In the U.S., people eat more protein than they need to. And though it might not be bad for human health, this excess does pose a problem for the country’s waterways. The nation’s wastewater is laden with the leftovers from protein digestion: nitrogen compounds that can feed toxic algal blooms and pollute the air and drinking water. This source of nitrogen pollution even rivals that from fertilizers washed off of fields growing food crops, new research suggests.
When we overconsume protein—whether it comes from lentils, supplements or steak—our body breaks the excess down into urea, a nitrogen-containing compound that exits the body via urine and ultimately ends up in sewage. Maya Almaraz, a biogeochemist at the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues wanted to see how much of this nitrogen is being flushed into the U.S. sewage system because of a protein-heavy diet.
The researchers combined population data and previous work on how much excess protein the average American eats and found that the majority of nitrogen pollution present in wastewater—some 67 to 100 percent—is a by-product of what people consume. “We think a lot about sewage nitrogen. We know that’s an issue,” Almaraz says. “But I didn’t know how much of that is actually affected by the choices we’re making way upstream—when we go the grocery store, when we cook a meal and what we end up putting in our bodies.”
Once it enters the environment, the nitrogen in urea can trigger a spectrum of ecological impacts known as the “nitrogen cascade.” Under certain chemical conditions, and in the presence of particular microbes, urea can break down to form gases of oxidized nitrogen. These gases reach the atmosphere, where nitrous oxide (N2O) can contribute to warming via the greenhouse effect and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can cause acid rain.
Other times, algae and cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria also called blue-green algae, feed on urea directly. The nitrogen helps them grow much faster than they would normally, clogging vital water supplies with blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, other animals and plants. And when the algae eventually die, the problem is not over. Microorganisms that feast on dead algae use up oxygen in the water, leading to “dead zones,” where many aquatic species simply cannot survive, in rivers, lakes and oceans. Blooms from Puget Sound to Tampa, Fla., have caused large fish die-offs.
Although it is possible to treat algal blooms, many of the current methods—such as spraying clay particles or chemicals over the surface of a bloom to kill and sink the algae—are not always effective at eliminating all of the harmful growth. Some of these methods can even lead to additional pollution. So the best strategy for dealing with the effects of nitrogen pollution is prevention, says Patricia Glibert, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland, who was not involved with the new study.
One option for preventing nitrogen from getting into the environment is improving wastewater treatment plants. The technology exists to remove 90 percent of nitrogen from wastewater, but only 1 percent of all U.S. sewage is currently treated this way, partly because the technology is so expensive. Equipping plants in China to remove nitrogen from three quarters of the country’s urban sewage cost more than $20 billion. Almaraz and her team suggest, however, that curbing nitrogen pollution could be approached more quickly with a change in eating habits that could save billions of dollars in the long term.
Their new study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, broke down protein requirements by age (adults 50 to 70 years old need the most) for the current U.S. population and projected future populations out to 2055. By midcentury, the country’s population is expected to be larger overall and to have a greater percentage of older people. The researchers calculated the amount of nitrogen that would enter the environment if people ate today’s average American diet and if they instead reduced their protein intake to only what is nutritionally needed.
This shift in diet alone could reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching aquatic ecosystems by 12 percent today and by nearly 30 percent in the future, according to the study’s results. Such a change could also help reduce damaging nitrogen pollution while wastewater infrastructure catches up. “Many people think that we need to all switch to becoming vegetarians. Obviously, that’s not practical. That’s not something that is really ever going to happen,” Glibert says.
Rather than cutting out any foods entirely, she suggests consumers could switch to a “demitarian” diet—an approach that focuses on reducing the consumption of meat and dairy, which currently make up about two thirds of the protein eaten in the U.S. “Enjoy your steak, enjoy your burger but go modest on your meat consumption in your following meal,” she says.
“One cool area that opens up here is how human behavior can influence our environment,” Almaraz says. “I think it can be really empowering to people to understand that, ‘hey, my choices—once those add up with other people making similar choices—can actually have a positive impact.’”
Protein buildup in the kidneys creates a much more acidic environment in the kidneys, causing you to have to pee all the time. Increased acid production can also cause problems in the bones and liver. Side effects start with mild dehydration but can lead to the development of kidney stones, which are intensely painful. One interesting note-researchers found that plant and dairy proteins had a much lower negative effect on renal function than nondairy animal protein (meat) did.
high-protein diet might have helped you tone up for summer or get closer to your goal weight, but could it also be contributing to your blue mood? Maybe. Especially if your protein-to-carb ratio is way off base. Carbs run the show in your brain, telling it what to do and how to do it. Carbohydrates are specifically responsible for releasing serotonin-your body’s “feel good” hormone. One study from the American Medical Association on the psychological effects of low-fat and low-carb diets found that people who adhered to a high-protein, high-fat and low-carb diet for a year experienced more anxiety, depression and other negative feelings than those on a low-fat, high-carb, moderate-protein diet.
High-protein diets are often low in fiber-especially when your main protein sources are from animal products-which can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Fiber helps move everything along through your intestines, and it can only be found in plant foods. Simply mixing up your protein intake with foods that deliver both fiber and protein, like whole grains, beans or tempeh, can make a huge impact. Also, try ramping up your fruit and vegetable intake to get way more health benefits than just getting regular again.
Think protecting your body from chronic diseases and weight gain, and keeping your gut healthy, just to name a few. High-protein diets are often praised for helping people drop a dress size or two in as short as a week-but the long-term effects aren’t as desirable. Following a high-protein diet often means eating very few carbs, which isn’t sustainable for most of us in the long run. This can lead to food cravings and less energy to get your morning workout in, and can make you regain the weight you worked so hard to lose.
Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist who has spent years studying the brain-weight link. She told EatingWell, “Don’t do anything to lose weight you’re not willing to do forever.” This is because your brain can certainly adjust its behaviors once you lose the weight, but it needs you to continue your efforts in order to maintain it. Opting for restrictive diets-like keto-may not be your best bet for long-term health after all.
Even if you’re someone who gets those coveted eight hours of sleep every night, eating too much protein can still leave your body tired for several reasons. First, we now know that overconsumption can put a strain on your kidneys, liver and bones-causing them to work overtime. Also, eating too few carbs can really affect our brains-preventing us from being sharp, focused and energized each day.
Since carbs are your brain’s main source of energy, you probably want to increase your intake of healthy ones, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, to get you back to your best. Not only can this help you get your energy back, but you’ll be getting more of the vitamins, minerals and fiber that your body needs to be healthy and happy overall.
If you or someone you know has tried the keto diet, you’ve likely head of the term “keto breath.” This happens when you’re focused more on consuming protein and fat instead of healthy carbs: your body has to adjust and produces ketones that smell awful, like acetone (yes, the ingredient in nail polish remover!).
Trying to find a more balanced approach when it comes to macronutrient consumption will help your body get up and running on carbs again and get your breath nice and fresh once more. Simply swapping out several sources of animal protein for plant versions-like whole grains and beans-each week will still keep your protein intake at the high end of your daily needs, while increasing your intake of healthy carbs.
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