Expert calls warnings about high protein intake 'nonsense'

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

iStock / Lecic
iStock / Lecic
The myths surrounding high protein intake are hard to dispel, according to one of the field's foremost experts.

At the recent meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Jose Antonio, PhD spoke on the topic of protein misconceptions. Antonio is one of the founders of the society and is a professor of exercise and sports science at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

“There is so much bad news about protein and it is not hard to find,”​ Antonio told the audience at the meeting, which was held earlier this month in Clearwater Beach, FL.

“It’s as if protein and carbohydrates are mutually exclusive.”

Strength athletes consume high dosages

High- and ultra-high protein dosages have been the norm for Antonio’s target audience—primarily but not exclusively strength athletes—for years.

The DRI for protein intake as set by health authorities is 0.8 grams per kilo of bodyweight per day. For a sedentary 80 kg person that would work out to 64 grams. Most nutritionists advocate that people who are actively exercising consume more, with a standard recommendation for our 80 kg example coming in at around 145 grams.

Athletes concerned with increasing strength or muscle size frequently have consumed far more protein. Higher dosages start at 2.2g/kg or and go up from there, which would equate to about a 175 gram dose for our 80 kg body weight example.

Antonio said these high dosages have been viewed with suspicion for years. Too much protein, like too much of anything, just has to be bad for you, right?

“We’ve heard for years that too much protein puts a strain on kidneys, leads to bloating or weight gain, causes nausea or osteoporosis,”​ Antonio said. “It’s just made up. It’s nonsense.”  

Little data to support warnings

Antonio said there is in fact little data on protein overfeeding, and that which does exist tends not to support the protein doom and gloom hypotheses. Antonio did one study, for example, that looked at recreational bodybuilders consuming 4.4g/kg of protein​. The results were revelatory, he said.

“If you overeat on protein, it turns out it’s hard to get fat,” ​he said.

“The second study we did we dropped the dose to 3g/kg​, because the participants complained about the 4.4g/kg dose. We put them on a standard split bodybuilding routine. We found that the high protein group lost more fat, while there was not a difference in lean body mass between the groups,​” Antonio said.

Antonio also cast doubt on the notion that high protein dosages interfere with calcium uptake into the bones.

“A lot of the data on protein and bones are from acute studies, but to look at bone density you need long term data. In a one year study on trained women with high protein intakes there was no change,”​ he said.

Antonio said that while anyone consuming high amounts of protein of course needs a full suite of micronutrients, the protein itself won’t cause weight gain​ or lead to other deleterious effects. And it can provide some ancillary benefits, such as enhanced muscle protein synthesis, thermogenic effects and satiety promoting benefits.

“No one ever got fat from whey protein,”​ he said.

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