Are there risks to high-protein diets? The short answer is yes, but the risks are quite low. While anything consumed in excessive amounts – even water – can cause problems, most people eating a high-protein diet will not suffer any major negative effects.
We know there are definite advantages to eating more protein, as we detail in our main guide, “What are high-protein diets,” but what about the potential concerns and challenges?
This guide examines the most common concerns about a high-protein diet and explains whether scientific evidence supports them.
We also explore the practical considerations and challenges you may face when increasing your protein intake.
Risks and concerns
Will more protein hurt my kidneys?
Many people, including some healthcare professionals, worry that high-protein diets are harmful to kidney health.
While that may be true for those who already have advanced kidney disease, there is no evidence to suggest this is true for those with normal kidney function or mild to moderate kidney disease.
Regarding kidney stones, very-high animal protein diets (more than 2 grams/kg/day) have been associated with an increased risk of uric acid stones.
We cover all of this in detail, including the risk for kidney stones, in our guide on low-carb diets and kidney health; below we describe some of the relevant studies.
One study reports no harmful effects to bone and kidney health after one year of eating a high-protein diet of 3 grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day.
The following meta-analysis of nine RCTs and a separate, large observational study report that those who ate higher amounts of protein had a significantly reduced risk of developing kidney disease.
If you have advanced kidney disease, make sure you check with your physician before increasing your protein intake, as the general recommendation is to reduce protein intake in that setting. Otherwise, there is no credible evidence that high-protein diets hurt kidney function.
Will more protein hurt my bones?
One reason people speculate that more protein may be harmful to bone health is that higher protein foods, especially from animal sources, could lead to more acidic blood which, in theory, could harm our bones. However, the mechanistic data upon which this hypothesis is based have been questioned and – to a large extent – refuted. And the majority of clinical data suggest higher protein intake is beneficial, not harmful, to bone health.
One review of the literature reports that a high-protein intake (greater than current recommended levels of 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight per day) may be beneficial for the maintenance of bone health and the prevention of bone loss in older adults.
Because protein makes up approximately 50% of bone volume, it makes sense that we need adequate protein supplies to maintain healthy, strong bones.
Will more protein hurt my blood sugar?
One concern with a high-protein diet — especially for those on a low-carb diet — is that the amino acids in protein get converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis. Could eating more protein, therefore, lead to higher blood glucose levels?
Well-conducted physiological studies show that protein is not a meaningful contributor to higher blood glucose in healthy individuals or those with type 2 diabetes.
One study evaluated a meal with 50 grams of protein and didn’t find a significant increase in blood sugar.
Two other studies report that a diet with 30% of calories from protein improved glycemic control, and protein has been shown to lower blood glucose in other studies of people with type 2 diabetes.
For people with type 1 diabetes, it is important to note that protein has been found to increase late post-meal blood sugars when consumed along with dietary carbohydrate. In the absence of dietary carbohydrate, protein amounts up to 50 grams do not seem to raise post-meal blood glucose, while 75-100 grams of pure protein can raise blood glucose in a similar fashion to 20 grams of carbohydrate.
Will more protein raise my insulin levels and make me gain weight?
Although some fear the potential for higher insulin levels with protein, scientific studies don’t support this concern. Protein may briefly increase insulin concentrations, but high-protein diets are not known to cause hyperinsulinemia (chronically high insulin levels). In fact, for people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, a higher protein diet may be more beneficial than a lower protein one.
Most studies of high-protein diets demonstrate improved weight loss, even for people most susceptible to insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia — those with type 2 diabetes.
Who should avoid high-protein diets?
Although increasing protein can help many people with their health goals, some people should be cautious about their protein intake.
Anyone with advanced kidney disease should likely avoid high-protein intake and should consult with their healthcare provider for guidance.
The same is true for anyone using a keto diet as part of their treatment plan for seizures, mental health disorders, dementia, or cancer therapy. While the evidence is still in early stages, it suggests that higher fat intake with resultant higher ketone levels may provide more benefit in these therapeutic situations.
The key takeaway is that if you are using a keto diet to treat a specific medical condition, you shouldn’t do it alone. And you shouldn’t add more protein to your meals without checking with your physician.
If you need to find a low-carb friendly clinician, you can start with our find a doctor map to make sure you are getting adequate guidance and support.
Will more protein shorten my life?
One of the hottest concerns about protein is understanding what effect it has on human longevity. Animal data suggest that lower protein diets can improve longevity, although the implication for human diets is unclear.
The data suggesting animal protein intake leads to diabetes, heart disease, or even premature death are low-quality and should not be used to make conclusive arguments. To date, there is no high-quality evidence that animal protein worsens health or causes premature death.
Even if one believes the hypothesis that eating more protein reduces longevity, we still don’t know how to quantify the impact for an individual. Will it reduce your life expectancy by months? One year? One decade? And what are the trade-offs with respect to the beneficial effects of increased protein intake: weight loss, metabolic improvements, and improved healthspan?
We conclude that, based on the current level of evidence, the benefits of higher protein diets outweigh the potential drawbacks for the overwhelming majority of people.
Is eating more animal protein bad for my health?
Animal protein sources, most notably red meat, have been implicated in an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and early death. However, as we cover in our detailed guides on red meat and another on diet and cancer, the data against animal foods are very weak and do not support strong conclusions.
Even using the poor quality data, it is unclear what impact animal foods have on an individual’s health since the overall risk reported for large populations is so minimal.
However, when looking at higher quality evidence, there is no support that animal food sources are less healthy.
Can I overdo it on a high-protein diet?
You may wonder how much is too much protein or what will happen if you eat too much protein.
Based on calculations of the liver and kidney’s ability to safely handle protein, a 176-pound (80-kilo) person has a theoretical maximum of 365 grams of protein per day. That’s 73% of a 2,000 calorie diet! It’s safe to say that most people won’t have to worry about overeating protein.
However, if you happen to eat more protein than your body can safely handle, you will start to experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other unpleasant symptoms. In other words, you are likely going to notice.
How do I calculate my recommended protein intake?
The typical reference point for protein intake is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for daily protein, which is 0.8 grams per kilo. For an average 154-pound person (70 kilos), that equates to 56 grams of protein per day — about 6 ounces of steak. For women, the RDA is even less, around 46 grams.
However, the RDA recommendation addresses the minimum amount required to prevent protein deficiency. Preventing protein deficiency is not the same thing as the recommended amount for improving your health — a distinction that many people misunderstand.
We recommend 1.6 to 2.0 grams per kilo of reference body weight per day on a higher protein diet. That usually equates to around 30% of your calories from protein.
Minimum daily protein target
|Under 5’4″ ( < 163 cm)||90 grams||105 grams|
|5’4″ to 5’7″ (163 to 170 cm)||100 grams||110 grams|
|5’8″ to 5’10” (171 to 178 cm)||110 grams||120 grams|
|5’11” to 6’2″ (179 to 188 cm)||120 grams||130 grams|
|Over 6’2″ (188 cm +)||130 grams||140 grams|
If you are very physically active, over 50 years old, or most of your protein comes from plant sources, you may want to increase your protein even more than indicated above. Adding about 20-30 grams more per day will take you to the upper end of the 1.6 to 2.0 grams per kilo of reference body weight.
How do I know if a high-protein diet is appropriate for me?
Are you doing great with your current diet? Are you succeeding in your health goals and maintaining a healthy weight? Do you have plenty of energy? Are you free from struggling with hunger or cravings?
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, you likely don’t have to change anything in your diet. But if you are not succeeding in any of these areas, increasing your protein intake may benefit you.
Studies show that higher protein diets can help people lose weight and improve body composition, metabolic health, and bone health.
Higher protein diets can also improve satiety and decrease hunger.
Lastly, higher protein diets can reduce the risk of frailty and sarcopenia as you age.
If you are looking to improve any of these health metrics, as mentioned above, it may be worth trying a higher protein diet and see how you respond.
What if I feel hungry on a high-protein diet?
Some people who transition from a high-fat keto diet to a higher protein diet may notice increased hunger — at least in the beginning. This was the experience of some Diet Doctor team members when they experimented with a higher protein diet.
First, the good news. The increased hunger was temporary for most Diet Doctor team members. It was also easily addressed by adding high-protein snacks to calm hunger.
If you highly value the convenience of only eating twice a day without any snacks, then feeling hungry on a high-protein diet may be a deterrent. But before you abandon high-protein eating, make sure you are eating enough fiber-rich veggies and that you are getting enough overall calories, from both carbs and fats, to help ease your hunger.
Can I eat a high-protein diet if I eat a plant-based diet?
You absolutely can eat a high-protein diet even if you are plant-based. As our guides on high-protein foods and another on high-protein snacks show, plant-based foods like beans, lentils, peas, pumpkin seeds, and soy are good high-protein choices.
However, plant-based proteins tend to contain more carbohydrates and calories than the same amount of protein from animal sources. So, it may be difficult to increase your protein if you follow a very low-carb plant-based diet.
If you are looking for inspiration, here are some of our favorite plant-based high-protein recipes.