Most Americans get more than enough protein. Dietitians think about protein needs in terms of grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg). For the average person, 0.8 to 1.0 g/kg is perfectly adequate. For a 160-pound individual, this translates to a range of 58 to 73 grams per day of protein. Someone who is extremely active or has elevated protein needs due to a medical condition, such as recovery from surgery, may need more in the range of 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg. Those of us who suffer the misfortune of life-threatening traumas, infections, and burns need upwards of 2.0 to 3.0 g/kg as our bodies fight to survive and rebuild themselves. Under these circumstances, my example of a 160-pound person would need 146 to 219 grams per day during recovery.
So why is it then that we routinely see patients who are feeding themselves as much protein as a hospitalized third-degree burn victim? Among the multiple reasons, the most significant seems to be misinformation that spreads rapidly in our weight-centered society. Those of you who are my age or older have been around long enough to remember the low-fat fad that passed through a couple of decades ago. Just like fat phobia, today’s high-protein craze is based less on science and more on fear and a desperate feeling to grab hold of something, anything, that might be an answer to weight control. Accuracy of said answer is a distant concern.
An excessive protein intake comes at a cost. If we are consuming too much protein, only two possible scenarios exist: (1) We are consuming too few of other nutrients in order to make room for the protein, so we face the risks associated with inadequate intakes of other necessary nutrients. (2) We are still consuming adequate amounts of other nutrients, which means our overall caloric intake is excessive, and we have to deal with the ramifications of taking in more energy than our bodies need. Joanne offers additional concerns in her She Said section below.
When my patients work on building their intuitive-eating skills, oftentimes they discover that they feel better (i.e., greater energy, more regular bowel function, happier mood, etc.) when their protein intakes decrease to the recommended ranges in order to create appropriate room for healthy carbohydrates and fats.
In my work with those struggling with eating disorders, it seems as if protein can do no wrong. Nine times out of 10, my patients find protein to be much more benign than carbohydrate or fat. It is not unusual for a patient to report to me that all she has been eating is vegetables, some fruit, and egg whites/cottage cheese/boneless, skinless chicken breast/fish, while steering clear of bread, sweets, oils, and butter. When posed with the question about why she is avoiding the other macronutrients, the fallback answer is, “Well, protein is healthy for you, and carbs and fats will make me fat, so I don’t eat them.”
The logic behind this assumption is flawed for a few reasons. First, while it is possible to gain weight if one eats too much carbohydrate or fat, the same could be said for protein as well. Excess calories from any macronutrient will result in weight gain (to varying degrees). 500 extra calories of protein equal 500 extra calories of carbohydrate equal 500 extra calories of fat. It doesn’t matter a whole lot where those calories are coming from: If your body doesn’t need that extra fuel, it will store it.
Second, by eschewing carbohydrates and fats, one is losing out on a ton of nutrients. For example, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are virtually impossible to absorb if they aren’t eaten in the presence of fat. This means that all of that vitamin A found in your carrots and all of that vitamin K found in your dark leafy greens will pass right through you if you don’t eat them with fat (like that found in salad dressing). Carbohydrates are also a gold mine of nutrients: Whole grains found in many breads, crackers and pastas provide fiber to keep us regular and can help manage our cholesterol levels. Carbohydrates are also the building blocks of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness. Protein can’t do any of the above by itself.
Finally, there is such a thing as too much protein. In general, it is recommended that healthy adults take in 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That translates to approximately 67 grams per day for an average man and 57 grams per day for an average woman. Most Americans get more than enough protein in their diets without cutting back on carbohydrates or fats. What does a typical day of protein intake look like? Well, let’s say you have two scrambled eggs for breakfast – there’s 12 grams of protein already. For lunch, you have a turkey and cheese sandwich – there’s another 32 grams of protein. Dinnertime is fish with veggies – another 25 grams of protein. That amounts to 69 grams of protein, which is more than enough. Many of my patients will confess to having double or sometimes even triple that amount, which is troubling. Excess intake of protein can take a serious toll on your kidneys, as they will work overtime to filter out the byproducts of protein breakdown. What could that mean? Kidney failure.
Protein is a valuable nutrient, to be sure. But overdoing it on any one macronutrient is not only potentially harmful to one’s body; one could be missing out on many other nutrients from other sources.