When the topic of nutrition comes up – especially for people who regularly exercise – the conversation will inevitably focus on protein. We’re always being told to eat fewer carbs and more meat, fish, nuts and other sources of protein. We’re encouraged to consume the nutrient before and after the gym, and are even being sold it in a variety of powders, bars and shakes for building muscle.
But how much of this is actually necessary, and how much is just hearsay and health fads? When it comes to your diet, there’s often a lot of misinformation floating around; some of it spread by companies that want you to buy more of their products. So should you be eating lots of protein, or is that a myth?
The truth is that you definitely need good sources of protein in your diet – it’s the building block of the body, meaning you need it to grow and repair damage – but probably not as much as you’re currently eating. In fact, some of us could be exposing ourselves to health problems by consuming too much of it.
In this guide, we’ll take you through the myths and realities of protein, and help you understand exactly how much of this vital nutrient you should have in your diet; as well as where you should be getting it from.
Am I eating too much protein?
There’s an easy way to work out how much protein you should be including in your diet each day. Most countries have a recommended daily allowance (RDA) of some sort for the nutrient, and in the UK this is 0.75g of protein for every kilogram you weigh. For example, if you weigh 80kg (about 12.5 stone), you should be eating 60g of protein each day.
However, this is just the amount the average person should be eating. What about if you exercise regularly, or want a more lean physique; is it healthy to be eating more than the RDA? Well, it’s certainly not unhealthy. It’s thought that up to twice the RDA is a safe amount of protein to consume each day.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best thing for your body, though. It’s also not all that helpful for things like exercise. While the prevailing wisdom is that you should eat plenty of protein to build muscle, in actuality that won’t be doing much to help at all.
Your body is excellent at preserving protein when it comes to heavy exercising, and consuming more will just lead to it being broken down into ammonia and urea then excreted in your urine. This isn’t that bad in isolated incidents, but over a long period of time it can put a lot of strain on your kidneys and cause problems in later life.
When you exercise, you don’t specifically need protein; you simply need energy. Your body burns calories, and if it has nothing to burn then it will have to resort to your fat stores and eventually will even break down your muscles.
Talking to the BBC, nutritionist Dr Helen Crawley said: “There is certainly no benefit to having very high protein intakes, and individuals who require high energy intakes for whatever reason should consider how to increase energy intake without increasing protein intakes excessively.”
Where should I get my protein from?
There’s another reason why eating too much protein can be bad for you. Typically, when you think of high-protein foods, what do you picture? Unless you’re a vegan, you’re most likely thinking of meat – specifically red meat – or dairy. While these foods are high in protein, they have other factors that make them bad for you in high amounts.
Red meat, for example, contains a lot of iron. Eating high amounts of this can cause heart problems, and a recent study has found that high-protein diets can result in a 49 per cent greater risk of heart failure. Red meat – especially when it’s processed, like bacon – has also been linked to everything from diabetes to colon cancer. Animal protein is often high in fat as well, and can raise your cholesterol.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should cut down on protein, just that you should eat less meat. Instead, vary your protein sources to make sure you’re getting a healthy, balanced diet. As well as eating more white meat and fish, you should incorporate more eggs, beans, pulses and foods like tofu into your diet.
These will help you get the right amount of protein in your daily food without the unpleasant side-effects of too much red meat. But remember not to stuff yourself with pure protein; you need carbs and fat to maintain a balanced, nutritious diet.