Most People Are Eating Too Much Protein – And It Has Serious Consequences

Balanced consumption of protein could improve water quality.

Protein consumption increases nitrogen pollution in US waters.

According to research from the University of California, Davis, balancing how much protein you consume with how much your body requires may cut nitrogen releases to aquatic systems in the U.S. by 12% and total nitrogen losses to air and water by 4%.

The amount of protein consumed in the US, from both plant and animal sources, is among the highest worldwide. According to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, despite population growth, estimated nitrogen excretion rates in 2055 for Americans would be 27% lower than they are now if they consumed protein at the recommended levels.

This research is the first to quantify the contribution of protein consumption to excess nitrogen in the environment through human waste. Additionally, it shows that coastal cities have the most potential to lower nitrogen excretions that are headed toward their watersheds.

“It turns out that many of us don’t need as much protein as we eat, and that has repercussions for our health and aquatic ecosystems,” said lead author Maya Almaraz, a research affiliate with the UC Davis Institute of the Environment. “If we could reduce that to an amount appropriate to our health, we could better protect our environmental resources.”

UC Davis researcher Maya Almaraz in South Africa during a workshop on protein sustainability. Credit: Maya Almaraz

Protein shake-up

The human body requires protein. But when a body takes in more protein than it needs, excess amino acids break it down into nitrogen, which is excreted mostly through urine and released through the wastewater system. This brings additional nitrogen into waterways, which can result in toxic algal blooms, oxygen-starved “dead zones” and polluted drinking water.

Based on population data from the U.S. Census, the scientists predicted present and future nitrogen excretion exports. They observed an increased pattern over time, with exports rising 20% between 2016 and 2055. This rise is attributed to both population expansion and an aging population, which needs more protein to minimize muscle loss.

Coastal cities have the most potential

The population of coastal cities is expected to increase significantly over the next few decades, and migration patterns from the suburbs suggest that this growth will typically be accompanied by an increase in the number of nutrients being carried by wastewater, stormwater runoff, and other sources.

According to the research, there is a significant possibility to reduce dietary nitrogen loading to watersheds in coastal cities along the West Coast, Texas, Florida, Chicago, and especially the northeastern United States.

Balance your diet

Sewage contributes 15% of the total nitrogen flux from land to the ocean in North America, the study said. Technology capable of removing 90% of the nitrogen in sewage exists, but less than 1% of sewage is treated with it due to its expense. Eating a diet that balances protein with the body’s needs can be healthier for humans and reduce nitrogen pollution in the environment without additional wastewater treatment costs.

“It’s interesting to think about possible ways to cut into those nitrogen losses beyond expensive technology,” said Almaraz. “Dietary changes are a healthy and cheap way to do it.”

Reference: “The impact of excessive protein consumption on human wastewater nitrogen loading of US waters” by Maya Almaraz, Caitlin D Kuempel, Andrew M Salter and Benjamin S Halpern, 21 June 2022, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
DOI: 10.1002/fee.2531

The study was funded by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund.

DietNutritionPollutionProteinUC Davis
Comments ( 29 )
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  • jorgen

    Does anybody believe in “scientists” any more? Certainly not I – not any more.

    • Clyde Spencer

      Notice at the bottom of the article it says:
      “The study was funded by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund.”

      Do you suppose that any of those organizations have an interest in reducing meat consumption?

    • Sam

      When my dad came over from Holland, he was shocked to see us eating “Pigs feed” (corn)… that was not for people, but animals. I never could eat the stuff, it made me sick, so I was with him, there.

      Soy based products, other than the odd soy sauce on rice, made me feel lethargic, so with you on that one.

      I went vegetarian simply because I didn’t like the way animal protein made my stomach feel. Now at 54, I have more energy than I did at 24.

      Mind you, one man’s cure is another man’s poison. I can’t really see a 350Lb Texan addicted to his BBQ switching to dal and saag dishes any time soon XD

      • Clyde Spencer

        I think that it is more important to ‘listen’ to your body, rather than what some expert tells you that you should do.

        Look at all the past fads about what you should or shouldn’t eat, including eggs, sugar, synthetic sweeteners, butter/margarine, and now meat. And then, there is the more recent concern about soy products having an effect mimicking estrogen!

        • Sam

          Golden advice, Clyde!

  • Burger King

    Soylent green!

  • Notsurprised

    Are you kidding me? Is this funded by Bill Gates? Why is starving yourself environmentally friendly now? They want to cut back on livestock because methane blah blah blah when that is t even the largest producer of methane in the world. They are going way over the line already and now they are trying this? Hopefully they don’t try to find a way to enforce this. I guess they’ve started with farms forced to cut back on fertilizer…. This is insane like more insane than I am.

    • Notsurprised

      I meant isn’t the largest producer….

  • Noise

    What an awful article. It may be the case the some people eat more protein than they need, but many in this world do not have access to the protein that they do need. The article does not even give any guidelines to judge how much one should get. And in many cases, one would have to maintain a careful food diary to estimate what they are getting.

    General guidelines are .8-1.2 gm protein / kg reference (non-fat) body weight. More if one is very active or building muscle mass.

    It’s almost impossible to make this a one-number-fits-all approach. And this article does not even approach the level of giving any useful advice.

    Sufficient protein is hard to come by with a pure vegetarian diet, making this likely to have
    some sort of anti-meat agenda.

  • MD

    Give me a break. This is some of the dumbest crap I have ever heard. This is not news worthy. Seriously people should get real jobs

  • WJ

    I am a scientist. Sadly I am seeing too much propaganda presented as science to fit the agendas of various quasi political groups. The result is a loss of confidence in science and scientist. Time to remove agendas and politics from science.

  • Donald

    So I shouldn’t eat protein because of what some crazy scientists say? Are these the same people that think a man can just magically become a woman!?

  • Mark Pappas

    It is unfortunate that progress is regress. The Earth our mother harmonic organism is reacting and in a state of decline this particular cycle. It’s all so temporary. This is the great Sophia knowing our eternal existence.

  • Darrell

    If the issue is excess nitrogen, and we pee out excess sugar and processed food (that doesn’t turn to fat), shouldn’t that be the focus of this article? It would be much, much more significant of an effect to reduce nitrogen than protein (which most people in the US are getting adequate amounts while other countries don’t). Plus, everyone will become healthier.

  • Gina

    Guess Carnivores will love this study….no

  • JB

    So now Leftists are going to be on this and be all concerned about how much a person pees nitrogen….
    Really..

  • Davesnapfitness

    This is by far the most idiotic thing I’ve read all month!
    No education here at all! I am a Dietitian/ Nutritionist/ Personal Trainer / Strength and Conditioning Coach / gym owner with over 30 years experience!
    Don’t listen to this bulls***!
    Protein is the most important macro you can have. The reason why USA has the highest obesity rate i. The world is attributed to UNDER EATING protein! This is cherrie picked Propaganda meant to make you all I’ll so you spend money on meds! Shame on these people!

  • Over it

    My apartment’s landscaper mows and dumps lawn clippings into the adjacent pond. I bet that has exceedingly greater impacts of nitrogen than eating meat on a daily or weekly basis. God, focus on the real issues and nitrogen producers.

  • Diane

    Of course the clap trap is featured on Google. Just more propaganda to fit the latest narrative. How many people believe these lame attempts to make us sick, compliant puppets?

  • Daniel Zelazny

    Not one word about how much protein is needed.
    I think they are suggesting that we all stop eating, that we’d all die, and the planet would be fine.
    What a worthless article.

  • John Inman

    Am I missing something? How much protein is harmful and how much is needed? Is 50 grams,40,grams too much or too little? The RDA is based on starvation or just short of it, right? People live on less than the above amounts to a ripe old age. We are so spoiled. The whole Wayne live means boiling the planet, more and more; it never stops

  • DK Albino

    I love meat, but the comment about reducing human corn consumption is ignorant. The huge majority of corn grown in the US is feed corn – for animal consumption, not humans. It’s what your beef grows on. Corn ag is a major nitrogen issue but we grow so much to raise our meat with, not to eat ourselves.

  • Steve Nordquist

    So it’s expensive to treat wastewater for creatinine excess and such. Health monitor watches might have a ways to go to urge on workouts to match steakhouse outings or other protein excesses, also tough on kidneys.

    <3 UC Davis…

  • Jason

    Why are there so many pseudo-science freaks commenting here who have CLEARLY no intellectual capacity to read and comprehend this short, simple to understand article?

  • John Karkalis

    “Sound” science has crossed over into the never-never land of Fox News. The “one size fits all” pronouncements raises a red flag. How often are were treated to claims of “evidence based” or “clinically proven” as scientific proof?
    Let the reader beware.
    Could the real problem be aliens?

  • James Kotalik

    One of the best solutions is to compost sewage along with plant waste, add it to the dirt that’s out there, use less fertilizer.

  • mike murphy

    Notice how none of these people have anything to do with studying human nutrition what’s next nutritionists telling us about climate science

  • Braaainz

    No mention of nitrogen based fertilizers being a bigger cause. Hunh