Are we overdoing it with this protein-packed food craze? It seems like every popular diet these days promises that upping your protein consumption can help you lose weight, build muscle, and improve your overall health and well-being. But how much is too much and are there any long term health risks of eating too much protein?
Is Protein Good For You?
Eating quality sources of high protein food is actually shown to be really good for you - and can help with both weight loss and building muscle mass.
But just because a food has protein doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy. Quality protein sources include foods that have high amounts of protein compared to the number of calories they contain and are low in saturated fat. Desirable proteins are also rich with the nutrients we need each day - including the 9 essential amino acids.
And of course you can always talk to a registered dietitian or your doctor to get protein advice that is more specific and tailored to your personal needs and goals.
How Much Protein Does Your Body Need?
We all need some protein in our diet. Protein is a vital macronutrient that is made up of substances called amino acids. And there are nine amino acids that are particularly essential for us to regularly eat.
The US Dietary Guidelines recommends daily protein intake to make up 10% to 35% of the calories you eat each day.
The exact grams of protein this means for you depends on how many calories you need to eat each day; but whatever that number is, it creates a really wide range of protein recommendations! For example, if you’re eating 2000 calories daily, guidelines support you eating between 50 and 175 grams of protein per day.
Another approach to estimating your daily dietary protein intake is to eat at least 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, although this is often on the lower side of the recommended daily intake (1). This also equals out to at least 50 grams of protein per day for a 150 pound person.
Quickly estimate your daily protein requirements with this free protein calculator.
How Much Protein is too Much?
For most people, it’s really hard to get too much protein. But it’s always possible to have too much of a good thing. Eating a significantly more protein than what you need can start doing more harm than good.
Research suggests that you likely won’t see any additional benefits of consuming protein beyond 1.5 grams per pound of body weight or getting more than 50% of your calories from protein (2,3,4,5).
What Happens When You Eat too Much Protein?
Here are four ways eating too much protein might negatively impact your health. These considerations are especially relevant if you’re eating the wrong type of protein and if you’re not including enough of other important nutrients in your diet.
1. Poor Nutrient Intake
While protein-packed foods are nutritious, it also isn’t healthy to eat exclusively pure protein meals. We also need healthy fats in our diet and all of the essential micronutrients. Consuming any poorly balanced diet has the potential to lead to nutrient deficiencies and poor health side effects.
Additionally, just because you’re eating the right amount of protein doesn't ensure you’re getting good nutrition. Plenty of processed, unhealthy foods are advertised as a source of protein - in other words, adding protein to a candy bar doesn't make it good for you. And drinking protein shakes all day just to get your grams in can lead to excess calories and weight gain.
It’s important to include other beneficial food groups like healthy fats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables to ensure you’re getting all of the essential nutrients you need.
2. Increased Heart Health Risks
The type of protein you choose is just as important as the amount you’re eating when looking at health risks.
Protein is found in many foods with saturated fat which contributes to high cholesterol levels and all of the health consequences that go along with it, including heart disease and stroke.
Consuming a diet high in red meat, full-fat dairy and other saturated fats is associated with increased heart health risks (6,7).
It’s important to choose your proteins carefully in order to get the health benefits of including them in your diet. High-quality proteins that are nutrient-rich and relatively low in calories and saturated fat are often the best options.
Eating a meat-based diet, with very little plant based foods typically leads to low fiber intake. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that plays an important role in digestion - helping to move things along. And if your high protein diet is lacking in fiber, you may start to suffer from constipation.
Fiber is also important in a variety of other aspects of health. In fact, high fiber diets are associated with lower risk of multiple health conditions including high cholesterol, gut health, cardiovascular disease and even all causes of death (8,9).
4. Kidney Damage
People with kidney disease may be harmed by a high protein diet, It’s therefore usually recommended for people with kidney problems to eat lower amounts of protein (10,11).
This is because your kidneys play an important role in filtering waste, including from breakdown products of proteins. Eating more protein than our baseline needs creates more waste products imposing additional burden on the kidneys. If your kidneys don’t work as well as they should, it’s more difficult to filter these waste products which can then build up in your body causing harm and may even further worsen your kidney function.
Protein isn’t the only nutritional consideration that people with kidney disease need to consider modifying in their diet. The kidneys are so important at regulating our electrolytes, waste products, and fluid that there are actually many dietary changes that may need to take place if the kidneys aren’t functioning as they should.
If you have kidney disease, it’s important to talk to your kidney doctor (nephrologist) and a renal dietitian as soon as possible for formal detailed dietary recommendations that are customized to you.
Luckily, most people without kidney disease will not be harmed by high protein diets. Well done medically reviewed research shows that the additional work performed by your kidneys in high protein diets is thought to be well within their capabilities. So eating a high protein diet in people with healthy kidneys shouldn’t cause kidney damage (12,13,14,15).
Consuming a high protein diet is probably not harmful to healthy individuals. However, research hasn't shown any conclusive health benefits from eating more protein than guidelines recommend either.
Strive to eat quality proteins and keep your protein intake reasonable - at least 10% but less than 50% of your calories in order to glean potential benefits while still leaving room for balanced nutrition.
Learn exactly what to eat for weight loss using this free meal prep toolkit. An RD-written guide complete with a macro meal planner, food lists, and expert advice to help you get results.