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High Protein Diet – Are There Risks?

Are There Risks to Eating a Very High Protein Diet?

Dr. Kristie Leong

These days it's popular to eat a diet high in protein. Bodybuilders drink high-protein shakes and eat expensive protein bars to supplement their diet that's high in protein to begin with. Getting enough protein is certainly important, but are some people getting so much that they're putting their health at risk?

How Much Protein Does the Average Person Need?

The typical person needs around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Athletes depending upon their level of activity may need as much as 1.0-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. The reality is most Americans get more protein than this in their diet, sometimes significantly more. The average man consumes about 105 grams of protein daily and women around 65 grams. Still, there are subgroups of people who may not get enough protein in their diet. Vegetarians, elderly women and those who eat a calorie-restricted diet are examples.

Does a High-Protein Diet Have Health Risks?

For certain people, a high-protein diet could pose health risks. Since protein is broken down to urea and excreted by the kidneys, a high-protein diet places additional stress on the kidneys. For the average person, this isn't necessarily a problem, but it may be for people with a family history of kidney disease or those with diabetes or hypertension where the kidneys may already be mildly damaged. Whether or not a diet high in protein over a long period of time contributes to kidney disease is still under investigation.

Many foods high in protein are also high in fat, and they lack the fiber and antioxidants abundant in fiber-rich carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables. People who eat a high-protein diet often don't get enough "good carbs" that help ward off heart disease and some types of cancer.

There's another reason not to go overboard on the protein. The body can't store it. When it gets more protein than it can use, the nitrogen on the amino acids are removed and the carbon skeleton is converted to either glucose or fat. That protein that was supposed to build lean body mass could wind up padding hips, tummies and thighs instead.

Choose Healthy Proteins and Aim for Balance

It's important for everyone to get enough protein, especially athletes, but not everyone requires a protein supplements or high-protein shakes to get adequate amounts. When you're choosing protein sources, lighten up on the red meat, and go with lean protein sources like egg whites, fish and lean turkey instead. Plant proteins like beans and lentils contain fiber and antioxidants you won't get from eating meat.

The Bottom Line? Your body can only use so much protein to build lean body mass. Get enough protein, but choose lean protein and plant-based protein sources.

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2011. Dr. Kristie Leong is a family practice physician and medical writer. Published with permission.