Our culture is obsessed with protein. Sure, it’s a major macronutrient and needed for health. High-protein diets are also linked to weight loss, muscle strength, and energy. What harm can it do? In some cases, too much protein can actually cause weight gain. Excess protein can also mess with your organs. Yet, high-protein diets have become all the rage. Just take a look at protein shakes, they’re everywhere. Plus, protein has a strong reputation with fitness, which only fuels the confusion. It’s all about the bigger picture. Like all nutrients, protein doesn’t act on its own. Other areas of your diet need to be considered, too. Here’s the lowdown on excess protein and what can happen.
The Basics Of Protein
Science looks at protein as the “building blocks” of life. Each and every cell needs it, making it a major macronutrient along with fat and carbohydrate. The recommended intake is 10 to 35 percent of your caloric needs. It depends on factors like age, health status, and level of physical activity. Most Americans get about 16 percent.1 Animal sources include meat, including seafood and poultry. Eggs and low-fat dairy are also excellent sources. Plant alternatives include whole grains, tofu, beans, nuts, and peanut butter.2
Protein is needed for growth, development, and building muscle.3 The more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn. This is because muscle uses up more calories than fat – even at rest.4 It explains why high-protein diet are linked to weight loss. However, in some cases, the opposite can happen.
How Excess Protein Can Lead To Weight Gain
1. Protein Contains Saturated Fat
Not all protein sources are equal. It’s important to look at the whole package, and not just the protein content. The level of saturated fat might work against you. Let’s look at beef, for instance. A 6-ounce broiled potterhouse steak contains 40 grams of protein. It’s also a complete source of essential amino acids, making it seem like a stellar choice. But it also comes with a whopping 12 grams of saturated fat. That’s not even including sauces, sides, and other food throughout the day.5 Another example is poultry. One roasted chicken wing with skin has 4.23 grams of saturated fat.6 Meanwhile, that same wing without skin only has 0.475 grams.7
In high amounts, saturated fat increases the risk for weight gain, high cholesterol, and heart disease. They should be avoided or limited to no more than 10 percent of your caloric intake. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 16 to 22 grams a day.8 It’s pretty easy to reach those numbers – just take a look at that steak. If a high-protein diet focuses on red meat, weight gain is likely. Instead, opt for skinless poultry or fish. Both are awesome sources of protein and have little to no saturated fat. In fact, fish has healthier fats called omega-3’s.9
2. Protein Is High In Calories
Compared to plant sources, meat is also high in calories. You can thank the fat content! Again, look at the whole package. It doesn’t matter that meat is high in protein. According to a study in The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), calories have a bigger impact. The experiment assigned different diets to three groups: low protein (5 percent), normal protein (15 percent), and high protein (25 percent). Despite these differences, everyone was fed 1,000 extra calories.
Everyone gained weight. And while the high-protein group gained the least amount, they still stored some calories as fat. These finding show that calories are more influential, regardless of protein intake.10 To boost your protein intake, skip the high-calorie red meat. No amount of protein in these sources will make up for the calories.
3. Protein Gives Poor Energy Balance
Protein is extremely filling, making it easy to forget about fat and carbohydrate. The result is poor energy balance, a factor that promotes weight gain. Calories and weight are controlled by orexin/hypocretin neurons. They can sense macronutrient balance, which is also when they work their best. When macronutrient intake is not balanced, their activity decreases, leading to weight.11
The takeaway? Your body needs all three macronutrients to stay healthy. Excessive protein can disrupt the balance and alter weight-controlling hormones. Like all good things, more isn’t always better. There’s a lot of controversy with high-protein diets, nor is there a set “healthy” value. Talk to your doctor to see what works for you.
|↑1, ↑9||How much protein do you need everyday? Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School.|
|↑2, ↑4||Muscle cells vs. fat cells. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑3||How much protein do you need everyday?Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School.|
|↑5||Protein. Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health.|
|↑6, ↑7||Basic Report: 05103, Chicken, broilers or fryers, wing, meat and skin, cooked, roasted. United States Department of Agriculture.|
|↑8||Facts about saturated fat. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑10||Bray, George A., Steven R. Smith, Lilian de Jonge, Hui Xie, Jennifer Rood, Corby K. Martin, Marlene Most, Courtney Brock, Susan Mancuso, and Leanne M. Redman. “Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial.” Jama 307, no. 1 (2012): 47-55.|
|↑11||Karnani, Mahesh M., John Apergis-Schoute, Antoine Adamantidis, Lise T. Jensen, Luis de Lecea, Lars Fugger, and Denis Burdakov. “Activation of central orexin/hypocretin neurons by dietary amino acids.” Neuron 72, no. 4 (2011): 616-629.|