You’re a seasoned bodybuilder, so you’re dedicated to giving your body more; adding more weight, more reps, more sets, and more fuel to build bigger muscles. You maximize your protein intake at every opportunity. But is it possible to consume too much protein? And exactly how much protein is too much if you’re trying to bulk up but stay lean? Watch for these key signs that your protein intake is out of sync, then use the pro tips to keep your training plan on track.
Protein guidelines vary by organization so getting the right amount can be tricky. “Research supports a protein intake between .8 grams per kilogram of body weight (this is the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance), up to just under a gram per pound of bodyweight,” says Dan DeFigio, Nashville-based personal trainer and nutrition expert. “But my interpretation of the research is that the low end of the spectrum is too low for optimal health and physical performance.”
DeFigio typically suggests a minimum of one gram per kilogram of body weight (for a 185-pound guy, that’s roughly 84 grams of protein) and a maximum protein intake of roughly 90 percent of your bodyweight (in pounds) in grams of protein per day, split into five or six servings. (That 185-pound guy’s max would be about 167 grams of protein daily.) His recommendation comes close to the Muscle and Fitness-approved minimum recommendation of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. But your body’s individualized needs may vary based on your training.
If you notice any of the following signs, your protein, carbohydrate, and fat balance may be out of sync.
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1. You’re Dehydrated
Hydration is essential when you increase your protein consumption. Dehydration is a sign that your levels are out of whack. “Your body has to use more water to flush out the additional nitrogen from excessive protein intake,” says DeFigio. “If you don’t drink enough water with a high-protein diet, you can become dehydrated.”
Pro-tip: Try to adjust both your protein intake and your fluid intake to find a balance. Make sure you drink enough water so that you’re never thirsty, and avoid salty or caffeinated foods that dehydrate you.
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2. Your brain is foggy
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Glucose is your brain’s primary fuel source. If an increase in dietary protein displaces a healthy intake of carbohydrates, your brain may not get the fuel it needs to function at its best. The result: you may notice that your brain feels more foggy than usual. “If you have long-term protein overload and you start to get ammonia buildup in the bloodstream…you may notice bouts of dizziness or disorientation,” says DeFigio. This is generally not an issue in people with healthy organs, he says.
Pro tip: No one wants to go through the day feeling like their brain is in the clouds. If you feel foggy, grab a quick source of carbs to gain some clarity. Dizziness and/or disorientation, however, are much more serious and may require medical attention. Contact your doctor if these signs arise.
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3. You’re gaining fat
If you’re not careful about your complete diet, eating more protein can cause you to gain fat from excess calories, or worse, put you at increased risk for metabolic disease. In a research review that evaluated the efficacy of high-protein diets, study authors caution that combining a typical high fat Western diet with increased protein consumption can be problematic if your weight isn’t optimal. According to the researchers, “This connection might be highly relevant as many overweight people worldwide are effectively on a high-fat diet but might as well do weight-training and supplement with BCAAs.” The researchers concluded that, “in people with a high caloric intake from fat, BCAA supplementation might exacerbate the risk of metabolic disease.”
Pro-tip: Slamming the perfect post-workout protein smoothie is smart, unless you follow it up with nachos, fries, and a cheeseburger. Make smart adjustments to your diet as a whole so that you consume lean protein alongside quality carbs and healthy fats.
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4. Your performance is lacking
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When you increase your protein intake, you often decrease your consumption of either carbs or fats. If you decrease carbohydrate intake to boost protein, both training intensity and performance may suffer. But scientists say that, “higher daily protein intake at the expense of fat intake could substantially reduce total energy intake, which could possibly translate to a healthier weight status.”
Pro tip: Divide your protein consumption equally between meals and snacks so you have enough room on your plate for energy-boosting carbs and healthy fats in moderation.
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5. You’re constipated
If you’re feeling backed up worse than a California freeway at rush hour, your diet could be to blame.
“High-protein/low-carb diets are often low in fiber,” says DeFigio. “Couple that with some mild dehydration, and you’ve got a recipe for constipation.”
Of course, over-the-counter methods may help ease the discomfort, but checking your protein intake and fluid balance is smart as well.
Pro tip: Increase your fluid intake and your whole grain consumption at the first sign of constipation. This may mean that you back off on protein until symptoms subside.
Low-carb diets are generally higher in protein. If your carb/protein balance is out of whack, you may get bad breath as a result. One study on the effectiveness and safety of low carb diets in adolescents notes that thirst, bad breath, and dry mouth were commonly cited side effects of following the program.
“High-protein diets have the potential to increase the risk of calcium stone-formation in the urinary tract,” say researchers. Simply put, dehydration and excess urinary calcium can lead to kidney stones, says DeFigio.
Pro tip: In order to maintain an acid-base balance and prevent stone formation, scientists say that people on a high-protein diet should consider consuming “alkali buffers” such as fruits and vegetables high in potassium, adding that glutamine or sodium bicarbonate supplements can also help to restore acid-base balance in the body.
Side effects from excess protein intake are pretty rare in healthy individuals, says DeFigio. Unless you have a kidney or liver problem, you’d have to eat a lot of protein for a long time to create a serious problem. He estimates that it would take months of excess protein consumption for symptoms to appear. “Most likely the biggest risk of eating too much protein is eating too much of the bad stuff that often comes along with protein foods,” he says. “Sodium, nitrites, hormones, and preservatives are common in processed meats. Lots of canned tuna can mean lots of mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, chemicals that were banned in the ’70s but still turn up in seafood). Eating a large percentage of your calories from animal protein may mean that you’re under-eating plant calories, and that spells trouble for your long-term health,” DeFigio says.