If your personal trainer, athletic coach, or dietitian has ever preached to you about the merits of protein in your diet, consider yourself to be in good hands. Most athletes, whether they consider themselves to be recreational, competitive, professional, or even Olympic hopefuls, do have a unique set of requirements when it comes to consuming sufficient protein to meet their muscular/endurance demands. However, the story is far from complete if this is the only macronutrient receiving any attention as you plan your daily or weekly meals.
While it is true that proteins contain amino acids, the building blocks of muscular tissue, too much of a good thing is not always ideal…especially when it comes at the cost of under-consuming other vital components of a healthy diet. In our weight-conscious modern society, many individuals view grains as the enemy, and fats even more so. However, understanding the delicate balance between all 3 of these macronutrients will help elucidate the need to fuel your physique with more than just lean beef, chicken breasts, salmon, and protein powder!
Just what are the dangers that lurk in that excessive mountain of protein on your plate? According to Wayne Campbell, professor of Nutrition Science at Purdue University, “Americans consume an adequate amount of protein in their diets” already. So, why the push for more, and what harm can there really be? The Institute of Medicine has set guidelines for a recommended daily intake of protein for adult males at 56 grams, while adult females need only 46 grams of lean protein. If you have ever carefully read a restaurant menu, you may notice that, for example, an 8-ounce steak is often featured as standard fare. While this may sound sumptuous for a carnivore, this portion contains a whopping 70 grams of protein, or significantly more than a day’s supply, in a single meal!
What are some of the downfalls of excess protein consumption? It can lead to dehydration, an athlete’s worst performance nightmare. A study conducted at the University of Connecticut demonstrated that athletes who consumed large doses of protein (up to 4x the recommended daily amount) produced urine samples that were strongly indicative of a dehydrated state, even if the subjects did not perceive themselves to be overly thirsty. Furthermore, excess protein consumption means the body has an excess of nitrogen to expel, which may cause undue strain upon the kidneys.
While it is true that stronger muscles do a superior job of building and protecting our bones, excessive amounts of protein consumption can lead to an increased loss of calcium through urination. Since adequate calcium supplies are required for a healthy body to build strong bones, overconsumption of protein may eventually lead to osteoporosis. Likewise, if your protein choices are fatty, sodium laden, or overly processed, they may end up doing more harm than good. Focusing on lean meats and dairy products, and including many more plant-based protein sources such as beans and legumes, will facilitate a balanced intake. Whole grains and “good” fat sources round out the equation, since protein itself cannot be a magical fuel source in and of itself, for any athletic endeavor.
If the fear of weight gain has had you avoiding any other macronutrient food group, consider this: 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories. If a meal plan that is heavily focused on protein consumption is not coupled with an exercise level to compensate for these extra calories, the body is at risk of storing the excess as fat. Once again, by balancing the amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats consumed with the appropriate level of exercise, you can create a healthy, strong, and muscular physique while still remaining lean and fit.