In the midst of popular fad diets including the Atkins diet, low carb, and paleo, we’ve gotten used to seeking simpler solutions to obtain our ideal bodies quickly. The golden aesthetic era of bodybuilding among famous bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, and Serge Nubret has glorified high protein consumption using protein shakes and bars, alongside all types of meat in order to build muscle and strength. We also learned that higher protein intake aids in weight loss and keeps you fuller for longer periods of time. However, there have been reports that a diet higher in protein makes the kidneys work harder, which can eventually lead to kidney failure. The reality, though, is that there’s a little more to the story than that.
Protein is actually made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of every aspect of our body, such as hair, nails, and skin. Lack of protein can result in brain fog, anemia, low sex drive, and depression. In extreme cases, like in third world countries where diets may often be void of proper nutrients, another result can be kwashiorkor, or severe protein malnutrition, caused by severely inadequate amount of protein in the diet.
So while recent reports have linked high-protein diets – diets that include about 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight – to poor kidney function, those reports originally stem from medical professionals advising clients with already poorly functioning kidneys (most likely due to fast food consumption, smoking, and drinking) to eat high protein diets.
The problem with the supposedly adverse relationship between high-protein diets and kidney function is that the claim only takes fragments of the truth into the equation. Yes, protein in high amounts can exacerbate already existent kidney issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cause them where they don’t already exist. Consider a different situation: pushups with a broken arm is a bad idea, so a doctor would probably tell you not to do them. However, does doing pushups cause arms to break? No. The same is true for protein and kidneys.
According to Precision Nutrition,
“Eating more protein does increase how much your kidneys have to work (glomerular filtration rate and creatinine clearance), just like jogging increases how much your legs have to work. But protein hasn’t been shown to cause kidney damage — again, just like jogging isn’t going to suddenly snap your leg like a twig.”
That being said, it is important to understand how high-protein diets affect your body in order to get the most out of them. For example, they increase metabolic waste being excreted in the urine, so it’s crucial to drink enough water to avoid dehydration.
And in the case that you are concerned about the effect that your diet is having on your kidneys, or about the state of your kidney health in general, it’s always a good idea to check in with a professional before totally blacklisting protein. For example, you can talk to your doctor about glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which is a test used to check how well the kidneys are working. Specifically, it estimates how much blood passes through the glomeruli – the tiny filters in the kidneys that filter waste from the blood – by the minute.
Bottom line: Without clear medical confirmation that you have a reason to worry, we promise you can totally enjoy your protein shake and then some.