Your Protein-Rich Diet May Be Turning Your Pee into an Environmental Pollutant

Too much dietary protein is causing big problems.
Too much dietary protein is causing big problems. / VioletaStoimenova/E+ via Getty Images

Americans are extremely pro-protein. We eat more meat—about 219 pounds per person each year—than any other country. Fitness buffs down protein shakes, grab protein bars, and bake with protein-enriched flours and mixes.

Now, a new study suggests our protein-infused urine is starting to give the environment real problems.

New research published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment takes a closer look at how the excreted byproducts of protein consumption are affecting wastewater. When we eat more protein than we require physiologically, the excess protein is broken down into urea, a nitrogen-rich compound in urine. The nitrogen can find its way into wastewater systems and infiltrate rivers, lakes, and even the atmosphere. Too much nitrogen in the environment can lead to algae blooms and acid rain, among other problems.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis and other institutions calculated how much nitrogen Americans' overconsumption of protein was adding to the environment, then modeled what would happen if Americans ate only the protein that was physiologically necessary. They found that nitrogen excretions into aquatic ecosystems would be reduced by 12 percent, and in both aquatic and atmospheric systems by 4 percent. By 2055, if Americans continued consuming only needed protein, we would excrete 27 percent less nitrogen than we do today, even with a burgeoning population.

While some sewage treatment plants can eliminate nitrogen, the technology is expensive and it’s available in less than 1 percent of plants nationwide.

So if you’re both health- and environmentally-conscious, what can you do? You could try reducing your meat consumption and adopting a plant-based diet (which would also save you money on steak and supplements.) And if building muscle mass at the gym isn’t a priority, you may want to reexamine how much protein you really need.

[h/t Scientific American]