It’s no secret that protein can do wonders for the body— it can help people gain muscle mass, make them feel fuller longer, and prevent those late-night trips to the cookie jarExercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. Metabolism Division, Department of Surgery, University of Texas Medial Branch-Galveston, Galveston, TX. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2001 Mar;11(1):109-32Neural Responses to Visual Food Stimuli After a Normal vs. Higher Protein Breakfast in Breakfast-Skipping Teens: A Pilot fMRI Study. Leidy HJ, Lepping RJ, Savage CR, et al. Department of Dietetics & Nutrition, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, Kansas. Obesity 2011;19(10): 2019-2025..And while protein is essential in a healthy, balanced diet, there can be risks when people eat too much of it.

Macho, Macho Man — Why It Matters

Photo by Laura Schwecherl

Proteins contain amino acids that help repair and rebuild body tissue. The human diet should include ten to 35 percent protein, which comes from foods like meat, poultry, fish, and legumes. Protein can help with weight management, as people tend to feel fuller after eating protein-rich meals. (Eggs make for a better lunch than a double Dorito serving.)

People ages 18 and older should consume 0.36 grams of protein daily for every pound they weigh. So a 150-pound person needs about 54 grams of protein, equivalent to six ounces of cooked chicken breast. Who knew a little chicken could go a long way? Especially active people like marathoners or bodybuilders, should gobble down more protein to keep up with their fast metabolisms.

As important as protein is, eating too much is potentially dangerous. People looking to bulk up sometimes load up on protein, thinking steak and protein shots will produce insta-muscles. But a diet of green eggs and ham alone doesn’t do much toward defining those pecs, since eating protein without pumpin’ iron won’t build body muscleProtein and amino acids for athletes. Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. Department of Surgery, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX. Journal of Sports Science. 2004 Jan;22(1):65-79.. High protein intake also often goes hand in hand with skimping out on the carbs, which can lead to insufficient fiber— a cause of constipation and diverticulitis.

Protein: Peril or Power? — The Answer/Debate

There are definite health dangers to going after the Schwarzenegger look with an all-protein diet. It turns out our bodies can’t store excess protein, so once it’s broken down into amino acids, the kidneys excrete the nitrogen content. And the more protein we chow down, the harder the kidneys have to work to remove the waste. Studies suggest people with kidney disease should limit their protein intake, though there isn’t enough evidence to prove that excessive protein intake can actually cause kidney diseaseDietary protein intake and renal function. Martin WF, Armstrong LE, Rodriguez NR. Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT. Nutrition & Metabolism (Lond). 2005 Sep 20;2:25..

But don’t toss away all the eggs and bacon just yet, since not getting enough protein has its risks too. An insufficient amount of protein can lead to undernutrition, which may result in extreme weight loss, fatigue, or diarrhea. It’s best to get most protein from plant sources like beans, legumes, nuts, and soy products to steer clear of excess cholesterol. Skip the pig (we know bacon is heavenly, but still), and opt for lean meats like turkey, chicken, and beef tenderloin in moderation.

At the end of the day, it’s all about balance. Health problems can result from consuming too much or too little of any food group.