Is it me, or are we becoming a nation of protein fanatics?
Everywhere we go these days, there’s someone shouting about protein. Whether it’s a restaurant labeling the ‘high protein’ options on their menu, or a supplement company trying to sell you their latest protein shake, there’s no escaping it. Welcome to 2016 baby. If you don’t like protein, you don’t belong here.
I do get what all the fuss is about. Protein is awesome. It provides the building blocks for every single cell in your body. It’s essential for maintaining a lean, healthy body composition. Without protein, you wouldn’t be here reading this article.
But just like anything else, you can have too much of a good thing. And, contrary to popular belief, more protein doesn’t always mean better.
A lot of what you read about protein is probably hype that has been created by a very clever fitness industry. They want to trick you into eating as much protein as you can, because then you’re going to buy more of their stuff.
In reality, you probably don’t need as much as you might think. And you certainly don’t need as much as the big corporate giants want you to believe.
Are you eating too much protein? Here are 4 clear signs to look out for.
#1 - You're lacking energy
Low energy is the biggest problem I see with ultra-high protein diets.
There’s a simple explanation for this. Protein is used for growth and repair – it does not provide energy. Carbohydrates and fats do this. So when we cut the latter two macronutrients in favour of more protein, our energy levels can suffer as a result.
It may surprise you to learn that our body can only use between 7 and 8g of amino acids in any given hour1. That’s a MAXIMUM of 168 – 192 grams of protein each day, assuming your body is in a constant state of protein synthesis. Which, of course, it’s not, as I presume you will want to go to sleep at some point.
When we consume more protein than our body can synthesise, our body converts it into glucose; which, incidentally, is the energy source that we get when we consume carbohydrates.
But the conversion pathway of protein into glucose is poor, and puts a lot of pressure on the kidneys and liver. Our body has to work very hard for very little in return, which is why protein is not an efficient energy source.
Protein provides the building blocks for your body, whilst carbohydrates and fats provide the fuel. Consider your body as a sports car, and protein as the mechanic. Once he’s fixed all the scratches and dents, you wouldn’t stuff him into the fuel tank and drive off.
Just like the mechanic, protein is great at fixing things. But it’s also not an efficient fuel source. So once you know how much protein you should be eating, there’s no need to go any higher. Fill the rest of your daily calories up with high quality carbohydrates and fats, which provide the real fuel for your body.
Too much protein = reduced energy levels. If you’ve ever fell for the ultra-high protein advice (and believe me, I have) then you’ll know how that feels.
It’s common that when people start training harder, they are advised to increase their protein intake. If their protein intake was inadequate before, this is good advice. But going too high on the protein will negatively impact your energy levels, thus decreasing your performance both in the gym, and in your day to day lives.
See the next point for more information on this.
#2 - You're not building muscle
Hang on a minute. More protein = more muscle, doesn’t it?
To a point, yes. When we break down our muscle fibres during training, dietary protein is utilised to repair them. But simply eating more protein doesn’t mean faster muscle growth; in fact, it may actually be slowing it down.
This is because protein synthesis, a.k.a the rate at which dietary protein is converted into muscle, maximises at 20 – 30grams of protein2. In other words, adding more protein to your plate will not force your muscles into growing any quicker.
Our body’s potential for protein synthesis is at it’s highest immediately after a workout. This is no secret. It’s why we’re advised to consume a fast acting source of protein after we train.
But consuming too much protein in our post workout window could well be having detrimental effects on your quest to build muscle. This is because protein slows the rate at which food is digested. Therefore, too much protein on your post-workout plate will slow the rate at which amino acids reach your tired muscles.
In short, when we slow down the rate at which our body absorbs amino acids, we compromise our ability to build muscle. And given that protein synthesis maximises at between 20 and 30 grams of protein per meal, it soon becomes clear that you’re probably wasting your time and money eating that extra high protein diet in your quest to build muscle.
Also, if you swapped some of that protein for some extra carbs, think how much more energy you would have to crush your workouts, too?
#3 - You're turned off at the thought
This might seem fairly obvious, but if your body is telling you to stop eating so much protein, you should probably listen. If you feel sick at the thought of another mouthful of protein, it’s a sure fire sign you should start backing off.
This is because our natural satiety mechanisms are particularly sensitive to protein intake. This is a survival adaptation that played a key part in our evolution as a human species3. Protein is key to our survival, so our body lets us know when we need it, and when we don’t.
Conversely, if you’re craving protein, it might well be a sign that you need more. Trust your body on this one, as it’s very clued up when it comes to protein.
#4 - You're eating more than 1.8 grams per kilo of bodyweight
Sorry to go all maths geek on you there. But there is strong evidence that shows that muscle protein synthesis maxes out at 1.8 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight each day4. This is for an elite athlete. For the majority of people, it’s even less.
Hop on the scales for a moment and get your weight in kilograms. Now times that by 1.8 to get your maximum protein intake.
At the time of writing, I’m weighing in at 75KG, which makes my maximum daily protein intake 135 grams. This is assuming I’m an elite athlete, which I’m not. I train 4 – 5 times per week, but I do so as a hobby, not a career. So 1.6 grams per kilo will do me fine, bringing me in at a total daily protein intake of 120 grams.
Repeat these calculations for your own bodyweight and see how the figures stack up. Now work out how much protein you ate yesterday. Are you eating more than you need?
So... how much protein?
Now we know that more protein is not always better, how much protein is enough?
Short answer: it depends. Long answer: it depends on your age, sex, height, weight, activity level and physical goal.
Secret sources of protein
It’s also important to remember that a target of 120grams of protein each day doesn’t mean 120 grams of protein from animal products and protein powder! Everything you eat in a day contributes to your overall protein intake in some way, including some great sources that may surprise you!
Here are some great sources of additional protein that you may already be eating without even knowing it!
100 grams broccoli: 4 grams protein
1 cup of kale: 3 grams protein
A handful almonds: 6 grams protein
1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds: 8 grams protein
1/2 cup green peas: 9 grams protein
All foods contain amino acids, meaning that in some way, they will contribute to your overall daily protein intake. By enjoying a healthy variety of foods in your diet you’ll benefit from a wide range of amino acids to give your body what it needs for growth and repair!
Quality vs Quantity
Before I sign off, remember that all protein is not created equal. Always prioritise whole food sources of protein from the best source you can possibly find. If you use a protein powder, look for one that is raw, responsibly sourced, easy to digest and made with high quality protein.
Do you know someone that eats too much protein? Please share this with them!