Yes, It’s Possible To Eat Too Much Protein—Here Are The Telltale Signs

experts share how to calculate your ideal protein intake and signs of too much protein in your diet
How To Calculate Your Optimal Protein Intake Alexander Spatari - Getty Images

Have you ever filled your Chipotle bowl to the brim with extra carnitas and thought, Wait, how much protein is too much? If so, you're not alone. There's a lot of hype on social media these days about how much protein you need and whether or not there's such thing as having too much in your diet. But is there really a magic number? And what does it mean for your meal prep?

“Protein is an important nutrient for your immune system, building structures like muscles, bones, and tendons, and also for keeping you full and satisfied throughout the day,” says dietitian Lindsay Malone, RD. So, even if you’re not a bodybuilder who slams protein shakes daily, you still have to eat protein to make and repair your bodily tissues (and to jazz up your burrito bowl, of course).

Whether you're starting a new fitness routine, want to improve your overall diet plan, or you're simply curious about whether or not you’re overeating protein, there are several ways to tell if you had too much. Here's how to calculate your ideal protein intake and signs you may have gone overboard, according to dietitians.

Meet the experts: Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, is a registered dietitian and owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City. Kate Regan, RDN, is the owner of Wholesome Chick Nutrition. Jenna Werner, RD, is the founder of Happy Strong Healthy. Lindsay Malone, RD, is a private practice dietitian and professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University. Kelly Jones, RD, is a performance dietitian for professional athletes and active families based in Kelly Jones Nutrition.

How much protein do you need?

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) has long held that adults generally need a baseline of about 0.36 grams per pound of total body weight per day. However, this is considered the bare minimum amount, and most people—especially avid exercisers and athletes—likely need need more on a daily basis.

Although it'd be nice to have a magic number, there is not an exact protein count that is “optimal” for all adult women, according to dietitian Kelly Jones, RD. But higher amounts of protein—closer to 0.81 grams per pound of body weight—may be better to support long-term health outcomes, she says. Women who are breastfeeding in the early postpartum period tend to also require more than the RDA's recommended baseline, since protein can help support recovery and milk production, Jones adds. The same may be true for women who are going through perimenopause or menopause, she says.

You may have heard that 1 gram of protein per pound is the optimal range for everyday consumption, but experts recommend talking to your provider first before implementing this rule. "One gram of protein may be recommended to athletes with goals to increase muscle mass—especially during times of a small calorie deficit—which may occur during certain heavy periods of training," Jones says. The "1 gram per pound" metric may also be recommended to help prevent muscle loss for athletes who are injured and are unable to exercise regularly, she says.

But even for athletes with high energy and protein needs, it isn't recommended to consume more than 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, Jones says. So, if you don't exercise a lot and are moderately active, it may be safer to stay slightly under that amount.

How To Calculate Your Protein Needs

Your exact protein needs are ever-changing and correspond to your current weight, age, and health status, says dietitian Jenna Werner, RD, the founder of Happy Strong Healthy. If you're a true math nerd, you can calculate your minimum protein needs by multiplying your body weight in pounds by 0.36 or using this protein calculator. Keep in mind, though, that this is the bare minimum recommendation—so if you're an athlete, work out a lot, or simply want to boost your intake, you may be better off multiplying your body weight by 0.81 grams.

“Generally speaking, a great golden rule is to include a source of protein at every meal and snack you’re eating, and you should be in a good range,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD. For context, one hard-boiled egg is roughly six grams of protein, one chicken breast contains 28 grams of protein per three-ounce serving, an ounce of pistachios will fuel you up with six grams of protein, and ⅓ cup of hummus is equivalent to four grams of protein. These are just a handful of high-protein snacks that can help you reach your quota.

Your diet should be unique to you, and the formula definitely isn't the end-all be-all. So, always check in with your physician about your individual needs—especially if you change your workout routine, become pregnant, or experience other major health shifts.

Best Sources Of Protein

Once you’ve calculated your individual needs, dietitians recommend incorporating more protein-packed foods into your daily meals. To get into a steady routine, start with breakfast, Zeitlin says. “Protein in the morning will actually keep you feeling more satiated and energized through your day,” she says. You can kick off your day with a spinach and cheese omelette, cottage cheese topped with almonds and blackberries, protein waffle mix, or even a scoop of protein powder blended into a breakfast smoothie. Another life hack? Stir in some protein powder to your coffee in place of sweet creamers, dip your favorite veggies in hummus, or pack a few protein bars in your gym bag for a boost.

If you're at happy hour or dining out, you should also make protein a priority, Zeitlin adds. "Usually, protein will come from your main course, so pick that first so you know you’re getting in a solid protein option in the meal, and then add in any app or side in addition.” Maybe you opt for salmon, chicken, steak, or plant-based protein, and enjoy an app with a bit of protein, too, like chips and guac.

Sources Of Animal Protein

  • Fish: tuna, shrimp, salmon, sardines

  • White meat: chicken breast, turkey breast

  • Red meat: beef, venison, bison, pork

  • Dairy: milk, cheese, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese

  • Eggs

Sources Of Plant Protein

  • Legumes: beans, chickpeas, lentils

  • Soy: soymilk, tofu, tempeh, seitan

  • Certain Grains: quinoa, farro, wild rice, oats

  • Nuts: almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios

  • Seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds

  • Leafy Greens: spinach, mustard greens, bok choy

  • Vegetables: brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower

  • Fruits: avocados, kiwis, blackberries

FYI, plant proteins and animal proteins are not built the same. Plant proteins are more nutrient-dense and lower your risk of chronic illnesses, Zeitlin says. Dairy items, meats, and even plant-based burgers and nuggets have high amounts of saturated fats, which are, by comparison, a greater risk factor for your health. For a balanced diet, enjoy two to six eggs a week, fish two to three times per week, keep red meat to one to two times per month, and fill in the rest with plant-based proteins and white meat chicken, Zeitlin recommends.

Signs Of Too Much Protein

A lack of protein in your diet can cause mood swings, low energy, focus problems, and weight gain, but consuming too much protein can cause some unpleasant symptoms, especially when it comes to gastrointestinal issues, Zeitlin says. “Too much protein can contribute to constipation through slower digestion and delayed gastric emptying,” Malone adds. Excessive protein intake can also lead to long-term issues like an increased risk of heart disease, according to Zeitlin.

Experts are divided on how much protein is "too much" numbers-wise—some say you definitely shouldn't exceed one gram of protein per pound, and others might recommend it. If you're concerned that you're overdoing it, always consult your physician first to find your ideal protein range. In the meantime, here are a few telltale signs and symptoms to watch out for that might indicate you’ve had too much protein, according to dietitian Kate Regan, RDN.

But when will you start to notice the signs? “Some symptoms like indigestion may show up within the same day and others may take longer to surface," Regan says. Conditions like kidney stones and heart disease will likely take significantly longer time to develop over time, but to be safe, if you have concerning symptoms for more than 24 hours, call your doctor.

“If you and your healthcare team have determined that you are consuming too much protein in your diet, you can gradually decrease protein intake while increasing your intake of the nutrients that protein has displaced such as carbohydrates, healthy fats, and fiber,” Regan says. Ultimately, your doctor or gastroenterologist can help you determine the best next steps for you.

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