What Are the Signs of Consuming Too Much Protein?

  • Medical Reviewer: Mahammad Juber, MD
Medically Reviewed on 12/2/2022

What is protein?

Your body uses well over 10,000 proteins to keep your body running. Signs of consuming too much protein include bone loss, increased cancer risk, kidney stones, and increased risk of heart disease.
Your body uses well over 10,000 proteins to keep your body running. Signs of consuming too much protein include bone loss, increased cancer risk, kidney stones, and increased risk of heart disease.

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
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • 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. 

Bone loss

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. 

Kidney stones

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. 


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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. 

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Medically Reviewed on 12/2/2022

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United States Department of Agriculture: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025."

USDA MyPlate: "Protein Foods."