5 Scary and Practical Reasons to Cut Your Protein Intake
Chris Albert is the owner of Warrior Soul Fitness, a Marine Corps Veteran, and an NSCA Certified Personal Trainer who specializes in strength and body composition change. He is a worldwide online trainer with clients on all continents. He can be reached at [email protected]
For years I suffered. The immense pain of gas, bloating, and feeling like I was crapping through a straw made me into a desperate man. I was so desperate that I was about to do the unthinkable for a bodybuilder. I was about to cut my protein down from the 1 to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight I was eating (sometimes as much as 350 grams per day), to around half that number.
Truth be told, I knew better than to keep my protein that high. I am a nutrition coach by profession, and for years I’d been reading about the harmful effects of too much protein, but my philosophy was simple – get big, get strong, or die trying. I was also so conditioned into the bodybuilding lifestyle that any other way of doing things seemed almost absurd. But desperation forced me to think outside of the box because of my condition. Given that I have ulcerative colitis and was going through flare up after flare up where I had up to 30 bloody bowel movements per day, the “die trying” part could have likely come true. So things needed to change.
Based off of everything I knew about carbohydrate intake and inflammation, I also knew that I could not make up the cut calories from the protein with extra carbohydrate intake. As such, I would make up the extra calories with fat. I should note hear that the reason I am fat adapted today (70% fat, 20% protein, 10% carb) is a result of this experiment and not something I’d read at the time to influence me. I only found out about the potential performance and health benefits years later after reading books like The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney. For many months before reading this book I wondered how and why, after cutting my protein down to moderate levels and my carb intake down to a minimum, I felt absolutely amazing. In addition to that, I was leaner, more muscular, stronger, and I had more endurance in everything I did. For more information on fat adaptation, and its benefits, I definitely suggest you check out Volek and Phinney’s book and my recent articles on low carbohydrate dieting, and the benefits of saturated fat.
I should also mention here that I am not anti-protein. In particular, athletes and strength trained individuals can benefit from consuming more than the 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight recommended daily allowance put out be the FDA. My point in this blog is that many who are seeking to increase strength and muscularity may be taking it too far both to the detriment of their progress toward their goals and their health. Active individuals seeking to increase strength and muscularity can achieve these goals by consuming 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. For example, if you are 180 lbs, this is 90 to 135 grams of protein per day. Much less than the 180-270 grams of protein most bodybuilding coaches would recommend for this individual!
On Nitrogen Balance and Why You Need Protein if You’re an Athlete
To understand protein requirements, you first need to understand nitrogen balance. Basically, nitrogen enters the body when you consume protein from food or supplements, and is excreted through urine and feces as ammonia, urea, and uric acid, which are the breakdown products of protein. If you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll be in a negative nitrogen balance and will not be able to repair and recover after your workouts. On the other hand, if the amount of nitrogen you take in through protein matches the amount you excrete you are in nitrogen balance, and if it exceeds the amount you excrete then you are in a positive nitrogen balance and should be able to recover and rebuild from your workouts just fine. However, the amount of protein you need to achieve a positive nitrogen balance is probably a lot less than you are consuming, and there are some very negative effects if your nitrogen balance is too positive. As such there is not much benefit and some pretty scary risks to going too far over 0.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
This article will give you 5 reasons why you should reconsider your ultra high protein intake and ways of strategizing your diet for getting results from a more sane protocol with less protein.
- Gut and Bowel Health
Your gut is more than just a transport system that turns food into feces. Your gut health can actually influence your central nervous system via the vagus nerve which connects your brain and digestive systems. This can influence a number of factors in your training including your ability to coordinate your muscular system to produce strength and performance, and your mental wellness. An unbalanced gut can also put you into a state of overtraining, depression, and can induce brain fog.
An important part of maintaining gut health is in keeping a positive balance of friendly bacteria that help you digest and maintain a healthy intestinal tract versus bad bacteria that interrupt digestion and cause intestinal inflammation, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Research demonstrates that eating too much protein can enhance the production of bad bacteria that produce toxins that cause chronic inflammation. , Inflammation can increase one’s chances of getting cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and can enhance the symptoms of pre-existing auto immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, crohns, and colitis.
Additionally, many people are not equipped with enough hydrochloric acid in their stomachs to sufficiently digest ultra high amounts of protein. Though the antacid business has made millions on products that reduce acid in the stomach, most digestive issues are caused by not having enough! As such, if you are an athlete who is eating higher than normal amounts of protein, you should consider taking a hydrochloric acid supplement, especially if you are experiencing acid reflux or heart burn. On top of that, if you are eating more than 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, you should seriously consider reducing your protein intake.
- Ultra High Protein Diets Produce Sugar in the Body
If you read my latest article about why most people fail at low carb diets, you know that one of the reasons is due to eating too much protein. Eating an over excess of protein can induce a process called gluconeogenesis where protein is converted to glucose (sugar). This can create a number of undesirable side effects.
First, eating too much protein can inhibit ketosis and completely negate the purpose of a low carb diet, which is to burn fat for fuel, not glycogen. When excess protein is converted to glucose it drives up insulin levels, which decrease the amount of ketone bodies produced by the liver to fuel the brain. Hence, many who attempt a low carb-ultra high protein diet experience fatigue, brain fog, and slower weight loss because the liver metabolizes the excess glucose into fat.
Additionally, if protein is consumed in excess to the point of gluconeogenesis over time, excess insulin production can lead to insulin resistance. This may be why a recent study demonstrated that high protein intake could lead to increased risk of type-2 diabetes. So if you are on a high protein diet, and experiencing a lull in your fat loss, cutting back the protein could definitely help.
Protein sources are expensive, especially when you are trying to eat high quality protein sources 6 to 8 times a day like most bodybuilders do. Cutting the protein down in your diet, especially since you don’t need tons of protein, can dramatically decrease your monthly spending on food. This should be particularly helpful for many bodybuilders since they are typically young people just starting out in life. There is no need to overspend on food that is not necessarily getting you any closer to your fitness goals.
- Healthier Internal Organs and Slower Aging
Remember from our discussion above concerning nitrogen balance that ammonia is produced as a waste product when the body processes nitrogen from protein sources, and is excreted through feces and urine. To get this ammonia out of the body it first must be converted by the liver and kidneys into urea. Research has demonstrated that diets with protein levels between 200-400 grams can exceed the liver’s ability to convert ammonia to urea. This can allow toxic ammonia to build up in the blood stream, taxing the kidneys and other internal organs and building total body chronic inflammation.
Additionally, studies have demonstrated that higher protein intake is correlated with increased activity in the genes that cause you to age. Specifically the mammalian target of rapamycin (MTOR) is a known pathway for the aging process, and it’s activity increases with protein synthesis. Lowering protein intake can inhibit signaling from this gene and slow aging.
- You don’t need it!
Here’s the biggest factor that most of you are probably concerned about: Can I eat less protein and still reach my goal? The answer is yes. You do not need to eat excess amounts of protein to gain muscle or to burn fat. Researchers demonstrated no differences in protein synthesis between strength athletes consuming 0.6 grams of protein/lb and athletes consuming 1.2 grams/lb. Additionally, evidence demonstrates that 0.55 grams/lb of bodyweight was sufficient to maintain positive nitrogen balance in elite bodybuilders over the long term, and 0.75 grams/lb was sufficient to maintain positive nitrogen balance in novice lifters.
I cannot exclude myself as a culprit for spreading the misinformation that one needs 1 gram of protein or more per pound of bodyweight to build muscle. I was vastly wrong about this, but I was also a product of a culture where suggesting anything else was unheard of, and during the times that I did cut my clients’ protein levels, many strongly objected. It’s time that we begin identifying this institutionalized misinformation campaign, which for many years, was used to sell supplements. There is nothing wrong with consuming protein powder as a supplement to meet your daily protein requirements, but consuming protein, whether in powder or whole food form, to excess can ruin your health and halt your fitness progress.
Please contact me at anytime to discuss this or any other article at [email protected] or tweet me at @get2shredded.
 Brown et al. 2012. Diet induced dysbiosis of the intestinal microbiota and the effects on immunity and disease. Nutrients 4(8), 1095-1119.
 Gorbach S.L. Bengt E. gustafsson memorial lecture. Function of the normal human microflora. Scand. J. Infect. Dis. Suppl. 1986;49:17–30.
 Volek and Phinney. 2012. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity, LLC, 66.
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