Protein: How much is too much?––Julie Alvira, M.D.

Protein: How much is too much?

By Julie Alvira, M.D.

We all have heard that following a high protein low carbohydrates (low carb) diet is good and you lose weight fast. We have also heard that if you perform intense resistance training, you should ingest a good amount of protein after working out (post workout) to repair muscle. And of course we have heard that high protein diets are beneficial for anti-aging. But have you heard that for females a very high (in excess) protein nutrition plan can be counterproductive? What about kidney disease and other related conditions in both males and females?

A look back

More than 40 years ago, Dr. Robert Atkins wrote the book about the Atkins revolutionary diet. Generally speaking, his diet states that if a person cuts drastically on carbohydrates, the body turns to the fat that is stored for fuel. The person usually eats lots of protein. The result is interesting due to the fact that the body burns body fat because it releases a byproduct called ketones that the person will use for energy. Atkins diet is an example of a high protein/high fat very low carbohydrates plan. Sounds risky right? Another diet, like Atkins, but with a twist, is The Zone. This is a high protein/low fat plan with moderate carbohydrates.

According to the American Dietetic Association, a high protein diet means that of the total number of calories a person consumes each day, 25-35% of those calories come from protein as opposed to a typical diet in which only about 10-15% of calories comes from protein (Chang, 2014). When a person ingests a substantial amount of lean protein and zero, or a very low quantity, of carbohydrates, he or she feels fuller longer, which translates into eating less frequently, which equals weight loss. Sounds nice, right? Well, not so fast.

Drawbacks of high protein plans

Sometimes very high protein plans lack nutrients. Eating a diet based of only protein forces the body into starvation mode (most body tissues use glucose––blood sugar––supplied by carbohydrates as fuel). When there are not enough carbohydrates to use as fuel the body is forced to use the stored blood sugar from the liver and muscles. This results is muscle breakdown. If the carbohydrate restriction is prolonged, the brain (which runs on glucose) will go into the process called ketosis and use the fat stores for fuel. Kidneys go into overdrive in order to flush the ketone, which causes a significant amount of water loss. This water loss looks like weight loss on the scale. The effect can cause dehydration, especially if a person exercises heavily. But you can also loss muscle mass and bone calcium. Ketosis is associated with irritability, headaches, palpitations, enhanced kidney work and, in some cases, cardiac arrest. High protein diets are high in saturated fat, which is risky for coronary artery disease and stroke. Restricting carbohydrates means restricting plant-based foods, which are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants.

How much protein do you need?

There is a difference for the protein that a person needs, because it depends on the level of activity. For the semi-sedentary person, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 46g per day for women and 65g for men for the semi-sedentary person. For an athlete or a person that trains hard at the gym (in a diet or not in a diet), the required protein needs to increase because muscle is broken down and needs extra protein to get repaired. For this person, it is recommended 0.8-1.1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

Effects of excess protein in women and men

If a person consumes more protein and calories than what their body really needs, the extra amount is stored as body fat. In women, an excess consumption of animal protein is linked to lower fertility (Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine). In female athletes there is the risk of high testosterone levels, which can lead to ovarian cancer and damage to the hypothalamus or pituitary gland. Plus, the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism states that there are risks for men and women that may include elevated toxins in the blood, nausea, diarrhea, and even death.

As Marcus Tullius Cicero once said, “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.”

Julie Alvira, MD holds a MBA in healthcare management. She is the owner of AJBodysculpt as well as a personal fitness and nutrition coach. You can email her at or visit her on the web at: