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How Much Protein Is Too Much?

by guest blogger George Grunfelder, 4th year nutrition student, Winthrop University

It seems like no matter what dietary approach you hear about, one thing tends to be agreed upon. Protein is king. Regardless of what sport you are involved in, everyone says, “eat more protein”. The idea is that if you consume extra protein, you will build bigger muscles and be healthier. Some claim that by consuming a larger share of protein, you will lose weight. But is this one-size-fits-all recommendation accurate? Are there risks in suggesting such a generalized approach to sports nutrition? Let’s take a look.

Protein is a macronutrient that is essential for life. It is found in every human cell. It is used for growth and development, tissue repair, and various enzymatic processes throughout the body. Common sources of protein in the average diet are fish, meat, beans, nuts, and seeds, though most foods contain at least a small amount of protein. The general suggestion for protein intake is to get roughly 10-35% of your total daily calories from protein. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that the average individual consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for general health. The average individual will likely surpass their daily protein intake targets by simply eating enough calories, but athletes may need to pay more attention to their intake of protein.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, “it is recommended that a person that lifts weights regularly or is training for a running or cycling event eat a range of 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.”1 Current recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for athletes are to consume roughly 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight . So from a general overview, we can see that according to major health organizations, the average athlete should be consuming roughly 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.5-0.9 grams per pound. If you browse any random bodybuilding website or elite athlete magazine, you will likely encounter suggestions for much higher protein intakes, such as a staggering 2.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If major health organizations don’t support these higher amounts, why are they being suggested? Are there risks to consuming higher amounts? In short, it depends.

Elite athletes subjecting their bodies to intense workouts may need to consume higher levels of protein in order to have adequate stores for tissue and muscle repair. It really comes down to the individual and the intensity level of their workouts. It is important to draw a line, however, as excess protein consumption is not conducive to a balanced diet. Consider what is replaced on high protein diets. If you are increasing the percentage of protein calories in your diet, then you will be taking away from the percent of fat and carbohydrate calories. This can be detrimental to muscle building and maintenance, because as you are replacing healthy carbohydrates with protein, you are reducing your intake of the body’s  preferred fuel source.

This may become a serious issue when operating at a caloric deficit. If the body does not have enough fuel for a workout, it may turn to burning protein (free amino acids and/or lean tissue) as fuel, leading to decreased muscle mass. It is also important to note that fat is burned in a carbohydrate flame, meaning fat is not burned as efficiently in the absence of adequate carbohydrate intake. If you are an elite athlete and need to consume higher amounts of protein, it may be more beneficial to replace dietary fats as opposed to carbohydrates due to these factors.

Consuming a high protein diet may contribute to the progression of various diseases, though it depends on the details. If someone begins consuming a meat-heavy diet in order to hit high protein goals, they crowd out healthy carbohydrates such as nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. Care must be taken when consuming extra protein, as many animal sources of protein tend to be higher in saturated and trans fats, as well as cholesterol, all of which contribute to cardiovascular disease.In particular, it is advised to avoid consuming processed meat, as the World Health Organization recognizes it as carcinogenic.3 In this regard, it may be useful to swap out animal based sources of protein for plant based sources such as legumes, seeds, and nuts.

Overall, the benefits of consuming more and more protein may be overstated, and can even be dangerous when pushed to the extreme. Whether you are a casual runner or an elite ironman participant, quality of protein should be your first consideration. Choose healthy protein sources such as low-fat dairy, lean fish, lean meats, nuts, and legumes. As a general rule of thumb, you are likely getting plenty of protein for maintenance if you are eating adequate calories. For advanced athletes, more protein is needed for recovery and protein sparing effects in the presence of intense physical activity. Supplements can be useful in a pinch, but are not necessary in the presence of a balanced and nutritious diet. Muscle isn’t built in the gym, but in the recovery phase alongside proper nutrition and rest. Fueling your body with quality protein in adequate amounts for your activity levels will ensure that you meet your goals without going overboard into dangerous territory.

References:

  1. https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf?sfvrsn=688d8896_2
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045293/
  3. https://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/

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