What hasn’t been said about protein? It fuels your muscles and your body before and after a workout, it fills you up and keeps hunger under control, and it’s necessary for everyday living. Whether you choose to get your protein from foods or supplements, you need the right amount of protein every day. But while protein is important for a healthy diet and for muscle recovery post workout, you can be overdoing it if you eat more protein than you should.
Despite the popular wisdom that protein is good for you, too much of anything is not, and that includes protein. The biggest concern has to do with the effect that excess protein has on your kidneys. When you consume too much protein, you run the risk of building up toxic ketones in your body. Ketones are made when your body uses fat cells for your fuel when there are not enough carbohydrates in your system. These ketones damage your kidneys because they're trying to get rid of these substances. The result is a loss of water leading to dehydration. This is what's known as being on a ketogenic diet - too much protein and not enough carbs. Such a diet can also lead to headaches, heart palpitations, fatigue and dizziness.
Good protein sources are eggs, lean meat, low-fat or fat-free dairy, turkey, chicken, fish and whey. However, you don't always want to rely on animal sources for your protein, and if you're a vegetarian, it’s definitely not an option. You can get plenty of protein from plant-based sources including spinach (49% protein), kale (45% protein), broccoli (45% protein), cauliflower (40% protein), mushrooms (38% protein) and cucumbers (24% protein). Nuts, nut butters, quinoa, edamame and beans are also healthy choices for protein. As you see, there’s a lot of variety when it comes to where you get your protein whether it’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack.
Lately, there has been a shift from animal protein to plant proteins because of the dangers of eating too many animal products. A study written several years ago in the Annals of Internal Medicine that focused on people who had some form of kidney impairment saw increased damage on a high protein diet especially when the source of the protein came from animal or processed meat. According to Danielle Girdano, a certified master personal trainer and founder of dfineyourhealth.com, “there is a direct correlation between this type of damage and animal proteins. I always advise my clients to eat a veggie protein-based diet not only because it has a dramatically increased absorption rate, but because it is easier for the body to digest and process with added health benefits.” She also notes that “when you eat too much protein over a period of time, it causes your liver to become overworked. When it's overworked it can't process the ammonia and other toxic substances and then they build up in your bloodstream and body. In many cases this leads to hepatic encephalopathy, which is a condition of declining brain and nervous system function.”
Eating too much protein has other bad effects like intestinal problems, weight gain and seizures (if not enough water is being consumed). You may also suffer a deficiency in other important nutrients because the protein is taking their place. When you concentrate on eating so much protein, you are going to deprive your body of other nutrients that are equally important like fiber, iron and, yes, carbs.
Generally speaking, most people need 0.4-0.6 grams of protein per bodyweight which is 48-72 grams a day for a 120 pound woman. If you're very active, you need to bump the amount up to one gram per bodyweight. Athletes and professionals may require more than that. Of course, when you have your protein is important as well. The two most important times are pre-workout and post-workout. Consuming protein on both these occasions fuels your muscles for your workout and helps them recover afterwards.
The bottom line is that protein is very important whether you are active or not. But you also need to eat the correct amount or it may lead to adverse effects down the road. And don’t rely on just eggs or chicken. Diversify your menu so you get it from animals, plants and nuts. Not only will this allow you to get additional nutrients like healthy fats and fiber, but you won’t be bored with eating the same thing day in and day out. Stay in the healthy range of protein intake only bumping it up if you are very active. Also, space out your protein throughout the day so it is part of every meal as well as your snacks. And don’t forget to include complex carbs and healthy fats with it. By day’s end, you will have gotten an adequate amount without going overboard and possibly risking your health.