An expert shares tips on finding the right balance for optimal health and performance.
It’s easy to see the appeal of protein powder. It’s a versatile, no-brainer way to up your intake of this essential nutrient without having to cook a big steak or use up the chicken in your fridge before it goes bad. No wonder the global protein supplement industry raked in $72 billion in 2020 and is projected to increase to $114 billion by 2030, according to some estimates.
Research shows that supplementing protein powder (alongside strength training) may help build muscle and promote recovery following exercise. But can there be too much of a good thing? Could there be side effects to getting too much of this popular dietary supplement? Here’s the lowdown.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Protein Powder in a Day?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein can vary depending on things like age and activity level. But generally, adults need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of body weight each day. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 54 grams.
Older adults, athletes, people trying to lose weight while maintaining their muscle mass, and those looking to up their amount of lean muscle may need more than this. For example, athletes and those doing intense physical activity consistently may require between 1.2 and 2.0 daily grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
According to a 2019 article published in the journal Nutrients, getting enough protein is required for good overall health, muscle building, tissue repair, growth and development, and immune function. Plus, research published in the Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome found that people who consumed 18% of their daily calories from protein showed 50% less weight gain when compared to the control group, who consumed 15% of their daily calories from protein. For reference, 15% of daily calories from protein when using a 2,000-calorie day amounts to 75 grams, while 18% amounts to 90 grams of protein.
What Are the Side Effects of Too Much Protein Powder?
As with most things in life, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. “The biggest issue with overdosing on protein is that it can lead to amino acid imbalances and inhibit the body’s ability to utilize other nutrients correctly. This can increase your risk for muscle loss, fatigue and weakness,” cautions Reda Elmardi, RD, CPT, a registered dietitian, personal trainer and founder of ActivBuilt. “And research from the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology shows that high doses of protein may increase the risk of kidney damage.” That’s because these organs are responsible for filtering out waste products from protein metabolism. So if you consume too much protein it can burden your kidneys, according to the National Kidney Foundation. People with preexisting kidney conditions or impaired kidney function should be especially careful with their protein powder consumption and consult a health care professional before taking it.
Overdoing it with protein powder could cause a range of other side effects, too, including digestive discomfort, such as bloating, gas and constipation, and an increased risk of dehydration, since protein requires water for digestion and the elimination of waste products, per the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
How Much Protein Powder Can You Have Each Day?
Again, the appropriate amount of protein powder to include in your daily routine depends on several factors like your age, weight, gender and activity level. “If you casually lift weights, then you don’t need as much protein as someone training for a sport or body-building contest,” says Elmardi. “But if you’re trying to gain muscle mass, then between 1 and 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight is recommended. Conversely, if your goal is weight loss, then between 0.8 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is a good amount to aim for.” Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian to determine the appropriate amount of protein powder that aligns with your specific goals and dietary needs.
Another important thing to note: While protein powder is a convenient way to increase your intake, it shouldn’t replace whole foods as your primary protein source—because they contain other nutrients essential for overall health. Aim to strike a balance and use protein powder supplements as just that—to supplement a well-rounded diet.
The Bottom Line
When consuming protein powder, finding the right balance is critical. Excessive protein powder consumption can have side effects from nutrient imbalances and kidney damage to digestive discomfort and dehydration. However, by following some practical tips, you can enjoy the benefits of protein powder without going overboard. Like any dietary supplement, always prioritize whole foods before taking protein powder. And seek advice from your doctor or a registered dietitian to help you calculate your protein needs and find the sweet spot for protein powder in your diet.