Excessive amounts of protein can lead to more harm than good. Excessive amount of protein from food consumption or supplements can add disproportionate calories to our diets. Remember, 1 gram of protein is 4 calories, and in large quantities, like any macronutrient, will result in more calories consumed than our body uses, which is then stored as fat. Protein is essential, but like fats its history has changed, our perspectives on what protein really does for our bodies and what is the “right” and “wrong” for consumption.
In the 19th century, protein was related to meat and that was how it stayed for many years to follow. I myself didn’t know that many beans, legumes, and vegetables have almost the same or higher amounts of protein per gram than animal meats. It was once said “a large amount of protein was for the civilized man”. Granted this was the 1900s; the recommended protein was 125 grams per day, whereas now it is around 50 grams for an adult male. According to one English physician, those who were wealthy ate meat and those who were poor could only eat potatoes and bread. This same physician also stated that those who ate less meat had “poor physique”. Doesn’t this sound similar to what we know today?! Those who consume high amounts of protein must be stronger and have a better physique. Today, we find both dimensions: those fighting to have enough calories and struggle meeting their body’s need and those who consume an unreasonable amount to maintain their physique.
Consequences of Too Much Protein:
- Filling your calories with protein without energy from carbohydrates can lead to fatigue and muscle weakness.
- Our bodies can’t efficiently use all the protein especially those on high-protein diets. 20-25 grams can be used in one meal, whereas the rest could be turned into fat storage.
- High protein meals can easily be coupled with a high level of fat. Together extra consumption may lead to excess calories and weight gain that may not be muscle.
Some fad diets follow the routine of high protein with low or no carbs. The only problem is that by limiting carbohydrates our body becomes low on glucose and then we feel fatigue. Another problem with a high protein diet is that it limits our food choices and nutrient dense fruits, vegetables, and whole grain are missed. We need these! Even though protein rich food bring high levels of B12 and iron we lack vitamin C and folate, which we find in fruits and vegetables. Consequences of too high protein diets lack an assortment of food. This may lead to weight gain due to high calories consumed in one food group. Finally, I want to mention that there is correlation of high protein diets to chronic heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and obesity (Whitney).
With all this said I want to emphasize that a higher protein diet is not completely unhealthy. Many researchers are now arguing that high protein diets are part of a large picture weight loss plan, especially for those who are trying to curb hunger. Now, why is this? When protein in the diet is increased it changes our bodies metabolically, which has its advantages for those trying to lose weight, as well as for athletes. Metabolically high quality protein will assist in creating lean body mass, and in decreasing body fat. This is exactly what athletes want along with those trying to regain muscle and lose weight. Just like there are high quality carbs and fats there are high quality proteins. High quality proteins include essential amino acids and are highly digestible. High quality proteins aid our body’s function to maintain long-term muscle and bone health (Pasiakos). Too little leads to deficiencies and excessive amounts much leads to long term problems, but right in the middle is right where we need to be.
Our 19th century thinking has lead us to where we are today along with numerous other thoughts and myths about protein. Everything in moderation is what I like to remind myself everyday. We need protein, but just like carbohydrates and fat, too much can harm our bodies, and limit our overall health and fitness.
Pasiakos, S. (2015). Metabolic Advantages of Higher Protein Diets and Benefits of Dairy Foods on Weight Management, Glycemic Regulation, and Bone. Journal of Food Science, 80(1), 2-7. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.12804
Whitney, E., & Rolfes, S. (2013). Protein: Amino Acids. In Understanding Nutrition (13th ed., p.183- 184). Belmont, California: Yolanda Cossio.
Sizer, F., & Whitney, E. (2012). The Proteins and Amino Acids. In Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies (12th ed., p. 214 ). Belmont, California: Yolanda Cossio.
Clark, N. (2014). Protein: Building and Repairing Muscles. In Nancy Clarks' Sports Nutrition Guidebook (5th ed., pp. 137-155). Newton, MA: Sports Nutrition Services.
Campbell, T., & Campbell, T. (2005). A House of Proteins. In The China study: The most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted and the startling implications for diet, weight loss and long-term health. Dallas, Tex.: BenBella Books.