. Massey says, "Active individuals who are training or competing at high levels on a regular basis should aim for about .85 grams per pound at the end of the day."

But remember, the timing of protein is also important. Rather than focusing on a total at the end of the day, Massey recommends including a quality source of protein with each meal throughout the day. 

"Ideally, active people should strive for about 20-30 grams at breakfast, lunch and dinner," Massey says. "For many, a bedtime or after-training snack may be necessary depending on the athlete’s size and calorie requirements."

Finally, from a sports nutrition perspective, Massey concedes that protein is needed for recovery, but she reiterates that carbohydrate is the preferred source of energy while exercising. "Short-changing carbohydrate impairs performance and there is a limit to how much dietary protein can be used to build and repair tissue, such as muscle," Massey says.

Is too much protein bad for you?

Just like everything else in the world, too much of a “good thing” might not be so good when it comes to eating protein.

"On a health level, high protein diets may be high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium which is especially problematic if the diet also shuns foods known to be beneficial to health, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Massey says.

However, it’s important to remember that not all proteins are created equal. A high-protein diet heavy in red meat and high-fat dairy may lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol, but a high protein diet rich in plant-based proteins may not.

Some health conditions that may linked to high protein diets include:

  • High cholesterol and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Kidney disease and kidney stones
  • Weight gain
  • Constipation or diarrhea

 "Protein isn’t the only nutrient needed to have a healthy, strong body," says Massey. "For optimal nutrition, the best diet should include a variety of foods from each food group."