Protein might star in the fitness-nutrition scene, but could you be consuming too much?

Protein is an essential ingredient for a healthy life – it is the building block of bones and muscle, after all.

However, in recent years, Instagram influencers and fitspo stars have managed to elevate protein to an almost godlike status.

It’s hard not to be affected by this craze, and you’d be forgiven for loading up on protein shakes post-workout, and snacking on protein balls between meals, thinking it’s 100% the right thing to do – always.

According to research done by Mintel, young men are the group who use sports nutrition products the most – but they’re not alone. Only 7% of women aged 16-24 used protein powders in 2015, a figure that had exploded to 18% by 2017. Interestingly, 63% of these consumers admitted it was difficult to tell whether a sports nutrition product was actually benefiting them.

Nowadays, it’s not just shakes, smoothies and bliss balls getting the protein treatment – everything from Mars Bars to coffee brands are bringing out special protein-enriched products.

Sometimes, it seems like the craze is getting a little bit excessive, so we thought it was high time we had a look at the facts.

How much protein do you actually need, and what happens when you have too much?

Why you need protein

First thing’s first, it’s worth taking a look at why we actually need protein in our diet. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, “protein is essential for growth and repair of the body and maintenance of good health”, and it also helps provide your body with energy.

Protein is made up of amino acids, which help with cell growth and keeping your body functioning properly. People who exercise regularly may need to up their intake to help repair the tears in muscle fibres caused by working out – but this additional ‘need’ can often get over-egged.

Healthspan medical director Dr Sarah Brewer explains: “If you are following an intense training or body-building program, you almost certainly need more than the average amount of protein. This is because muscle cells that run out of glucose or fatty acids to burn as fuel during prolonged exercise will resort to breaking down and burning body proteins to keep going. This can result in loss of muscle bulk which may be the exact opposite of what you want to achieve.”

How much protein you should be having?

The British Nutrition Foundation’s advice is 0.75g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight a day for adults. This means that if you weigh 60kg, times this by 0.75 and you’ll find out you need 45g of protein a day.

These requirements can generally increase if you’re pregnant, lactating or exercising intensely. “An athlete who is training for at least two hours per day may be advised to obtain between 1.2 and 1.8g protein per kilogram of body weight per day, depending on the intensity of exercise, to maximise muscle protein synthesis,” Brewer says.

Signs you’re consuming too much protein

Not all of us are tracking the exact amount of protein we’re eating in grams, so what are the signs that you might be eating too much? Brewer says these are some of the possible side effects: Indigestion, bloating, dehydration, nausea, fatigue, headaches, diarrhoea, and weight gain from the excessive calories.

She also adds: “If you have reduced liver or kidney function, you may be advised to cut back on protein intake.”

It’s worth noting that eating too much protein comes with its dangers, too. Brewer cites a study from the University of Southern California, which links high levels of animal protein in people aged between 50-65 with a four-fold increase in the risk of death from cancer. She says: “The researchers defined a ‘high protein diet’ as one that generated 20% of total calorific intake from protein and recommended that an average middle-aged person only consume about 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.”

Interestingly, the study reported that the associations between high protein intake and cancer are “either abolished or attenuated if the proteins were plant derived”.

This doesn’t mean that protein alone was causing cancer, of course, but it’s always useful to remember that, as with calories, all proteins are not created equal. It’s important to think of the overall nutritional value of food choices, within a balanced and varied diet.

- Press Association

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