Although it’s undeniable that protein serves as a core element to health and wellness, it has recently found itself shrouded in controversy within the healthcare community. Perhaps you have caught wind of these protein myths alleging that too much protein can cause cancer or decreased brain function. But what is the truth? Is it possible to eat too much of a good thing? The answer falls into a gray area right now, with some experts advocating “yes!” and other professionals insisting otherwise.
Once all available research is taken into consideration, the simple and quick answer is no, a high consumption of protein in your diet won’t hurt you. However, the devil is always in the details, and the simple answer does have a few exceptions. The following information breaks down exactly what you need to know about protein and its impacts on the body so that you can understand the complete answer for yourself.
A Quick Introduction to Protein
Protein is a nutrient found on every food’s nutrition label right under calories, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber, but protein is distinct because it forms the building blocks of the body. Large protein molecules are composed of smaller molecular chains called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids used by the body, each of which serves a different vital purpose for your health and wellness.
Protein is found mainly in animal products like meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. Plants such as beans and seeds also offer protein, but not always to the extent of meats.
The importance of protein to the body cannot be underestimated because every cell in the body relies upon protein to perform crucial functions ranging from digestion and hormone productions to tissue regeneration and skin maintenance. Though severe protein deficiency is rare in America, a body starved of protein will actually attempt to feed the protein hunger by breaking down muscles and other organs in a phenomenon known as wasting.
Protein’s Incredible Health Benefits
As one of the main foundations of the body, the list of benefits gained from eating adequate amounts of protein is rather extensive.
- Build Muscle Mass: One of protein’s main jobs is to build and maintain healthy muscle while supporting body tissue, which is why bodybuilders and professional athletes place such a heavy emphasis on protein in their diets. Since physical activity intentionally damages muscle tissue in the process of repairing it into stronger muscle, protein is even more essential after intense workouts.
- Promote Longevity: There’s still no such thing as a time machine, but healthy protein-rich foods support the body’s synthesis of the major antioxidant glutathione, which helps the body detoxify itself of pollutants and carcinogens. In fact, glutathione deficiency has been linked to the oxidative stress that often plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis.
- Support Brain Function: Proteins are responsible for creating the enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters that are indispensable for optimized cognitive function. A steady stream of amino acids to the brain assists with concentration, focus, and energy levels.
- Balance Hormones: The amino acids found in proteins help keep various hormone levels balanced, and with this homeostasis comes natural mood control and an automatic remedy for anxiety. Furthermore, proteins ensure that neurotransmitters do their job by producing the dopamine and serotonin needed for calmness and positivity.
- Prevent Weight Gain: High-protein foods help you feel satiated more than carbohydrates or fats, so you can feel full without eating as many calories. It’s much easier to overeat sweet refined carbs than healthy protein. Furthermore, eating protein stimulates the process of thermogenesis in the body, which forces the body to burn more calories to digest the food.
How to Eat Protein in Healthy Proportions
As with any other element of nutrition, protein intake guidelines are dependent upon age, weight, gender, lifestyle, and physical activity level. A 120 pound women with a sedentary job requires far less protein than a 250 pound man who lifts weights every day, and the elderly often need more protein than their younger counterparts due to absorption-related deficiencies. (1)
The USDA provides a recommended daily intake of protein for adults assuming average weight and activity level. This recommendation is a minimum estimate meant to be adjusted for personal lifestyle habits (2):
- 56 grams per day for men
- 46 grams per day for women
Many health experts recommend multiplying your body weight x 0.5 or 0.8 for the total grams of protein you should eat per day, while others say to calculate it upon 30% of total calories eaten. Any of the above formulas should land you in the same ballpark, but protein isn’t a nutrient you should feel the need to count gram by gram. As long as you are making healthy food choices and eating somewhere over or above 50 grams of protein a day, you’re already on the right track.
If you’re not getting enough protein in your regular diet, your body will send you signs that are hard to ignore. Since the body constantly breaks down and replaces proteins, your body needs a consistent store of those vital amino acids to help the body run smoothly. Low energy, poor concentration, mood swings, unstable blood sugar levels, muscle pain, and a sluggish immune system are all potential signs of a protein deficiency. (3)
Excessive Amounts of Protein Can be Dangerous
While science proves a certain amount of protein is critical to preserve health and wellness, too much of a good thing is usually bad, and protein is no exception. Despite being such a powerhouse of incredible benefits for the body, extremely high protein intake can indeed have negative impacts on the body. Though most people don’t eat enough protein to risk reaching the danger zone, the health risks still need to be understood.
Don’t worry about it if you have healthy kidneys and control your protein intake if you have damaged kidneys. It may be prudent to gradually increase protein intake to higher levels rather than jumping in both feet at a time, but there isn’t much research on this topic.
It is generally recommended to consume more water during periods when protein intake is being increased. Whether or not this has biological basis is not known, but it may be prudent to do
Very high levels of protein in the body can lead to kidney stress, dehydration, and high cholesterol.
- Kidney Malfunctions: The process of metabolizing protein generates toxins that the kidneys must filter, but constantly eating unusually high levels of protein places extra strain on the kidneys to filter more than they should. The harder the kidneys work to maintain an equilibrium of nitrogen in the body, the easier it is for those toxins to end up trapped internally. This imbalance often presents itself in headaches, paleness, and acid reflux. If a pre-existing kidney impairment already exists, protein can have more profound effects than on a body with health kidneys. (4)
- Dehydration: Recent studies indicate that higher protein intake requires much higher water intake as well since the kidneys need more water to filter the protein’s nitrogen. A person with a high-protein diet that doesn’t also adjust water intake accordingly will find himself suffering the side effects of dehydration. (5)
- High Cholesterol: Unfortunately, many high-protein foods from animal sources contain extremely high levels of cholesterol as well. Since cholesterol hardens the arteries and leads to serious medical conditions like stroke and heart attack, eating an unreasonable amount of this form of protein a day will cause cardiovascular issues down the road. (6)
All Protein is Not Created Equal
Even though protein is vital for the body to function, it’s easy to find it foods that are otherwise unhealthy, like your favorite greasy hamburger. There’s a marked difference between “good” and “bad” protein, and the more “good” protein you incorporate into your food habits, the healthier you will be.
- Dangers Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs): It’s all too common for animals to be raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that contaminate beef and poultry with antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and genetically engineered grains. Those chemicals don’t belong anywhere near your body or your food, so selectively choosing grass-fed proteins can make a huge difference to your health.
- Grass-fed Proteins are the Way to Go: Animals allowed to roam in pasture and fed wholesome grass diets are not only higher in brain-boosting omega-3s, but they are higher in vital nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and cancer-fighting CLA. It’s very worth the extra few dollars per pound to feed your body such a pure source of protein.
- Plant-Based Proteins: Of course, meats aren’t the only place to find protein. Some incredible plants sources like chia seeds, spirulina, and hemp seeds provide robust protein content, vital amino acids, and a bevy of impressive health benefits.
- Choices, Choices, Choices: Try these top choices for pure and healthy protein:
- Wild Fish
- Black Beans
- Greek Yogurt
- Free-Range Eggs
- Raw Milk
- Organic Chicken
The Bottom Line? While eating excessive amounts of protein can have negative health benefits, an average healthy diet will deliver adequate protein to the body without placing you at risk of any harm.