When it comes to eating healthy, some swear by emphasizing meat and other animal-based sources of protein. But when it comes to protein, how much is too much — and can having too much of it hurt your health?
Yes, protein can be healthy, experts say, as long as you stay within the recommended daily one to two servings of meat and alternatives for children under 13, and two to three servings for those over 14, as per the Canada Food Guide.
(One serving of meat, fish and poultry equals to 75 grams, or two-and-a-half ounces.)
In fact, protein is one of the three macronutrients (alongside carbohydrates and fat), that is the building block for human cells and is important to the biochemical functions of the human body, Harvard Medical School says.
It is also needed for repairing muscle tissue, skin nails and hair, and is involved in hormone production, says registered dietitian Andrea D’Ambrosio of Dietetic Directions.
Despite the recommendations by Canada’s Food Guide, there continues to be a debate on how to estimate protein requirements, as many experts cannot seem to come to a consensus, D’Ambrosio says.
In Canada, the current recommendation estimates protein need at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, or accounting for between 10 to 35 per cent of daily calories. However, this method likely underestimates the protein requirements due to limitations of the specific technique used, D’Ambrosio argues.
“Pivotal research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that current protein recommendations are underestimated by approximately 30 per cent,” she says. “Thus, protein research continues to evolve and the debate continues.”
But as more and more fad diets, like the Paleo diet and Atkins, for example, continue to push an emphasis on meat, one has to wonder how all that protein is truly impacting your health and body.
“A very active person — like athletes — could require up to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, depending on the type of activities they engage in with resistance,” registered dietitian Andy De Santis explains. “Having slightly above these values is unlikely to lead to any consequences, but if you are having so much protein that you don’t leave room in your diet for other important foods, that could be problematic.”
Excessive protein consumption, especially from foods high in animal fat (like cheese, milk and red meat), could increase your risk for chronic disease and could also lead to problems related to bone and kidney health, De Santis points out.
“There is no reason to consume protein well above the recommended levels because it is not useful to your body, it could be extra strain on the organs responsible for metabolizing protein like the kidneys,” he says. “And it could displace other important healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and so on.”
And any diet that puts any single macronutrient far above the rest would be concerning, De Santis says, as it would indicate a lack of dietary balance and potential for nutrient inadequacy.
To incorporate protein into your diet in a safe and effective manner, De Santis recommends doing the following.
First, try consuming more plant-based protein.
“So many of us rely exclusively on animal products for protein without acknowledging that upping our plant-based protein intake is important for good health and very easy to do,” he says.
Also, give tofu a try as a meat replacement. There are plenty of recipes online that involve tofu that’ll surprise you.
Make sure to have a protein source at each meal, D’Ambrosio adds, to consistently stimulate protein synthesis. By including protein with all meals, it helps promote satiety of the feeling of fullness which is important in achieving or maintaining a healthy weight.
Try not to overload on protein at one meal, though, because our bodies will max out in the absorption of protein at around 30 grams per meal, D’Ambrosio explains.
And lastly, know that dietary protein sources, like meat, poultry, fish, soy, eggs, nuts and dairy, opposed to protein powder, are as or are even more effective for muscle growth and recovery, D’Ambrosio says.
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