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Can you get too much protein? Good question. With M&F and your gym buddies preaching the minimum of 1 gram per pound of bodyweight and a lot of mainstream media talking about the dangers of that standard, things can get a bit confusing. This two-part series, presented in easy-to-follow Q&A format, should help assuage your fears.
A: Proteins are large molecules made up of chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids the body uses to make protein, and when you eat protein, your body breaks apart the aminos and sends them to whichever part of your body needs whichever type of amino.
Protein in general is an extremely important nutrient, and not just because you like big muscles. “In all cells of the body, proteins perform crucial functions and are present in numerous forms,” says Tabatha Elliott, PhD, who has studied protein extensively at the University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston). “Proteins form structural tissue [such as muscle fibers], blood plasma, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, hemoglobin, you name it.” Protein is also responsible for a host of other things, from making your muscles move to transporting other substances (such as vitamins and minerals) throughout your body. Without it, you would be practically unable to function.
In fact, people who don’t eat enough protein suffer a host of problems, namely wasting, where the body basically attempts to feed the protein hunger by breaking down muscles and other organs. Protein deficiency isn’t often a concern in meat-loving America, and it certainly isn’t a risk among those who follow a well-planned bodybuilding diet. Rather, mainstream nutritionists worry about the opposite “problem”: the health effects of eating too much protein.
A: There are a lot of ways to determine how much protein the average person should eat to remain healthy. It can get really complicated, so we’ll spare you the details and just tell you that, according to the FNB, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 gram per kilogram of bodyweight per day. That translates to roughly 0.4 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight for men and women ages 19—70. Sounds awfully low, doesn’t it?
It gets worse. You’ll sometimes see the RDA for protein listed as 56 grams per day for men. This number was derived based on a bodyweight of 154 pounds for the average male. Anyone see a problem with that?
A: Exactly. The recommendations applied to the general public just don’t apply to bodybuilders who eat specialized diets and live radically different lifestyles than the average person. Occasionally, a nutritionist who’s more enlightened about the dietary needs of trained individuals will recommend around 0.8 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
That more realistic number comes primarily from the work of Dr. Peter Lemon, who reviewed research about protein intake and athletes’ dietary needs and concluded, in a paper published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism in 1998, that “dietary protein need increases with rigorous physical exercise.” The American College of Sports Medicine backs that recommendation, and it actually comes closer to the M&F-approved minimum recommendation of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. Then again, we wouldn’t argue if you wanted to eat up to 2 grams per pound.
A: That’s a really good question, for one main reason. There’s yet another recommendation the FNB releases: the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), the amount of something you can ingest before experiencing negative results (anything from nausea to toxicity, or poisoning). However, and this is important, there is no UL established for protein. Why? Because, as the FNB reports, “There was insufficient data to provide dose-response relationships to establish a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for total protein or for any of the amino acids.” See that? They had no proof that eating more protein caused any problems. Dr. Lemon said something similar in the same review we quoted above: “Despite the frequently expressed concern about adverse effects of high protein intake, there is no evidence that protein intakes in the range suggested will have adverse effects in healthy individuals.”
Since you asked, though, we’ll tell you why mainstream nutritionists have their boxers in a bunch. First of all, remember that they aren’t talking to you, the muscle & fitness reader; they’re concerned about the majority of Americans who spend much of their days sitting at desks, on subways or in cars, then sitting in front of the TV for the rest of the night. That’s an awful lot of sitting. For those people, consuming excess protein is just like consuming an excess of anything. Protein contains 4 calories per gram. If you eat too many calories, you’re going to gain weight, so a primary concern for nutritionists about so-called excessive protein intake is that it could result in obesity.
Then maybe your next question is something like: Great, so I have to worry about getting fat if I take a week off from training? Not exactly. The more muscle you have, the more protein you’ll use and the more calories you’ll burn overall. Plus, there’s a reason why we tell you to eat lean protein such as chicken and turkey breasts and top sirloin.