What is protein?
Protein is an essential nutrient that we obtain from our diet - beef, eggs, lentils and fish are just some of the many foods that provide us with our daily protein intake. When we consume these things the body breaks them down into amino acids which, from structural to hormonal, have a variety of roles within the body.
What does protein do?
Be it a vegetarian or meat-based source, it is so important to consume a regular amount of protein because this nutrient has an important part to play in many bodily functions:
- Helps repair muscles that may have been damaged during exercise
- Supports the immune system
- Promotes bone health
- Encourages hormone production
- Helps keep skin, hair and nails healthy.
Using protein to control body weight
Those of us who frequent the gym will be used to seeing protein bars and shakes scattered around the equipment. Part of this is to do with the fact that, when consumed alongside activities such as weight lifting and resistance training, protein can increase muscle growth. However, it is also used to control appetite when people want to lose weight – something that tends to go hand in hand with exercising. Not only that though, marketing campaigns suggest that protein can boost energy, improve recovery and aid physical performance so you can see why it is frequently used by the fitness fanatics amongst us.
How much protein should I be eating?
It is recommended that adults eat 0.75g of protein for each kg they weigh so if you weigh 70kg (11 stone) you need to be eating around 52.5g of protein a day. On average that works out at about 55g of protein for men and 45g for women daily.
Risks associated with taking too much protein
As the number of people using protein supplements grows, so too has the research surrounding these popular products. This work seems to suggest that a high protein intake has a less than favourable impact on various aspects of your health.
1) Nutrient deficiencies
If you are consuming protein supplements instead of regular meals it is very likely that you’ll become deficient in other nutrients that the body needs. That’s because unlike a vegetable stir fry or a fruit salad that we’d usually consume for lunch or dinner, protein shakes and bars are lacking in minerals and vitamins. A lack of vitamin C could lead to more colds and flus as this supports the immune system whilst a lack of magnesium has been associated with a wide range of complaints from muscle cramps to headaches and migraines.
2) Digestive problems
If you are on a high protein diet and are not getting enough nutrients it can also lead to digestive problems like constipation. Fibre for example, encourages healthy bowel movements and in doing so it keeps the likes of bloating and constipation at bay. However, fibre is found in fruit, vegetables and grains and so a focus on protein means that levels of this nutrient can decline.
Not only that though, some people experience difficulty digesting protein meaning that symptoms such as diarrhoea, stomach cramps and flatulence are likely to crop up.
Gout is a form of arthritis where high levels of uric acid crystallise around the joints causing severe pain and inflammation. From dehydration to menopause, the levels of uric acid in the body can increase for a variety of reasons however, protein supplements also have a part to play.
Some protein supplements are high in purines, a chemical compound that can raise the levels of uric acid in the blood. As a result, a high protein diet (including supplements and foods naturally high in this nutrient) can directly contribute to gout.
4) Kidney disease
If you have an existing kidney problem it would be unwise to try protein supplements as research suggests that this could cause further damage.1
Research has shown that dehydration steadily gets worse the more protein you consume. This applied to athletes and non-athletes alike so if you want to eat a high protein diet it looks like you’ll have to up your water intake!2
6) Bad breath
A high protein, low carb diet can result in bad breath. When your body has used up all the carbs it has stored away it begins to burn fat for energy and, although it might seem a little strange, this is what leads to smelly breath.
7) Disruption to the menstrual cycle
If you continue on a high protein diet for a long period of time the body will eventually use up all its stores of fat which puts it into a state of stress. As a result, it begins to focus on immediate survival rather than reproduction – after all, if there is no steady food source it doesn’t make sense to bring a baby into the world.
Top tips for eating a healthy amount of protein
So, a high protein diet can negatively impact health in a number of different ways meaning it’s important you approach any changes to what you eat and drink with caution. Here are a few tips to help you out:
- Our intake of protein tends to be at dinner time when we eat a large quantity of meat however, if you spread your consumption throughout the day it could prevent you from eating too much. For a good source of both protein and fibre why not add a little yogurt to our orange and vanilla granola?
- You don’t have to rely on supplements to get a high protein intake as there are many natural, healthy foods that contain the nutrient as well. For some ideas have a look at our Nutritionist Emma’s blog '8 healthy sources of protein'
- If you are consuming protein shakes and bars remember to do it as part of a varied diet with lots of fresh produce. This will ensure you get enough vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy
- Many protein supplements are made with artificial ingredients and sweeteners so if you do want to use these to “bulk up” or “slim down”, try going for a more natural variety.
- Rather than automatically turning to your usual protein shake after exercising, you may find it beneficial to try our Balance Mineral Drink instead. This contains an array of vitamins and minerals including vitamin D and magnesium so helps to replace nutrients that may have been lost through exercise. Also, it has a refreshing, natural strawberry flavour so is super tasty too!
- Finally, don’t be tempted to take more protein than is recommended – the guidelines, as we have seen, are there for a reason!