How much protein is too much protein? Here’s what a nutrition expert says

If you frequent any sort of fitness or weight management communities, both online and off-line, protein is an enormous component of much of the discussion — almost to the point of reverence.

Perusing grocery store shelves recently also shows the prominence and important of protein for many; its cache has grown exponentially in recent years, with many a food product blasting the protein content on the front label. These days, you’re often more likely to see the protein content splashed across the food label before any other nutritional fact.

So, how did this happen? Was it a well-concentrated PR scheme from some shadowy “Big Protein?” Is protein actually seemingly the most important or impactful nutrient? And do protein shakes, powders and bars really do amazing things for you — or are they just yet another ultra-processed food better left on the shelf in place of more natural options? 

In order to get to the bottom of these questions, Salon Food spoke with Dr. Nichole Dandrea-Russert, the dietitian and author behind and “The Vegan Athlete’s Nutrition Handbook,” who explained all about the super-nutrient, why its garnered such adoration in recent years and the truth about its impact on the body. 

So, to start, what the heck does protein actually do and how much of it should you be consuming daily?

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins,” said Dandrea-Russert. “There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential, meaning our body doesn’t make them and we need to obtain them from food.” At its core, protein is very important, impacting your muscles, bones, skin, hair and “virtually every other body part or tissue.” It also helps to carry oxygen in the blood, assists with metabolism and is “responsible for nearly every task of cellular life, including cell shape, inner organization, waste cleanup and routine maintenance.”

At the same time, though, over consumption is never great  and protein is by no means the most or only essential nutrient, according to Dandrea-Russert. As far as how much to consume daily? That’s not so easy to pinpoint: “The amount of protein a person needs each day is very individualized and depends on age, sex and level of physical activity,” she said. 

One thing that Dandrea-Russert says, though, is to not throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to protein powders, shakes and powders if you’re feeling a certain way about their being processed or possibly even ultra-processed. The field of supplemental products is pretty broad and the level of processing differs from item to item. 

“If a food has been frozen, freeze-dried or fermented, then they have undergone some sort of treatment, making them processed, albeit, minimally processed — and, in some cases, nutrients are preserved or enhanced!,” Dandrea-Russert said.

That said, they aren’t necessarily a full meal replacement. Per Dandrea-Russert, many protein powders are often “just the protein of the food, leaving many of the other nutritional components behind. For example, to make pea protein, the whole food form of the pea goes through processing to extract the protein, leaving the fiber, complex carbohydrates and possibly some of the vitamins and minerals, like vitamin C, E and zinc, behind, depending on the processing.”

That said, some protein powders can actually contain high levels of heavy metals, which are harmful to health in high doses. 

“When searching for a protein powder supplement, always look for third party testing to make sure the company is testing for heavy metals,” Dandrea-Russert said. 

Overall, though, a “whole food” approach is almost always best. Want more protein in your diet Dandrea-Russert recommends adding beans, lentils, peas, edamame, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, whole grains and nutritional yeast. Of course, lean meats and poultry options are also advised, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan, plant-based options are totally sufficient. 

Plant-based foods that have adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids include tofu, tempeh, edamame, pistachios, chia seeds, nutritional yeast and buckwheat,” she said. 

If you’re math person (unlike me), there’s a formula: Essentially, you should be consuming just about 1 gram of protein “per kilogram of body weight per day” if you’re a fitness enthusiast, while “strength and power athletes” might need more like 1.5 grams per kilogram. This is about the same amount that someone over the age of 65 should consume, too.

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So, what happens if you do consume too much? It won’t increase muscle growth, but instead be “used for either energy or stored as fat,” Dandrea-Russert said.

In addition, if the bulk of your protein intake is coming from foods like red meats, consuming high protein will also invariably include high consumption of fats — both saturated and trans — and endotoxins, which may, in turn, result in higher risks of heart disease, colon cancer and even cognitive decline. It’s all a balance, just like with everything. Essentially, just don’t over do it.

With such a focus on protein, I wondered: Is there another nutrient that is possibly being left behind? Dandrea-Russert thinks so.

It’s interesting that one of the most common questions people ask is, ‘How do I get enough protein?’ when the question they should really be asking is, ‘How do I get enough fiber?'” Dandrea-Russert said. “Less than 5% of Americans get enough fiber in a day. There’s truly a fiber deficiency in over 95% of the population. Protein deficiency, on the other hand, is rare.”

If you’re looking to boost your fiber intake, she advises bulking up plant-based protein sources, with lentils as a particular focus. They have lots of fiber and protein, but also doesn’t pack any saturated fat, antibiotics or endotoxins. 

 And for the weight loss and bodybuilding enthusiasts? Dandrea-Russert states that “[while] there is the thought that protein can support increased metabolic activity and also lead to more muscle mass (which also leads to increased metabolism).  Both of these thoughts are true, however, adequate protein, rather than excess protein, for your age, weight, and activity level is sufficient to produce these effects.” 

So, to sum it all up, don’t toss out your protein powders, shakes and bars, just maybe don’t consume multiple per day (and maybe go out and grab some lentils).

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