Why we need protein
istock/a_namenkoProtein is a critical part of our diet—we need it to feel full, have energy, build and repair muscle, process nutrients, and boost immunity, among other vital roles."Protein is made up of amino acids that are the building blocks of body tissues, including muscles, blood vessels, hair, skin, and nails. It's also involved in the production of enzymes and hormones that help the body to function normally," says Kaleigh McMordie, a registered dietitian nutritionist. Why are these amino acids so important? McMordie gives a quick anatomy lesson (in case you spaced out in 10th grade): There are some amino acids that the body can synthesize, but others, called essential amino acids, we must get through our diet. Animal protein sources, such as meat, fish, milk, and eggs, contain all nine essential amino acids while most plant-based protein sources don't have the full complement of amino acids in the exact right amounts (there are some exceptions, like soybeans). "That's why it is important to include a variety of protein sources in order to get all of the essential amino acids, especially for vegetarians," McMordie says. And if you're a regular exerciser, protein is especially important, according to diet and lifestyle dietitian and registered nutritionist, Keith Akoob, EdD. "Protein not only builds muscle, but it also repairs and maintains muscle," he says. "Muscle cells, like all living tissue, have a life. They eventually need to be replaced, so repair and maintenance are critical roles for dietary protein."
How much protein we need
istock/a_namenkoThere are many elements to consider when determining just how much protein you personally need on a daily basis, from how often you squeeze in a sweat sesh to how your body's digestion is functioning. That said, there are some overall guidelines. As McMordie explains, "The RDA for protein for adult men and women is around 50 to 62 grams of protein per day. This will typically prevent any protein deficiencies," she says. Though that's a rough estimate, CCHE Chief Culinary Officer, Ken Immer notes, "Most often, we hear about recommending protein in specific gram amounts per day. However, that can be misleading because it should be closely tied to your total calorie needs, rather than just an arbitrary number," he says. "There is a wide range of recommendations when it comes to the ideal percentage of calories from protein—10 to 35 percent of total calories, 10 percent being the absolute minimum, and 35 percent being the maximum before there is a toxicity to be concerned about." As a general rule, Immer recommends that men aim for 140 grams and women shoot for 110 grams per day, which is more than the RDA, but still within safe limits. But what happens when you go overboard?
You're in a bad mood
istock/martin-dmMaybe you got into a fight with your partner before bed or you're anxious about a presentation at work, but if you keep waking up on the wrong side of the bed, you might want to consider if too much protein is to blame. "When we are eating too much protein, we are often not eating enough carbs, like in low-carb or high-protein diets, and our brains actually run on sugar from those carbs," Immer says. So what should you do? The easy solution is to recognize when we are swapping out too many carbs for protein, and to even out the difference. There's no need to wolf down a pizza pie to brighten your mood. Instead reach for complex carbohydrates such as fruits, yogurt, brown rice, and whole grain oatmeal. (If you're worried about your carb intake, learn the signs of too many carbs.)
You've got brain fog
istock/PeopleimagesThat afternoon slump is real. Feeling fatigued as the day rolls on might have you reaching for coffee or push you to nibble on a snack (or three), but it could be the amount of protein in your system that's causing your eyes to glaze over and your thoughts to become incoherent. "Brain fog, in general, is also a possibility from too much protein, as a sugar deficit for the brain can cause your brain to actually shrink," Immer explains. Overeating protein means that you might be displacing your carbs. This is risky because, as McMordie says, "carbs are the brain's main source of energy, and without enough, it will be hard to concentrate." Make sure your healthy snack between lunch and dinner has a nice balance of carbs and protein, so you feel full, without feeling foggy. (Try these healthy, tasty snack ideas.)
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You're acting hangry
istock/PeopleimagesWhen too much time passes between meals, you might feel your upper lip curl and your patience run out. You might call it "hangry," but a nutritionist might question whether you've had a few too many grams of protein in your day. "Without enough carbs, your body's blood sugar dips, and you don't produce enough mood-regulating serotonin, causing you to be 'hangry,'" McMordie says. If you start to feel your fuse run short, McMordie suggests snacking on a side dish like Greek yogurt with berries, string cheese with fruit, or hummus with whole grain crackers, to stabilize your blood sugar and your mood.
You're gaining weight
istock/FredFroeseIt's true that having a high-protein diet can satisfy your hunger, but if you go too far over the side of the pyramid, you might find your scale tipping over, too. "That's especially true if you're eating excess animal protein or downing protein shakes. Meat often means extra fat and also calories. And many protein shakes have added sugar to make them taste better," McMordie says. "Over time, too many excess calories, no matter from fat, sugar, or protein, will cause weight gain." To shift your meals in a healthier direction, McMordie says to "aim for balanced meals that include lean protein, whole grains, fruit and vegetables." As a general rule, she adds, half of your plate should be fruits or vegetables, one quarter should be protein, and one quarter should be starch or whole grains. Here's how to sneak more veggies into your diet without even noticing.
You're a little backed up
istock/AndreyPopovHaving dependable, reliable digestion cycles will make you feel healthier overall and minimize any potential stomach issues. However, if your protein intake is too high, you might struggle to stay regular. "If you replace too much of your diet with protein, you may be lacking fiber from grains and vegetables. Fiber is important for digestion and regularity. Without it, you may experience digestive problems and constipation," McMordie says. Aim for 25 grams of fiber daily from foods like whole grains (McMordie's favorites are oatmeal and quinoa), vegetables, and fruit. Adding in a daily probiotic—or eating foods rich in natural probiotics—may also help keep your digestion on track.
You're especially thirsty
istock/fizkesAnother indicator that you might be OD-ing on protein is a constant desire for water. In fact, too much protein can cause mild dehydration. "The dehydration is caused by your kidneys working overtime to remove the excess protein as well as the nitrogen waste from metabolizing the protein, so you urinate too much and eventually can wreck your kidneys altogether," Immer explains. To the rescue? More agua, of course, and lightening up on the protein. It's important to pay attention to this sign specifically, as kidney stones can also be caused by a high-protein diet. "Depending on other factors, when you put your kidneys into overdrive, the risk of kidney stones increases for those who are already prone because of particular issues with absorbing specific forms of calcium, mostly from leafy greens, surprisingly enough!" Immer says.
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You've got dragon breath
istock/XiXinXingIf you've noticed that when you laugh, not everyone laughs with you—or that your co-workers are pulling back when they have to sit near you in meetings, you might be wondering what's up. It was a common complaint of those on the Atkins diet, back in the hayday of its popularity, and for good reason: A lot of meat doesn't just give you meat sweats, but a stinky mouth too. "Your brain and body like to run on carbs, so when you don't eat enough carbs, your body starts to use fat as fuel, producing ketones, which can make your breath smell like nail polish remover," McMordie says. This can be especially dangerous for diabetics, she adds. Besides paring back your protein and adding in some healthy carbs, try these bad breath and halitosis remedies to freshen up fast.