Your body needs protein to function. But as with just about everything else in life, too much of a good thing is not actually a good thing at all.
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Registered dietitian Kate Patton, RD, LD, says it’s possible to eat too much protein, especially if you’re following a high-protein eating style like the paleo diet.
She explains how much protein you need, what can happen if you get too much and how to balance your intake to stay healthy.
How much protein should you eat every day?
Honestly, this can be kind of tricky to figure out, especially if you’re not a nutrition expert or a mathematician. The easiest way to do it is to use the USDA DRI Calculator to figure out your daily nutrient needs, including protein recommendations. But Patton explains for us the math and science behind those recommendations.
“Depending on your overall health and how active you are, protein should make up about 10% to 35% of your daily calories,” she says. “We suggest following the standard rule of 0.8 grams of protein per 1 kilogram of body weight.”
To determine your weight in kilos, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2046. Then, multiply that number by .8 to figure out how many grams of protein you should be eating. That means, for example, that a 150-lb. person would need about 54 grams of protein per day.
“If you’re physically active, it’s OK for your intake to be a little bit higher to help with muscle repair and gain,” Patton says.
Side effects of eating too much protein
Sooo, how much protein is too much? If you’re eating more than the recommended amount of protein on a regular basis, you’re probably overdoing it.
You may be at risk of eating too much protein if you follow a paleo or keto diet or just generally eat high quantities of meat, or if you drink a lot of protein supplements (like shakes or powders) — and especially if you do any of these things and aren’t especially physically active.
Some signs that you’re eating too much protein include:
- Bad breath: Eating too much protein, especially without a balanced amount of carbs, can cause ketosis, a metabolic state that happens when your body starts burning fat for energy. “Keto breath,” as it’s called, is one of the side effects.
- Dehydration: Your kidneys are responsible for filtering waste from your blood, including the byproducts of protein. They need water to make the process work smoothly, but when they’re stressed — like when you consume too much protein — you can end up dehydrated.
- Digestive problems: Eating too much protein, especially in the form of red meat, can bring on unwelcome tummy troubles like bloating, constipation and diarrhea.
- Extra calories: “High protein intake also means ingesting excess calories,” Patton says. Your body turns excess protein into fat, so it’s important to know how much you need in order to maintain your weight (or to lose weight, if that’s your goal).
- Foamy urine: This is one sign that you should head to the doctor ASAP. Foamy or bubbly pee is a sign of proteinuria, a high level of protein in your urine, which can be a sign of kidney damage.
- Kidney issues: High amounts of protein make your kidneys work harder, which can cause kidney damage or make existing kidney problems worse. (High-protein diets aren’t recommended for people who have kidney troubles.)
How to keep your protein intake in balance
The healthiest diet is a balanced, well-rounded diet — one that includes protein, yes, but also complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Patton shares a few protein pro tips to help you strike the right balance:
- Space it out: Your body can only process about 20 to 40 grams of protein at a time, so don’t go too overboard in any one meal. “Make sure you’re distributing your intake evenly throughout the day,” she advises.
- Make smart protein choices: When you’re working on your weekly meal plans, skip the processed meats (sorry, hot dogs) and limit red meat to one to two servings per week, or less than 3 to 6 ounces per week if you have heart disease or high cholesterol. “When it comes to animal protein, look for lean, grass-fed meats or wild-caught fish,” Patton says, “and whenever possible, organic is best.”
- Add plant-based protein: Meat isn’t the only way to get your fill of protein. Lentils, beans and nut butters are easy and nutritious sources, too. Patton notes, “A variety of animal and plant protein sources is best for your overall health and for reducing your risk of chronic diseases.”
- Pick a protein powder: If you’re deciding between your grocery store’s countless tubs of protein powders, choose one that’s organic, has the fewest ingredients and is tested by a third party. “Ingredient regulations are pretty lax, so it’s reassuring to know that another source has verified them as safe and healthy,” Patton states.
Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for professional input. How much protein you need depends on who you are and what your body is like — your age, weight, activity level, sex assigned at birth and overall health.
“For the most personalized dietary advice, it’s best to talk to a doctor or a registered dietitian,” Patton says. “They can help you figure out how much protein is best for you and how you can incorporate it in the healthiest way possible.”