How Much Protein is TOO Much? All About Nitrogen Balance

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How Much Protein is TOO Much? All About Nitrogen Balance

How Much Protein do you REALLY Need? Are you in a Positive Nitrogen Balance?

If you are reading this article you are most likely one of the many people out there who strive to obtain the healthiest body that you can. We want to be in great shape, working to build muscle and eliminate fat, and in order to gain muscle we all know that we need protein.

Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Some amino acids are essential, meaning that they must come from the diet, while others are nonessential, meaning that when our bodies are functioning properly we are able to create these on our own.

Unfortunately there is not a precise formula that gives an individual the correct amount of protein for them. The amount of protein that you need varies based on age, sex, physical activity and protein source, just to name a few factors.

So how can you determine if the amount of protein that you are eating is too little or too much? Nitrogen testing is one tool that can help you to determine if your protein needs are being fulfilled, or if you may be going a bit overboard.

It is important to have a balanced diet, so while you do want to be consuming sufficient protein, you do not want to go overboard. It is also important to get a wide array of healthy fats, vitamins and minerals that come from foods that aren’t high in protein.

Protein, fats and carbohydrates are all made up of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, but only protein contains nitrogen. Because of this composition, you can have your protein levels determined through nitrogen testing.

If you consume excess protein, your body will eliminate it through your urine, so the level of nitrogen excreted can be measured and used to estimate the amount of protein in the body.

There are three outcomes of the nitrogen test: positive, negative or equilibrium.

Positive nitrogen balance shows that your nitrogen intake is greater than your nitrogen loss. This means that you are consuming more protein than your body is using. If you are wanting to build muscle you will know that you have sufficient protein to do so if your result is a positive nitrogen balance.

Negative nitrogen balance occurs when your nitrogen intake is not sufficient to cover your nitrogen needs. This is a catabolic state where your body is pulling protein from your muscles and other organs in your body to get the nitrogen it needs.

A negative nitrogen balance can lead to muscle deterioration and a hampered immune system due to your body containing fewer antibodies to fight infections. This can be serious, however it is luckily rare in the US as the majority of us consume more protein than we actually need.

Overtraining is one of the main causes of a negative nitrogen balance in the US.

Equilibrium is when your nitrogen intake and nitrogen output are equal, showing that you are consuming the correct amount of protein for your body.

Tips to Maintaining Equilibrium or a Positive Nitrogen Balance

The amount of protein that you need is not simple a number of grams per day as there are a variety of amino acids that you must consume in your diet. You need to be getting all of the essential amino acids, so some forms of protein are not as valuable as others.

One way to be sure to get sufficient protein is to consume foods that are complete protein sources. This can come in the way of a varied diet or by consuming foods that contain all essential amino acids. These foods include eggs, meats (chicken, fish, beef, etc), dairy, soy and quinoa.

The body does some amazing things, including creating its own protein. Protein synthesis inside of the body occurs when you rest, so be sure to get enough sleep and give your body days off to recover if you are training.

Workouts are best to be kept to 45 minutes or less, and it is important to train only when your body is fully recovered from your last training session.

It is also commonly thought that those who workout need vastly larger quantities of protein, however studies have found that both endurance and strength exercises may act in such a way that the body retains amino acids rather than excreting them. What this means is that the body holds onto its protein, so you do not need to consume as much.

There is even evidence that training triggers muscle protein synthesis, with studies showing that when you workout muscle protein breakdown is less than muscle protein synthesis.

Studies have found that high protein diets are most advantageous to those trying to lose weight. High protein diets are advantageous to keeping muscle and burning fat during periods of energy restriction, when we are cutting back calories in an attempt to lose weight.

All of these studies show that athletes may actually need less protein than someone on a diet!

So the question remains – how much protein do you need to maintain a positive nitrogen balance? It is much less than you have likely heard from the fitness literature, which tends to state that bodybuilders and athletes should get close to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.

Eating this much protein would equate to roughly 35% of one’s diet if on an energy restricted diet. If fat were at 20%, this would not leave efficient carbohydrates to maintain optimal muscle glycogen levels. This would lead to hampered physical performance, the opposite of what athletes need!

Using nitrogen balance data it was found that the protein requirements for strength athletes is 1.3 grams protein per kg of weight per day (0.6 g/lb) and for endurance athletes 1.1 grams protein per kg of body weight per day (0.5 g/lb).

The 1 gram per pound of body weight is a more appropriate amount for someone who is on a diet and is trying to lose fat while maintaining muscle, rather than someone who is trying to maintain weight or gain muscle.

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References:

1. Amino acids and implications for athletes
Amino Acids and Implications for Athletes protein synthesis and recovery
2. Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes
Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes
3. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to metabolic advantage
Phillips dietary protein athletes
4. Blood urea nitrogen: what it is and why yours is high (or low)
Blood,urea,nitrogen what it is and why is yours high or low
5. Protein – which is best?
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
6. Nitrogen balance and protein requirements
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucbcdab/Nbalance/Nbalance.htm
7. Dietary protein and nitrogen utilization
http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/7/1868S.full

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