Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Protein? 

by JJ Virgin on January 25, 2024

In an era when health and wellness are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, protein has emerged as a key player in the quest for optimal fitness and nutrition. Revered for its essential role in building muscle, enhancing recovery, and supporting overall health, including immune function, hormone production, and enzyme activities, protein is more than just a nutrient; it's a cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. 

Embracing the power of protein can be transformative for women over 40, whether you're an athlete, fitness enthusiast, or someone simply looking to enhance your daily diet. But as we navigate this protein-rich landscape, this question often comes up: Is there such a thing as too much?  

What’s Wrong With Conventional Protein Recommendations 

To answer the question of whether there can be “too much” protein, let's first examine what's potentially problematic with conventional protein recommendations. 

After 30, women begin losing muscle mass at about 3-8% every decade. By 60, that age-related muscle loss accelerates.1 Eating protein first at every meal can help. Unfortunately, most women aren't getting optimal amounts, and protein needs increase as you age. But how much exactly do you need? 

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight daily. Here’s why that’s not enough: 

The RDA for protein is defined as the average daily amount needed to meet the nutrient requirements of most healthy individuals. What many folks don’t realize is that this is the minimum needed, not the maximum.2 Our understanding of nutrition and protein metabolism has advanced since researchers first established RDAs in the 1940s. More recent research suggests that protein needs may vary among people and across different life stages, such as people engaged in intense physical activity and older folks who are more at risk for muscle loss.3 

There is no specific upper limit for protein consumption with the RDA. Protein requirements vary significantly based on age, physical activity level, and overall health. For instance, elite athletes may need as much as 3.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, much more than the 0.8 grams for the average person.4 

Researchers believe that exceeding 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily may be the upper limit for most people. If you weigh 150 pounds, this would be 136 grams of daily protein intake.5 

Despite these recommendations, some critics (myself included) argue that higher-protein diets can benefit older people and that surpassing these recommendations has advantages. 

Dietary guidelines typically recommend that protein constitute 10-35% of your daily caloric intake. If you're eating an 1,800-calorie diet daily, your protein intake will be 180-630 calories or 45-157.5 grams of protein per day.6 That’s a broad range! 

Based on the research by Dr. Donald Layman and Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, new recommendations suggest getting at least 30 grams of protein at every meal to maximize the muscle-building benefits, including getting optimal amounts of leucine.  

This essential amino acid stimulates muscle protein synthesis, the process by which your body builds and repairs muscle tissue. You must meet your leucine threshold to get those and other benefits.7 Getting at least 30 grams of protein per meal ensures that you do. 

The Benefits of a High-Protein Diet 

Maintaining muscle is a huge reason for getting the correct amount of protein. Researchers estimate you might need up to 50% more protein than younger adults to preserve muscle mass and uphold overall well-being as you get older.8 

Age-related muscle loss, partly due to anabolic resistance where muscles become less responsive to protein and exercise, can be effectively countered with higher protein intake coupled with strength training.9 

But optimal protein goes far beyond building and maintaining muscle. Higher-protein diets can also help improve lean body mass, helping you maintain your ideal weight and reduce your risk of insulin resistance.10 Other research shows that optimal protein can help you recover from illness faster, maintain your physical and mental abilities, and support good health.11 

Further advantages of optimal protein intake for women over 40 include: 

  • Promoting bone health: Adequate protein intake reduces your risk of osteoporosis and supports overall bone health.12 
  • Regulating hormones: Protein plays a role in hormonal balance, including insulin and estrogen.13 
  • Aiding collagen production: This helps maintain skin elasticity and reduce signs of aging.14 
  • Sustaining energy levels: Protein steadies blood-sugar levels to support sustained energy.15 
  • Supporting brain health: Protein is essential for a healthy brain. The amino acids that protein supplies help build chemicals called neurotransmitters that help your brain communicate.16 

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Protein? 

For most people, higher-protein diets don't create any unpleasant issues.17 Many myths that you hear are false or misleading.  

A widespread myth suggests that high protein intake damages the kidneys. While individuals with existing kidney problems may benefit from reduced protein, there's no evidence that a high-protein diet causes kidney issues in healthy individuals.18, 19  

Another misconception is that excess protein weakens bones. This stems from a misunderstanding of acid-base balance. Adequate intake of nutrients, like calcium and potassium, alongside protein, actually supports bone health, not diminishes it.20  

Experts like Alan Aragon argue that fears of overconsuming protein are largely unfounded. Current data indicates that the average American's protein intake is moderate and often below what some groups may require.  

Particular groups, such as older adults and those leading active lifestyles, may require more protein than the average intake to support muscle strength, immunity, and overall health.21 

Talk with your healthcare practitioner about protein intake if you have preexisting kidney issues or other concerns. Eating more protein is entirely safe for almost everyone—and in my findings, most of us aren't eating enough. 

No more guessing how much protein you’re getting. My Protein Cheat Sheet provides a list of foods containing 30-60 grams of protein to make it super easy,  and you can download it for free. 

What Does Your Body Do With Excess Protein? 

A key aspect of protein's role in diet is its satiating effect. Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates or fats, contributing to prolonged fullness and helping regulate hunger-related hormones like leptin and ghrelin. 

Digesting protein requires more energy compared to carbs and fats.22 This higher thermic effect contributes to a feeling of fullness, which can naturally help prevent overeating. 

But if you’re still concerned about excess protein, here’s what happens when you consume more than you need: 

After digestion, protein is broken down into amino acids, which are vital for muscle repair and energy. If you consume more protein than needed, your body doesn't store it like fat or carbs. Instead, it converts excess amino acids into glucose or fatty acids through a process called gluconeogenesis, which the body can then use or store as energy. 

It's important to note that unlike carbohydrates and fats, the body doesn't have a specific storage system for proteins due to their functional and structural roles. This means excess dietary protein is handled differently than excess carbs or fats.23 

Too Little Protein Is Often the Issue 

While we've discussed the concerns about consuming too much protein, it's crucial to recognize that for many, particularly women, the greater issue is often insufficient protein intake. 

This issue is particularly relevant for vegans, vegetarians, and those who limit animal products, as animal proteins provide all nine essential amino acids. Many plant-based proteins, however, lack one or more of these amino acids, necessitating careful meal planning to ensure complete nutritional needs are met. 

Inadequate protein intake can lead to muscle loss and reduced muscle strength, especially as you age. Studies show that low intake among older adults can make you more frail, increasing your risk of falls and fractures.24 Protein deficiencies can also impair your body's ability to recover from illness, surgery, or injury. 

You may not break down that protein well even if you do meet your protein requirements. Protein breakdown refers to how your digestive system breaks down proteins into amino acids, which your body uses for thousands of functions.  

Digestive enzymes are crucial in breaking down proteins and other foods during digestion. These enzymes, produced by various organs like the pancreas and small intestine, help break down protein and other foods into smaller, more readily absorbable components. 

As you age, protein breakdown and digestion may become less efficient. A comprehensive digestive enzyme should provide the enzymes that break down nutrients including protein, fat, and carbs. It should also contain betaine hydrochloride (HCl), which works similarly to stomach acid, to support the optimal digestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.*  

How Much Protein Do You Really Need? 

I've deep-dived into the latest research and what some top experts, such as Alan Aragon, believe to be optimal for protein intake. From that input, I created general guidelines about how much protein you need daily.  

Most women do well with 0.7-1.0 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight. By ideal body weight, I mean the weight at which you're in good health and optimal physical condition for your height and body type. 

  • For healthy women and those striving to maintain a healthy weight, I recommend a minimum of 0.7 grams of protein per pound of ideal body weight.   
  • You'll benefit from getting more protein if you're following a vegan diet, engaging in rigorous training, or recovering from illness or injury. Aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight in those conditions. 

If your ideal weight is 150 pounds, aim for 105-150 grams of protein daily, distributed across three meals. In other words, you’ll want to get 30-50 grams of protein at every meal. With the right plan, you can easily meet your protein quota.  

Protein Provides Foundational Support 

Protein plays a vital role in maintaining muscle mass, supporting bone health, regulating hormones, and more. Optimal protein intake is foundational for these crucial bodily functions. 

Beyond these benefits, protein plays a significant role in supporting the body's detoxification processes. The amino acids in protein are essential for building enzymes that facilitate various chemical reactions, including detoxification. 

Many detox plans overlook the importance of protein, focusing solely on eliminating toxins. However, without the critical amino acids from protein, detoxification processes in the liver may not function optimally, leading to symptoms like hunger, fatigue, mental fog, and difficulty losing weight. 

To help you properly detox and prime your body to burn fat without burning out, I designed the 10-Day Protein-Powered Detox Program. This program gives you everything you need to ease your toxic burden and support your body's ability to detoxify. 

What you’ll get: 

  • Daily videos guiding you through the program 
  • A comprehensive guide  
  • Detox-friendly recipes & suggested meal plan 
  • Private Facebook community 
  • Support from Team JJ 
  • And so much more! 

Learn more about the 10-Day Protein-Powered Detox Program here

References:    

  1. Scientific American: How to Keep Muscles Strong as You Age 
  1. Phillips SM. Current Concepts and Unresolved Questions in Dietary Protein Requirements and Supplements in Adults. Front Nutr. 2017 May 8;4:13. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2017.00013. Erratum in: Front Nutr. 2023 Apr 12;9:1078528. PMID: 28534027; PMCID: PMC5420553. 
  1. Carbone JW, Pasiakos SM. Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit. Nutrients. 2019 May 22;11(5):1136. doi: 10.3390/nu11051136. PMID: 31121843; PMCID: PMC6566799.  
  1. Wu G. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food Funct. 2016 Mar;7(3):1251-65. doi: 10.1039/c5fo01530h. PMID: 26797090.  
  1. Wu G. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food Funct. 2016 Mar;7(3):1251-65. doi: 10.1039/c5fo01530h. PMID: 26797090. 
  1. Wolfe RR, Cifelli AM, Kostas G, Kim IY. Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults: Interpretation and Application of the Recommended Dietary Allowance Compared with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range. Adv Nutr. 2017 Mar 15;8(2):266-275. doi: 10.3945/an.116.013821. PMID: 28298271; PMCID: PMC5347101.  
  1. Volpi E. Is leucine content in dietary protein the key to muscle preservation in older women? Am J Clin Nutr. 2018 Feb 1;107(2):143-144. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy009. PMID: 29529164; PMCID: PMC6248570.  
  1. HealthHub: Older Adults Need More Protein    
  1. Science Direct: Keeping Older Muscle “Young” through Dietary Protein and Physical Activity    
  1. Hengeveld LM, de Goede J, Afman LA, Bakker SJL, Beulens JWJ, Blaak EE, Boersma E, Geleijnse JM, van Goudoever JHB, Hopman MTE, Iestra JA, Kremers SPJ, Mensink RP, de Roos NM, Stehouwer CDA, Verkaik-Kloosterman J, de Vet E, Visser M. Health Effects of Increasing Protein Intake Above the Current Population Reference Intake in Older Adults: A Systematic Review of the Health Council of the Netherlands. Adv Nutr. 2022 Aug 1;13(4):1083-1117. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmab140. PMID: 35016214; PMCID: PMC9340973.   
  1. Bauer J, Biolo G, Cederholm T, Cesari M, Cruz-Jentoft AJ, Morley JE, Phillips S, Sieber C, Stehle P, Teta D, Visvanathan R, Volpi E, Boirie Y. Evidence-based recommendations for optimal dietary protein intake in older people: a position paper from the PROT-AGE Study Group. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2013 Aug;14(8):542-59. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2013.05.021. Epub 2013 Jul 16. PMID: 23867520.    
  1. Mangano KM, Sahni S, Kerstetter JE. Dietary protein is beneficial to bone health under conditions of adequate calcium intake: an update on clinical research. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2014 Jan;17(1):69-74. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000013. PMID: 24316688; PMCID: PMC4180248.  
  1. Georgia State University: Ways to Support Female's Hormones Through Nutrition  
  1. Al-Atif H. Collagen Supplements for Aging and Wrinkles: A Paradigm Shift in the Fields of Dermatology and Cosmetics. Dermatol Pract Concept. 2022 Jan 1;12(1):e2022018. doi: 10.5826/dpc.1201a18. PMID: 35223163; PMCID: PMC8824545.  
  1. Gannon MC, Nuttall FQ, Saeed A, Jordan K, Hoover H. An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Oct;78(4):734-41. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/78.4.734. PMID: 14522731.  
  1. Harvard Health: Protein intake associated with less cognitive decline  
  1. Mayo Clinic: Mayo Clinic Q and A: Protein needs for performance    
  1. Bowden, Jonny; Sears, Barry; Cole, Will. Living Low Carb: Revised & Updated Edition (p. 195). Union Square & Co.. Kindle Edition.  
  1. Aragon, Alan. Flexible Dieting (p. 99). Victory Belt Publishing. Kindle Edition. 
  1. Bowden, Jonny; Sears, Barry; Cole, Will. Living Low Carb: Revised & Updated Edition (p. 196). Union Square & Co.. Kindle Edition. 
  1. Aragon, Alan. Flexible Dieting (p. 99). Victory Belt Publishing. Kindle Edition. 
  1. Pesta DH, Samuel VT. A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2014 Nov 19;11(1):53. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-11-53. PMID: 25489333; PMCID: PMC4258944. 
    AccessPhysiotherapy: Amino Acid Metabolism | Fundamentals of Biochemistry   
  1. Pesta DH, Samuel VT. A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2014 Nov 19;11(1):53. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-11-53. PMID: 25489333; PMCID: PMC4258944. 
  1. Coelho-Júnior HJ, Rodrigues B, Uchida M, Marzetti E. Low Protein Intake Is Associated with Frailty in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients. 2018 Sep 19;10(9):1334. doi: 10.3390/nu10091334. PMID: 30235893; PMCID: PMC6165078. 

The views in this blog by JJ Virgin should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please work with a healthcare practitioner concerning any medical problem or concern. The information here is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or condition. Statements contained here have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.    

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.