Protein. Protein. Protein. The obsession with this word in the fitness world is real. I see it going beyond fitness now, with its importance for the general population being advocated as well. It isn’t uncommon now for you to see a 40 something housewife or 60 something senior having protein shakes for ‘better health’.
I’m glad to see this shift. For the longest time, there were too many myths about protein (mostly advocated by family doctors and the like) and about how dangerous its consumption can be if you’re not an athlete or gym goer. Well, now that those myths are busted, I see an obsession with protein. Everybody wants protein shakes, protein bars, protein chips and anything that claims to have the magic P in it.
We’re now part of a protein loving world that wants as much of it as it can get. However, this leads to the questions - How much protein do you really need?.. And is too much protein bad for you?
It’s time to get the answers.
1. A Little About Protein.. & Its Many Benefits
Okay, I know we’ve read and been told a lot about protein but here’s a little revision.
Protein is a macronutrient that is the building block of life and every living cell uses it for structural and functional processes. It supports all healthy body function and it is essential to building muscle mass. Protein provides the building block for muscle and connective tissue. If you’re engaging in physical exercise, your body is breaking down muscle tissue to force it to adapt to and build bigger and stronger lean body mass.
Therefore, achieving a specific protein intake each day is essential for health, fitness and weight loss goals.
To summarise, some of the great things protein does is -
- Important for a healthy immune system
- Helps build muscle mass
- Aids fat loss by increasing energy expenditure & contributing to satiety
- Helps achieve ideal body composition (ie. low body fat with ample muscle)
- Needed for post-exercise recovery
2. Now That We Understand Its Importance, How Much Protein Do We Really Need?
Yes, protein is quite amazing but thanks to science and a bunch of studies, we kind of know how much of it is actually required by our bodies.
So as per most studies, I can safely say that this is the ideal daily protein requirement of individuals based on their lifestyle/activity level:
- Normal individuals (ie. Mostly sedentary, not engaging in physical activity): 0.8-1 g of protein per kg of body weight
- Active individuals (ie. Active, engaging in physical activity): 1.5-2 g of protein per kg of body weight (depending on how strenuous the activity is)
So, now most of us know that the aforementioned is ideal. However, some of us choose to still consume more than that (thinking protein is the magic nutrient which if consumed more will benefit more) or some of us refrain from even hitting the ideal requirement, out of fears stemming from popular beliefs (myths) about high protein consumption.
3. Debunking Some Of The Popular Myths Surrounding Excess Protein
I have come across two major myths that have created fear among people regarding high protein intake. It’s time to debunk them.
1. Excess protein causes kidney damage
For those who don’t know, the kidneys are like the body’s water filter. They help the body get rid of unneeded substances. They play an important role is metabolising and excreting nitrogen byproduct from protein digestion but that does not mean that having extra protein overtaxes one’s kidneys.
The reason this myth has perpetuated is because research has shown that excess protein has increased how hard the kidneys work BUT this is only in the case of - individuals with chronic kidney disease or impaired kidney function.
Multiple studies show that healthy individuals will NOT develop kidney damage from increased protein consumption.
In fact, researchers have found that the kidney function changes with increased protein intake - kidneys hyper-filtrate, which means they adapt to the higher protein intake in order to function better ie. They do a better job of metabolizing protein.
2. Extra protein weakens bones/causes osteoporosis
This myth stems from the belief that protein increases the body’s acidity level - which causes the calcium in our bones to leach out to counteract it.
The truth is that - Protein is NOT the culprit, high acidity levels weaken the bones.
In fact, protein in the diet has the opposite effect - it strengthens bones and aids calcium absorption.
4. What Does Too Much Protein Really Do & Is It Bad For You?
Now that I’ve debunked the myths, it’s time to throw light on the reality of too much protein consumption.
If I have to summarise it, I’ll probably put it as follows - Excess protein intake is essentially harmless, but it is also useless.
By excess protein intake, I am referring to a protein intake of over 1.5-2 g per kg of body weight for active individuals.
Barring people who are extremely active (professional sports players or competitive bodybuilders), there is NO need to consume more than 2 g per kg unless you love protein rich foods for their taste or you’re on a very high calorie diet and eating a lot of food to put on weight.
If you eat more protein than this requirement, the protein is broken down and used for energy by the body. What this essentially means is - excess protein is treated like carbohydrates by the body.
Why would you want to hog on protein rich foods (which are more expensive compared to carbs and mostly not as good tasting) which are not even carrying out the functions of protein? You’d much rather indulge in eating carbs and fulfill your cravings for carb-y foods, if you have calories to spare.
Another point is - people consuming excess protein often do so at the cost of other food groups, which causes deficiencies of other nutrients in the body.
Additionally, we know that many of our protein sources are often processed - be it meat or soy or protein shakes. In that case, consuming an excess just increases your processed food intake - which is detrimental to good health.
Hence, I like to think of extra protein as a waste, albeit harmless.
Conclusion - Protein Is HIGHLY Important But Going Overboard With Its Intake Is Unnecessary
To conclude, I’d say - you MUST definitely hit your daily protein requirement, ranging between 0.8-2 g per kg of body weight, as per your activity level. It is of prime importance that you consume adequate protein for all of its extraordinary benefits.
(However, if you have kidney disease, you must follow your doctor’s advice and limit the intake).
But I’d advise you against consuming more than the above mentioned requirement as it doesn’t provide the same benefits then. You’d much rather focus on having a wholesome and well-rounded diet that includes all the essential nutrients that the body requires for good health.
Jai Virdi is a fitness consultant and coach based in Mumbai. He is an advocate of holistic wellness and believes in constant self-development. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org orInstagram.