Reader Mail: Protein Supplements and Nosy Co-workers

Recently, I was told by a co-worker that taking large amounts of protein in the morning like I do will cause me to have “severe kidney and liver problems”.  Much of this information seems to be perpetuated by a Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., who seems to adhere to the “Amino Acid Issue” argument.  Please see this link where he explains that protein supplements are just plain unhealthy:

Note that my current regimen is simple.  I have a 72Gram protein shake every morning – and I am very specific about what brand/type of protein I take.  I only use Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey Protein.  Yes, I do use it as a “meal replacement”, and the gains that I’ve realized from it have been tremendous, as my main goal is weight loss and overall health.  I have severe physical limitations so improving health by way of my daily diet is essential.  I’ve also been told that this much protein is pointless because your body can only handle 30Grams at once, is any of what I’m being told true?


Ah, there are some real classics involved here so let’s start going over them one at a time…

Does Protein Cause Kidney Problems?

This is an often cited concern issued to folks when warning others against large protein (PRO) consumption, and the majority of time I hear this it is coming from folks with anti-PRO agendas (think vegans, animal activists, diet authors, et al).  It just so happens that the website you mentioned is run by Dr. Joel Fuhrman who actually fits nicely into that niche as he sells a system and literature designed around hardcore vegetarian style beliefs.  This very same doctor cautions against eating fish, is still stuck in the anti-cholesterol dogma way of thinking, and generally appears to be pushing his agenda more than worrying about the science behind his claims.  We’ll get back to appreciating his article in a moment.

How PRO got such a bad rap is a bit of a mystery and most all of the studies cited by these anti-PRO groups have based their theories off of assumptions, poor study designs, subjects with prior renal conditions, and epidemiological data.  To date, I’m unaware of a single study that shows causal relationship between PRO consumption and kidney or liver problems.  There are even studies which have actually indicated correlation between higher PRO diets and benefits to the kidneys (1).  It’s worth noting that the Department of Health actually came up with their daily upper limit PRO guidelines “with insufficient information to enable a safe upper limit to be defined we feel it is probably prudent for adults to avoid PRO intakes or more than 1.5g PRO/kg”.  To me, this feels like nothing more than closing the eyes, aiming the weapon, and hoping they hit something.  It’s shameful that many still use these dietary guidelines verbatim as some authoritative document.  In your case, 72 grams of PRO would still fall well under the conservative guidelines illustrated here and, unless you are consuming multiple shakes in a day, you will likely still fall under these levels even taking the rest of your daily diet into consideration.

Let’s take it a step further though and look at a study done on bodybuilders who were exceeding the daily recommendations by a factor of four (2)!  In this study, it was revealed that subjects consuming upwards of 2.8g/kg PRO/day did not have health markers exceeding normal, healthy limits.  Bodybuilders, and athletes alike, have been consuming large quantities of PRO for decades so if there was a causative link between excess PRO consumption and organ health then I’m very surprised we haven’t detected it within this substantial candidate pool.  Although I realize the last statement isn’t exactly based on scientific principles, sometimes comparing the data we have with real-world results paints the most colorful picture.

Another famous study (3) specifically set out to test the effects of a prolonged, semi-carnivorous diet on the human body.  Although there were some limitations to the study design such as it only lasting around one year with a small subject pool of two, there were absolutely no negative markers noticed with a diet that included over two pounds of PRO per day.

Empirically, we could talk about societies such as the North American Inuits, the Maasai in Africa, and others that have thrived for generations on diets that regularly exceeded daily modern PRO recommendations.  These are all things that anti-PRO agendas regularly ignore or spin to make it seem as if these folks are not as healthy as the evidence shows.

Can the Human Body Only Utilize Certain Amount of Protein At Once?

This has always been one of my favorite myths because I believed in this growing up myself.  It has perpetuated for generations and we were regularly preached about this by our coaches as young athletes.  I must say how liberating it was when I discovered later in life that science doesn’t actually support this belief and that I didn’t have to pack half a dozen meals with me everywhere I went!

It is tough to say where this belief started but it could likely be explained by a combination of study interpretation and supplement company marketing.  It should also be noted that there is a distinct difference between the overall amounts of PRO which the body can handle/digest versus something more specific, say the amount of PRO required to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS).

The problem with such a matter of fact stance like this is that we just don’t give our bodies the credit they deserve.  For example, it has long been said that healthy and active individuals should have ample PRO of up to 2.0g/kg/day and may in fact thrive because if it.  Research has shown that athletes are not only safe doing so, but may actually see performance gains because if it (4).  By my quick math, that would be approximately 180-190g of PRO for a 200 pound male athlete.  If that athlete were only able to digest 30g at a time, that would be a minimum of six meals per day give or take.  Not only does that seem burdensome to meal-plan, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Essentially the human body acts in a reactive manner in which PRO is absorbed at a rate where larger PRO meals simply take longer to digest than smaller PRO meals.

There have been studies which indicate that as little as 10g of essential amino acids (EAAs) maximized MPS (5).  Most whole food meat sources have approximately 35-60% EAA by volume so this roughly equates to  around that 30g magical number however there are a couple things to keep in mind.  First, this particular study was done on subjects not necessarily indicative of the general public as they were not training, many were elderly, and it was specific to MPS and not overall PRO digestion capabilities.  It should be stated in context that dietary PRO does an awful lot more for us than just MPS such as organ repair, cell functionality, and proper immune system health.

Protein Supplements vs. Whole Foods

When deciding whether or not to use meal replacement strategies in the form of PRO supplements you should first understand that supplements, by definition, are not regulated by the FDA.  This becomes more important when talking about things like quality control.

There have historically been published reports, albeit somewhat sensationalized, of arsenic and lead being found in leading brand PRO supplements.  It should be noted that the levels found in the brand you mention are close to negligible.

My stance on PRO supplementation is that it’s generally not a big deal if you are doing it in a structured way, such as you are doing, with a strong reason to do so.  Sometimes convenience may be a factor as it can be tough to stop and cook a meal if you are on the go.  Be sure to account for the micronutrients missed by not eating whole foods throughout the rest of your day and you should be fine.  The most important thing I saw in your message is that it is working for you.  This is reason enough to keep you going strong!


Now let’s get back to Joel Fuhrman’s link.  I’m not going to spend too much time on it because anyone with half a marble should be able to spot the insanity and agenda-based details within the post.  A reader comment left below the article sums up my feelings.

What do they call the doctor that graduated at the bottom of his class?  They call him doctor…

Fuhrman’s theme of the article is that PRO should not be consumed at the high levels which Americans are currently consuming it, and the PRO that we do eat should be from vegetable sources.  There is actually some good information until he starts trying to promote vegetables as being easier for the body to digest than their animal product counterparts.  Ironically, as you can see in the following chart, vegetable sources fall far behind when it comes to PRO content digestibility.

He concludes his article with real gems like “When you artificially stimulate growth through overfeeding and excessive animal product consumption, you may achieve a heightened body mass index unobtainable by other means, but you will add fat to your body as well” and “Let me remind you that higher body mass index, even if that additional body mass is a mixture of extra muscle and fat, is a strong indicator of premature death.”

This is absolute sensationalism combined with oversimplification used in a manner to invoke an emotional from the reader, nothing of which is based on fact.  By his assertion, simply eating “excessive” animal products will cause us to get huge muscles and subsequently fat?  He also makes it sound as if becoming muscular will also cause us to die early?

He then goes on to cite an example of East German athletes from the 1964 Olympic team to support his thesis that physical size has a causal link to premature death.  I was going to elaborate on why this was not a good comparison but my bulky arms, very likely caused by excess animal product consumption, are really making it hard to type…and if eating like Dr. Fuhrman prescribes causes me to have his physique…then I think I’ll choose the die early option.


  1. D. Joe Millward (1999). Optimal intakes of protein in the human diet. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 58 , pp 403-413 doi:10.1017/S0029665199000531
  2. Poortmans JR and Dellalieux (2000).  Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes?  Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 10(1):28-38
  3. Walter S. McClellan and Eugene F. Du Bois (1930).  Prolonged Meat Diets – Study of Kidney Function and Ketosis (
  4. Campbell et al (2007).  International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise.  J Int Soc Sports Nutr., 4-8
  5. Cuthbertson D et al (2007).  Anabolic signaling deficits underline amino acid resistance of wasting, aging muscle.  FASEB J. 19(3):422-4 ( 

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