The right amount of protein The right amount of protein

Excessive consumption of protein affects kidney function, while a lack of protein while cases a loss of muscle mass and reduces performance. Learn why it is important.

Advisor: Claudia Preciado
Nutritionist dietitian

To understand what protein does in the body, it is necessary to address the two extremes. The first case is that of vegetarians, who eliminate chicken, fish, and red meat from their diet, as well as vegans, who eliminate all animal products, without finding a suitable plant-based protein replacement.

To transition to one of these options, professional guidance is key in order to know which supplements are recommended and how much, according to body weight. Nutritionist Claudia Preciado explains that “there is a requirement that a healthy patient must always meet: to consume at least one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight. So, if I weigh 60 kilos, I should eat at least 60 grams of protein a day.” She adds that 100 grams of meat, chicken, or fish provide approximately 20 grams of protein, while a glass of milk or an egg provides up to 7 grams. “Vegans who do not properly transition to this lifestyle do not meet their minimum protein requirements.”

If animal protein is not adequately replaced, it can cause nutrient deficiencies, such as calcium, iron, and vitamin D and B12, which can lead to major health problems. “Lack of vitamin B12 can lead to anemia. This is quite common in vegans who do not find plant-based alternatives. Usually, they need supplements by means of sublingual capsules or intramuscular injections.”

Pantry essentials

Both vegans as well as vegetarians have to replace animal protein with plant-based protein. In this, legumes are the protagonists: beans, lentils, and peas. “They provide an amount of protein similar to meat, but it’s not the same. A portion of legumes can contain up to 15 grams of protein, while meat contains 20 grams. Plant-based protein is absorbed and used in a different way than animal protein, which is known as protein bioavailability.”

Legumes and grains are missing two essential amino acids found in meat, lysine, and methionine, which is why legumes must be mixed with other products that do have these amino acids, such as sesame seeds, flaxseed, chia, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds. “If people mix the legumes and seeds, taking into account their weight and body’s needs, they shouldn’t have any major nutritional problems and should meet their daily protein requirement,” states the specialist.

The truth is that this type of diet also has benefits. Nutritionist Claudia Preciado explains that there are studies with sufficient scientific evidence to establish that vegetarians are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol. “Studies have shown that vegetarians lower their glycemia, cholesterol, and blood pressure rates more easily and that it is easier for them to lose weight. Problems appear when they do not know how to do it properly and, because of trends or their own appreciation, they stop eating products of animal origin.”

Excessive consumption, the other extreme

Excessive protein is considered to be consuming more than two grams of protein per day for every kilogram of body weight. Having a professional check the protein levels of their other foods is particularly important for a person who is going to use protein-enriched food, otherwise some body functions may be affected. “Protein has nitrogen, and this is toxic to the body. The kidneys are responsible for eliminating it through urine,” the specialist emphasizes.

So, if there is an abundance of nitrogen, the kidneys have to work harder to eliminate it. “Over the years, this can damage these organs. If someone already has a previous kidney problem, deterioration can be accelerated. Kidney patients need a special, strict protein-controlled diet depending on their condition,” the nutritionist says.

Ketogenic diets are also related to excessive protein consumption. In this case, the patient replaces carbohydrates with protein. “In a normal diet, about 50% of calories come from carbohydrates,” explains Claudia Preciado. “In the keto diet, the individual’s caloric needs are met with fat and protein. A hyper-protein diet contains 20% or more protein, while a normal diet contains 15%, and keto diets contain 70% fat and approximately 20% protein,” she adds.

Preciado concludes that the lack of carbohydrates in keto diets can decrease performance in endurance athletes. It could also cause those who are strength training to sustain the muscle mass they have, and not increase it. “Carbohydrates are usually stored in the muscle and liver as glycogen along with water. For every gram of glycogen stored, 3 grams of water are stored. When you stop consuming carbohydrates, the initial weight loss is more water than body fat.” The goal is to find balance, to listen to the body and its needs. And most importantly, to seek expert advice.

It is essential that before making a radical change in your protein intake, either increasing or decreasing it, you consult with a specialist who can guide the process.