Protein – Too Much, Too Little or Just Right

proteinJacquie Eubanks RN BSN



If only we could choose the perfect amount of daily protein as easily as Goldilocks determined which porridge, chair and bed were “just right” for her. The research on the optimal amount of protein required for good health support and maintenance is ongoing. Some of us are concerned that we don’t get enough protein, while others worry about getting too much. The popularity of protein shakes and supplements is not limited to athletes looking to increase lean muscle mass, and shows that people are becoming aware that protein plays a vital role in our health management.

However, while many may look to protein simply for weight management and muscle support, proteins serve a variety of purposes, not the least of which is providing crucial life sustaining support for bodily functions. It is proteins that are responsible for a cell or organism’s unique characteristics, including the DNA and RNA responsible for our genetic code. Protein molecules are involved in virtually all cell functions, with each protein having a specific role. Some provide structural support or are involved in movement, while others defend against germs.

  • Antibodies – Specialized proteins travel through the bloodstream and aid the immune system in identifying, immobilizing or defending against pathogens.
  • Movement – Contractile proteins are responsible for muscle contraction and movement.
  • Enzymes – All enzymes are proteins. Enzymes facilitate all biochemical reactions, such as digestion.
  • Hormones – Hormonal proteins, such as insulin, regulate glucose metabolism and stimulate muscle growth by enhancing protein synthesis and facilitating the movement of glucose into cells.
  • Structure – Structural proteins, such as keratin, strengthen hair and nails, while collagen and elastin provide support for connective tissues, including tendons and ligaments.
  • Transport – Carrier proteins include hemoglobin, which transports oxygen, and other transport proteins that bind to minerals and distribute them around the body.  
  • Cellular repair – Proteins repair trauma to muscle tissue whether from athletics or injury, increasing muscle fiber and activating muscle growth. Specific proteins help cells repair DNA damage and help prevent damaged cells from replicating before damage is repaired, a critical function in preventing tumor growth and accelerated aging.

AskTheNurseProteins are made up of long molecules called polypeptides. Polypeptides are made up of thousands of complex combinations of smaller chemical compounds we know as amino acids, which link together to form chains. The sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s unique 3-dimensional structure and its specific function. A large percentage of our cells, muscles and tissue is made up of amino acids. While there may be thousands of amino acids, scientists have identified 20 that are vital for health, including 10 essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained through daily diet or supplementation. The amino acid pool, available free amino acids in the body, is vital for achieving a balanced metabolism. Failure to obtain all amino acids in the correct combination limits protein production and may weaken metabolism.

So, how much protein is too much, how much is too little and how much is “just right?” The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of body weight, approximately 56 grams for the average sedentary man and 46 grams for the average sedentary woman. The RDA recommendation is the specific amount you need to prevent illness, but not necessarily the proper amount needed to support optimal health. Getting the minimum RDA of protein would supply about 10% of the day’s total caloric intake for a relatively active adult. By contrast, most Americans consume about 16% of their calories in plant and animal proteins.

Still, according to a special supplement to the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), “16% is anything but excessive.” While people in general think we consume too much protein, this research says we eat too little. Protein needs vary for individuals according to activity level, age, muscle mass, current state of health and physique goals, such as body building or weight loss. Physically active people, nursing mothers, seniors and those recovering from injuries require a higher protein intake. Endurance athletes or those looking to gain a significant amount of muscle mass, such as body builders, often increase their protein intake by 50% over the RDA for sedentary people.

Based on the research as reported in the AJCN article, 15 – 25% of total daily calories or up to twice the amount of RDA recommended protein is safe and within the proper range to support optimal health and body composition. This amount is more in line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation that proteins should comprise 10 – 35% of total daily calories and should include more plant proteins, such as beans, legumes or quinoa. Protein intake of 25 -35% may aid weight loss as it may provide an increased feeling of satiety, resulting in decreased overall caloric intake. It appears that protein intake of about 30% may be “just right” for many people who want to lose weight, while maintaining muscle mass.

Protein deficiency is essentially an amino acid deficiency that prohibits the synthesis of a variety of proteins, which can cause muscle loss, fatigue, depression, anxiety and low libido. Excessive amounts of protein may promote the use of amino acids as fuel rather than building material and can overburden the kidneys, which are responsible for excess protein excretion and may cause vomiting or loss of appetite. Some think that consuming very large amounts of protein will increase muscle mass, but only physical activity can increase muscle mass and strength. Protein consumption post exercise optimizes glycogen storage and promotes muscle growth, repair and restoration.

Increase your daily protein the easy way with these high quality protein formulas:

Beyond Whey - PowderBeyond Whey® by Natura Health Products – This very high quality powdered formula features Proserum®, a proprietary non-denatured whey protein concentrate that provides a perfectly balanced blend of amino acids and peptides in support of lean muscle development and optimal digestion. Provides 6 g of protein per serving. Gluten and soy free. Contains dairy.  Learn More

PaleoMeal-DF VanillaPaleoMeal®-DF (Dairy Free) Vanilla by Designs for Health – This plant-derived pea protein powdered formula is designed to promote an optimal intake of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and digestive enzymes necessary to support overall health and wellness. Peatein™ contains the full array of amino acids and includes high levels of branched chain amino acids. This easy to digest, natural vegan formula provides 17 g of protein per serving. Gluten and dairy free, Non-GMO hypoallergenic formulation. Also available in Chocolate or Berry flavor.  Learn More

Physicians' Protein Pure Vegetarian FormulaPhysicians’ Protein Pure Vegetarian Formula by Integrative Therapeutics – This formula combines high-purity pea protein and organic hemp seed to create a premium quality vegetarian protein complex that provides the full array of amino acids.   15 g of protein per serving. Soy, dairy and wheat free, Non-GMO vegetarian formula.  Learn More

Ultra Protein Plus Natural Chocolate Almond Flavor (57053)Ultra Protein Plus Natural Chocolate Almond Flavor by Douglas Laboratories® – This nutritionally fortified yellow pea protein powdered vegan formula provides 18 g of protein per serving along with essential nutrients and prebiotics. Gluten soy and dairy free, vegan formula. Also available in Natural Vanilla Bean flavor.  Learn More

How much protein do you need every day?
Polypeptide Chain: Definition, Structure & Synthesis.
The Chemistry of Amino Acids.
How do muscles grow?
A Protein’s Role in Helping Cells Repair DNA Damage.
DNA damage as the primary cause of aging.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.


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