The Mystery of How Much Protein is Too Much

drinking proteinAbout four months ago, I wrote a blog post focused on protein intake, testosterone, and the older (male) weight trainer. This morning when driving into work, I was discussing protein intake with my son and wondering if excess protein would turn to fat. He said whatever protein the body didn’t use to build muscle would just be flushed out.

That didn’t sound right to me since I’ve read about detrimental effects of ingesting too much protein which can include weight gain (from fat), intestinal problems, and kidney damage.

That reminded me that on days when my protein intake is particularly heavy, I tend to get constipated (sorry about the TMI), so I guess that intestinal issues makes sense.

I decided to revisit the issue of protein and just how much (approximately) I should be taking. More importantly, should I eat as much protein on rest days as on the days I’m lifting?

That’s a question that’s been asked a lot online. For instance, the forums at BodyBuilding.com had such a conversation over ten years ago and generally concluded that your body needs the same amount of protein on rest days as on work days. The reason is that your muscles are being repaired and growing when you rest, not when you’re actively lifting.

DaveyWaveyFitness.com pretty much confirmed that conclusion just a few years back while also stating that you can have too much protein.

So how much is too much?

That’s the $64,000 question.

Davey Wavey says it depends on how active you are.

But how much protein should you be eating in your diet? As a general rule, you need about .4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you weigh 180 lbs., you’ll probably need 72 grams of protein per day. A normal diet provides more than enough protein for this person. (In fact, most Americans eat 50% more protein than needed.)

But, if you’re active and exercising, you’ll need more. Active people require roughly .6 grams of protein per pound per day. That same 180 pound person would need 108 grams.

Very active people, athletes or people focused on muscle building need even more protein. I, for example, weigh 155 lbs., but live a very active lifestyle; I spend 90 – 120 minutes in the gym, six days a week. In order to maintain my current muscle mass, I need to eat 140 grams of protein each day. For very active people, protein shakes or supplements are necessary; no normal diet provides 140 grams of protein.

That means, if one of your goals is to lose (fat) weight (and that’s me) while gaining muscle, your protein intake will decrease as you get lighter.

deadlift
Photo credit: ironmanmag.com.au

So for me, at about 193 pounds (actually 192.4 as of this morning), if I consider myself “active and exercising,” I should be eating about 115.8 grams per day.

But yesterday, my total was 153 grams and the day before it was at least 109 grams, but I didn’t record dinner, so it was probably a lot more.

Davey Wavey says that’s too much and I’m risking some problems, not the least of which is getting fatter because of it.

Unfortunately, when I Google specifically about protein making you fat, the search results are targeting female athletes such as Does Too Much Protein Turn to Fat and Can Taking Too Much Protein Powder Make You Gain Weight.

The most useful article I found is at Muscle & Fitness and it arrived at an interesting conclusion.

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?

Most of us who lift weigh more than 154 pounds so any results from the norm cited are going to be pretty badly skewed. And I said above that protein intake needs to be adjusted to body weight.

The article continues:

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.

Dwayne Johnson
Photo credit: fearlessmotivation.com

Up to 2 grams per pound? That sounds like what people like Lou Ferrigno would be eating back in the day, or what Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson probably eats for breakfast.

Here’s the kicker:

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.

Sorry about the long block of quoted text, but at least according to one source, there is no official upper limit for protein intake, hence the previous suggestion of eating 1 to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

overeating
Photo credit: forevertwentysomethings.com

Also, as mentioned before, it really depends if you’re talking about a couch potato or a professional athlete or those of us somewhere in-between.

I wrote before about testosterone levels and the older weight trainer but didn’t cover specifically issues of protein absorption. That is, do older folks like me need as much protein, less, or more, than younger bodybuilders or strength trainers?

That information isn’t easy to find, at least in a casual Google search. However, Today’s Dietitian had something:

While physical activity increases protein needs, it also increases the efficiency with which muscles use dietary protein, even in older individuals. One study found that a moderate increase in physical activity among a group of older subjects enhanced the response to protein intake, suggesting that increased exercise may help prevent and treat muscle loss that occurs with aging.

But that doesn’t really answer the question. It only states that physical activity in older people enhanced protein intake, meaning that for those of us who are working out, we have a better ability to absorb protein than our sedentary geriatric counterparts.

Here’s something a little more useful.

Protein that’s evenly distributed throughout the day may be especially important for older, physically active adults, as older individuals experience a resistance to muscle protein synthesis in response to meals containing less protein; in other words, the protein threshold to trigger muscle protein synthesis is higher in older individuals.

So for me, given this conclusion, it makes more sense to ingest protein at regular intervals across any given day rather than to load up for a particular meal.

The following seems to really zero in on my question, though.

Since added protein intake is critical for athletes and physically active people, should they consume a high-protein diet? Instead of recommending protein as grams per kilogram of body weight, the Institute of Medicine established an acceptable macronutrient distribution range for protein at 10% to 35% of total calories for adults older than 18.

seniors eatingOf course, that’s not just for older adults, it’s just for adults, but it does yield a different perspective on the matter.

So how do you calculate protein intake as a percentage of total calories. For instance, eating 28 grams of cashews means a total intake of 170 calories but that’s only 8 grams of protein along with 6 grams of carbs, 14 grams of fat, and 100 grams of sodium. In other words, any food I take specifically for the protein isn’t pure protein. Is there a formula for figuring this thing out?

As you can tell, math in not one of my prominent skill sets.

Now this part seems complicated.

However, increased dietary protein can result in elevated urinary calcium, which may contribute to bone loss and the subsequent development of osteopenia and osteoporosis. Yet the role protein plays in bone health is complex. A recent systematic review found that the evidence was inconclusive regarding a significant relationship (either positive or negative) between protein intake and bone health, but that protein likely provided a small benefit to bone health. Moreover, evidence shows an association between dietary protein and increased peak bone mass in both young and older adults.

So on the one hand, too much protein can contribute to bone loss and “the subsequent development of osteopenia and osteoporosis,” which is definitely bad news for older people, but on the other hand, “evidence shows an association between dietary protein and increased peak bone mass in both young and older adults.”

So too much protein is potentially bad for bone density but we still need protein to increase bone density.

The article’s conclusion section basically said that protein intake guidelines must be tailored for the individual based on a wide variety of criteria, which includes age. However, one of the protein specific guidelines at the end of the paper said that “active, older individuals boost protein intake, as some may require more to help preserve muscle mass.”

That’s probably directed at older people who are exercising and who are also unaware of their increased need for protein intake, not necessarily those of us who have already adjusted our diets with protein and gaining muscle in mind.

I guess the only bottom line I can reach right now is that protein is good for the active older person, but too much can be bad. How much is too much for us remains to be seen. I don’t want to take too little for the sake of losing fat and not gain muscle and thus strength. After all, when doing a progressive overload routine where the weight I lift is increased week over week, I need to be building muscle so I can actually lift those weights.

Conversely, I don’t want to eat too much protein, potentially resulting in bone loss, not to mention the other “bad things” that excess protein can cause.

I still feel like I should err on at least slightly overdoing the protein with an eye on promoting muscle gain rather than risk not attaining the full amount of muscle mass possible for lack of “fuel”. As long as I run a calorie deficit in general, I should still lose (fat) weight while (hopefully) gaining muscle mass/weight.

Stephen Amell gymnastics
Photo credit: smoakandarrow.tumblr.com

I’ve mentioned recently that in the three plus weeks I’ve been doing strength training, I’ve been able to increase my working weights for the most part, and pretty significantly, so something’s working.

I haven’t massed out to become the Incredible Hulk, but then strength training isn’t the mass builder that bodybuilding routines often produce. I mean look at guys like Stephen Amell who plays Oliver Queen on the popular television series Arrow. He trains heavily and does many of his own stunts, but he’s built for practical athletic gymnastics, strength, and stamina, not for posing on a stage.

The goal is to get stronger, not necessarily to sculpt ourselves into some sort of bodybuilding glory.

The mystery of protein and the older weightlifter continues.

Oh, the featured image at the top of the page represents a protein structure. I thought it looked pretty cool.

If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.

Chinese Proverb

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4 thoughts on “The Mystery of How Much Protein is Too Much

  1. Most “things” you hear about protein are pure myth. Esp that you pee the excess out or it turns to fat. Anything will be stored as fat if you are in a caloric surplus! Carbs, fat, protein. Anything more than 1g per pound is likely just overkill unless you are using drugs. Higher protein intake becomes more important when you are dieting and calories are scarce, to retain lean mass. Also, protein timing is really irrelevant. As well as dosing. It’s called “broscience”. Hit your total for the day and you are good to go.

    Like

    1. Greetings, sham,

      The protein timing thing seems to be more a matter of age and how well older folks absorb protein. It’s probably a non-event for people below age 60 or so.

      Like

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