What is protein?
Many energy bars and health shakes advertise how much protein they contain like it's the only thing you ever need. How important can it be, and what does it mean to have too much protein?
Protein is one of the macronutrients in food and is found everywhere in your body. Your body uses protein in your muscles, bones, and other tissues to power vital chemical reactions.
Your body uses well over 10,000 proteins to keep your body running. More than twenty amino acids make up each protein, nine of which must come from food because your body can't make them.
How much protein do you need?
The answer isn't straightforward. Your nutrient intake depends on your weight, age, size, sex, and activity levels. You may also alter your protein intake depending on your health goals.
There are a few ways to determine how much protein you need; some methods have different results. Talk with your doctor for the best recommendations for your health.
The 1-ounce equivalent method
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a measurement called "1-ounce-equivalent." A 1-ounce equivalent of protein is equal to an ounce of meat, poultry, or fish; an egg, a quarter-cup of beans, or a half-ounce of nuts.
The average adult needs 5 to 7 ounce-equivalents of protein every day. The ounce-equivalent measurement lets you skip the math and say, "I had three eggs for breakfast and a 4-ounce steak for dinner, so I've had all my protein today."
The other way to watch your protein is to count grams. A 1-ounce-equivalent has about 7 grams of protein, so the average adult needs between 35 and 50 grams of protein every day.
The grams per pound method
Another way to estimate how much protein you need is a simple formula: 3.5 grams per 10 pounds of your body weight. So, a 160-pound adult would need around 56 grams of protein.
This formula accounts for your current weight and gives you a starting point if you're trying to cut back on calories.
The calorie-counting method
A statistic that appears regularly is that 10% to 35% of your daily calories should come from protein. Anything more than 35% can cause problems, but 35% or lower may be too much for some people.
A gram of protein has about 4 calories. If your diet includes around 2,000 calories, 50 to 192 grams of protein would be acceptable according to this method.
Many health calculators and dietary apps use these percentages. Eating using those percentages can have way more protein than the USDA-recommended amount, so talk with your doctor before diving in.
Just a few protein foods
Protein-packed foods come in many varieties. Animal sources are the most common, but plenty of plant proteins exist.
Plant proteins include grains, soy products, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils. Animal protein sources include:
- Meats like beef and pork
- Some dairy products
Processed meats like hot dogs, lunch meats, and sausages have protein, but they are often worse for you than unprocessed fresh or frozen protein foods.
Does the source of protein matter?
Over the last several years, it's become clear that the source of protein matters. You must consider the whole protein package.
When you're eating protein, you can choose to eat something with healthy or unhealthy nutrients.
The good protein packages
Good protein packages contain significant protein and several other vital nutrients. Besides being a good source of protein, seafood has Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D.
Lentils, beans, and other plant proteins fall into the vegetable and protein groups. Lentils, beans, and other plant proteins are excellent sources of vegetable nutrients like fiber.
The bad protein packages
Many red meats and processed meats are considered bad protein packages. They're incredibly rich in protein but also have high levels of saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium.
Signs of too much protein
As with anything, too much protein can be harmful.
Too much protein can, directly and indirectly, harm your health. The most direct problems are from the metabolic burden that too much protein imposes.
High-protein diets raise the amount of acid in your body fluids, which causes your kidneys to work harder and your bones to reabsorb calcium. The result is bone loss.
There typically aren't apparent symptoms of bone loss. Some symptoms include pain or bone fragility.
To process the excess protein, your kidneys create more renal acid. Along with the other chemicals created by the process, you may get kidney stones.
Kidney stones can cause pain as they move from your kidneys. They block urine flow and cause pain in your sides, abdomen, or groin area.
Increased cancer risks
High-protein diets are linked to an increased risk of cancer. Diet has a massive effect on breast, bowel, and prostate cancers.
Bad protein packages seem to be the culprit. Diets heavy in red or processed meat consistently raise the risk of colorectal cancer.
Coronary heart disease
Like the increased cancer risks, heart disease is more common with high-protein diets due to higher levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients in a bad protein package.
Symptoms of coronary heart disease vary between people. A common symptom is chest pain, but it can lead to heart attacks or cardiac arrest if not managed.
How to avoid eating too much protein
The best way to prevent the consequences of eating too much protein is to get your protein from healthier sources like seafood and plants. Replace red meat with poultry or plant-based meat substitutes to reduce the level of saturated fats and cholesterol.
Spread your protein intake throughout your meals and include plenty of carbs like fiber and unsaturated fats for energy. If your protein intake is too high, replace some with fiber-rich veggies.
Protein: a hidden danger?
Protein is vital to your health, but too much of the wrong proteins can do more harm than good. Stick to a well-balanced diet with enough protein to avoid complications.
- Kids With Autism Face Higher Odds of Vision Issues, But Many Don't Get Screened
- Mental Health Woes Double Women's Odds for Cervical Cancer
- Million-Person Study Finds Genes Common to Many Addiction Disorders
- Too Much Social Media Could Raise Risk for Eating Disorders
- Weaker Bones, Weakening Brain? Study Makes the Connection
- More Health News »
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Kidney Stones."
Harvard Health Publishing: "When it comes to protein, how much is too much?"
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Protein."
ISRN Nutrition: "Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "What Is Coronary Heart Disease?"
UC Davis Department of Nutrition: "Nutrition & Health Info Sheets for Health Professionals - Protein Requirements."
University of Florida: "BEANS, PEAS, AND LENTILS: HEALTH BENEFITS."
United States Department of Agriculture: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025."
USDA MyPlate: "Protein Foods."
Top What Are the Signs of Consuming Too Much Protein Related Articles
Can You Lose Weight By Just Eating Protein?Protein does not cause weight loss. But a diet high in protein will keep you from feeling hungry for longer.
Diet and Nutrition: Protein Sources That Aren’t MeatPack your pantry with these high-protein beans, seeds, nuts, and grains.
Signs You're Not Getting Enough ProteinAre you getting enough protein in your diet? Learn to spot the warning signs of protein deficiency, who is the most at risk, and when you need more protein.
Healthy Eating: Veggies That Pack in the ProteinWhen you think protein, you probably think meat, eggs, and maybe dairy. But veggies have plenty of protein, too. Find out more from WebMD about which ones are the best sources.
High Protein Diets: Good or Bad?Can a high protein diet help you lose weight fast and help you feel full? High-protein diets are popular, but is there a down side to high protein foods?
Is Pea Protein Good for You, and Is It Healthier Than Soy?In general, pea and soy proteins are very similar products. They’re both derived from plants and contain plant-based amino acids.
Is Plant Protein Better Than Meat Protein?By choosing plant proteins rather than meat proteins, you can expect many health benefits like low cancer risk and low diabetes risk.
Is Plant Protein Good or Bad for Kidneys?Eating less meat and more vegetables has many health benefits. Plant protein may help lower your risk of kidney disease.
Protein QuizProtein is a staple in our diets, but what happens if we get too much? Take this quiz to find out the truth about protein and what's behind the high-protein diet craze!
What Does it Mean to Have Protein in Your Urine?Protein in your urine, or proteinuria, is a sign that your kidneys are damaged and not working as well as they should.
What Happens When You Eat Too Much Protein?Our body uses protein to build the muscles and organs, deliver oxygen to the cells, and keep the immune system working. Most people should get at least 10-15% of their daily calories from protein.
Which Fruits Have the Highest Protein?The recommended daily allowance of protein for adults is 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight. The fruits that have the highest protein content include avocados and guava.
Why Is Whey Protein Harmful?While whey protein is typically safe for most people, a higher dose can cause certain side effects. Check out the center below for more medical references on whey protein, including multimedia (slideshows, images, and quizzes), related disease conditions, treatment and diagnosis, medications, and prevention or wellness.