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Signs You May Be Getting Too Much Protein in Your Diet, According to Dietitians

scoop filled with brown or chocolate flavored protein powder
How Much Protein Is Too Much? Djavan Rodriguez - Getty Images

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If you’ve had an ear to the door of the nutrition world over the last decade, you’re aware of the push for protein that remains front and center for many. There are meal-replacement protein shakes, protein powders for smoothies, protein bars, and more—all of which aim to help you meet your macronutrient goals. The question is: how much protein is too much? And perhaps even more so, why is protein so important in the first place?

Meet the Experts: Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D.N., registered dietitian and Quest Nutrition partner; and Jennifer Christman, M.H.A., R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T., registered dietitian at Optavia

Below, experts share some general protein guidelines.

Recommended protein intake

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommended daily allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, “protein needs vary based on many factors, such as gender, age, disease status, and activity,” explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D.N., registered dietitian and Quest Nutrition partner.

Those who are more active or are trying to lose weight may need more protein than the base recommendation, adds Jennifer Christman, M.H.A., R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T., registered dietitian at Optavia, as it helps prevent the loss of muscle mass during the fat burning process. “According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, exercising individuals interested in maintaining or building muscle mass should consume 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight,” she explains. “For example, someone who weighs 160 pounds and is looking to maintain or build muscle should consume about 100 to 145 grams of protein per day.”

Another caveat: With age, you become more prone to losing muscle mass, a condition known as sarcopenia. So, those over 40, depending on how well they retain muscle and their general health, have slightly higher protein needs and should have roughly 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, per the Mayo Clinic.

These numbers should be used as a general outline, as “many experts believe the general breakdown for protein needs in healthy adults needs to be reevaluated,” Kirkpatrick says.

How much protein is too much?

Long-term consumption of protein at 2 grams per kilogram of body weight is safe in healthy adults, says Christman. She adds that the tolerable upper limit for that population is 3.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. So anything more than this and you may get too much.

Side effects of too much protein

As we’ve established, protein can help maintain or gain muscle mass. However, there are potential side effects to having too much, especially if your activity levels aren’t high enough to help metabolize it, Christman explains. According to Kirkpatrick, excess protein has been associated with:

  • Gastric distress

  • Nausea

  • Indigestion

  • Diarrhea

  • Weight gain

  • Dehydration (increased protein may send your kidneys into overtime, working to process more of the nutrient, which may lead to more urinating, which could lead to dehydration.)

Are high-protein diets safe?

“This depends on many factors,” says Kirkpatrick, including, the sources of your protein (animal or plant-based) and whether or not your body struggles to break down specific types, she adds. “For example,” she continues. “I might not recommend a very high-protein diet for individuals with renal or liver disease,” as those conditions may impact how protein is processed.

How does protein affect weight loss?

High protein diets have been associated with improvements in satiety or fullness, which could help with weight loss. “Having more protein may mean having less of foods that could contribute to weight gain, such as sugar and refined carbohydrates,” adds Kirkpatrick. Higher protein consumption has also been linked with better diet quality in those who are trying to lose weight, she says. But, if you’re introducing more calories by increasing protein, and not adding in more exercise, weight gain is possible.

What foods are high sources of protein?

“High-quality protein sources include amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein,” Christman explains. A few examples of high-protein foods, according to Christman and Kirkpatrick, are:

  • Salmon

  • Chicken breast

  • Plain Greek yogurt

  • Soy

  • Eggs

  • Low-fat cottage cheese

  • Beans

  • Legumes

Who should avoid eating too much protein?

“People with certain medical conditions, such as chronic kidney or liver disease, may need to limit their protein intake,” says Christman. “Individuals should work with their healthcare provider to determine the amount of protein consumption appropriate for their individual needs.”

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