26th Sep 2014

How Much Protein is Too Much?

How much protein should you aim to eat?

The exact amount of protein we need depends a lot on our unique body and lifestyle: how much we weigh, our age, our gender, and our level of physical activity. Younger, more muscular, and more physically active people need more protein than do older, more sedentary people. Males also tend to need more protein than women do.

Most people in modern industrialized nations get plenty of protein, in fact many get more than they need, which can be harmful long term. Protein is important for many body functions but it’s also important to balance protein with eating enough carbohydrates and healthy fats. All three of these “macronutrients” are equally important in terms of bodily health. When we focus too much on eating high amounts of protein, we often miss out on eating enough health promoting, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and fruits (which are carbohydrates).

Protein should play an important role in your diet, but eating more protein alone will not result in better health, bigger muscles, or weight loss. It’s best to aim to eat just enough protein without over-doing it and neglecting other important food sources.

It is recommended that the average adult aim to get 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein. For the average women, this would equal 46 grams of protein daily, while the average man would want to aim for 56 grams. Most foods, even those high in protein like meat and eggs, are made up of more than just protein. Animal foods for example also have fat in them, however they do provide substantial protein. It is usually not very hard to meet these recommended amounts of protein daily. Having just 2 small amounts of animal proteins per day (fish, meat, chicken, eggs, dairy) plus a range of other foods like grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables will be plenty. For people who require more calories due to exercising often, being pregnant, or because they are young and growing, it’s still best to eat a range of foods overall while increasing calories, and not to focus solely on only eating more protein.

What happens when you eat too much protein?

When we eat a high amount of protein and a very low amount of carbohydrates, we experience a ketogenic effect or what is called “nutritional ketosis”. This happens when our diet forces our body to use another source of energy besides glucose (sugar from carbs) for body functioning. When no glucose is present in the body, the liver will burn the body’s own fat molecules instead. The more the body burns fat for energy, the more “ketone bodies” it produces.

There is some debate as to whether nutritional ketosis is harmful or not. The body burning ketones for energy is an adaptive mechanism that is believed to have evolved thousands of years ago when people had to “fast” for days at a time due to scare amounts of food being available in nature. Supporters of nutritional ketosis believe that this natural process can be used to help the body improve conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune disease, Alzheimer’s’ disease, gluten intolerance. 

Other nutrition experts feel that ketosis is harmful to the liver and other organs, and ultimately that eating too much protein and too little carbs can lead to problems like heart disease, cancer, stroke, and more. Ketosis can be useful short term for people trying to lose weight, but people have been able to maintain healthy weights and live long lives for centuries without needing to resort to extreme measures like nutritional ketosis. Ultimately there is still research needed on long-term safety and benefits of ketosis and what diets that are too high in protein and fat, but too low in carbs, can do to our bodies.

How to make sure the amount you’re eating is right

Your best bet is to eat a range of whole, unprocessed foods- including some with protein, but also some without. Carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, and nuts have an important role in every diet, so if you focus too much on protein foods, you will be missing out on some of the healthiest foods there are. Stick with having 2-3 small (3 oz) sources of animal protein daily and then getting the rest of you calories from healthy carbs and fats.