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Grain-Free Diets: How Much Protein is Too Much?

Grain-Free Diets:  How Much Protein is Too Much?

Grain-free diets can be truly amazing tools for those with autism, ADHD, allergies, autoimmune and digestive disorders. But with diet, as with other things in life, one size does not fit all. You may be aware of the popularity of Paleo or Primal diets and other grain-free diets such as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and GAPS. You can read more about them in my article Is a Grain-Free Diet Right For You. These diets have tremendously positive results for some people, but there are some potential issues with these diets that people should be aware of.

It is not uncommon for my clients as well as other people on grain-free diets to have other complicating dietary restraints such as food allergies and intolerances that further narrow the diet. If someone is limited because they can’t or won’t eat vegetables, can’t eat fruit or tolerate fructose or FODMAPS foods, or they have other limitations such as oxalate, salicylate, amine or glutamate foods, they sometimes end up overeating meat. People on grain-free diets also often eat a lot of meat to fill them up and make them feel satiated. Some clients come to me eating multiple servings of protein at every meal.

As I explained in Too Much Blame on the Grain, a reliance on too much meat in the diet can lead to toxic levels of ammonia in the body. As protein is broken down to amino acids, ammonia is formed, and high levels of ammonia can be produced in the body from consuming excess protein. This ammonia can damage the kidneys, liver, and other organs including the brain. The urea cycle has to work hard in order to detoxify all that ammonia. Because there is an intricate relationship between the urea cycle and the Krebs cycle, or citric acid cycle, when we drive the urea cycle hard in that manner, we can affect the Krebs cycle and this can impact the generation of energy in the mitochondria and certain markers on an Organic Acid Test (OAT).

There is nothing inherently dangerous about a grain-free diet. But everyone has a different tolerance for protein, carbohydrates and fats in the diet, and any diet should be tailored to individual needs. Natasha Campbell McBride’s One Man’s Meat is Another Man’s Poison explains this beautifully. While some people seem to thrive on high-protein diets, others may seem to do fine for a while, but without realizing it the levels of ammonia are building and causing a whole new set of symptoms and problems. You may feel more fatigue or notice brain fog, or see flapping or stimming in your children, for example.

One factor that plays a role in a person’s tolerance for protein is a gene called CBS. You may have heard about the MTHFR polymorphism; there certainly seems to be a lot of talk about it in the circles I run in today. The truth is that there are many methylation cycle defects and MTHFR is just one of them. In my opinion, the CBS gene is much trickier to deal with, and incorrect diet and supplementation can really have serious health consequences in those with CBS. People with CBS polymorphisms can already have a tendency toward high ammonia, so additional ammonia created by diet or improper supplementation could create additional problems. The full effect of CBS is beyond the scope of this article, and I will address it in a future article for those that are interested, but I mention it as an example of a person who may be predisposed to ammonia problems and where a high-protein diet can do more harm than good.

Ammonia in the body, whether it comes from diet or any other factor, requires detoxification by the urea cycle. This detoxification of ammonia depletes BH4, or Tetrahydrobiopterin. BH4 is an intermediate that plays a crucial role with neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. So excess ammonia in the diet depleting your BH4 can affect mood, sleep, and the development of language. A lack of BH4 due to ammonia detoxification also creates oxidative damage in the body as peroxynitrite or superoxide can be produced. Lower levels of BH4 can even lead to higher histamine levels by affecting mast cell degranulation. These high histamines can cause more than the sniffles. You can learn about how histamines affect sleep, migraines, OCD, the gut and more in my article Could Histamine Be Sabotaging Your Digestive Health.

Some of you may already know that you carry the MTHFR A1298C allele. MTHFR is receiving much attention, and this attention is well-deserved. The MTHFR A1298C variant may also affect BH4 levels. So high ammonia from a high-protein diet and the detoxification of this ammonia may further deplete BH4 in those with MTHFR A1298C, leading once again to those mood, sleep, and language development issues.

There are also other methylation cycle defects that affect dopamine, serotonin, and urea cycle function that complicate issues even more.

It is important to talk to your doctor before reducing protein in the diet. Protein reduction can trigger a lot of detoxification. Ammonia in the gut can also affect gut pH and therefore the balance of microbial flora, so any quick changes can cause gut imbalances. When it comes to dietary change, or adding supplements to your program, I always tell my clients that “slower is faster”. When I work with clients with high ammonia to reduce protein in the diet, we do it very, very slowly as to avoid triggering rapid detox and undesirable symptoms.

Everyone needs protein, fat, and carbs in their diet, and the ratio of these macronutrients needed by each person is very individual. If you are not getting the results you want on a healing diet, you might need to make some adjustments. It is not a bad idea to do some genetic testing, particularly if you are not progressing on a grain-free diet. There are two great options for doing so. Nutrigenomic Testing through Dr. Amy Yasko is more expensive, and requires a few drops of blood, but focuses on genes more specific to the methylation cycle and the implications of methylation cycle defects and ways to bypass them. Additionally, there is a forum available to ask questions and biochemical testing through Dr. Amy is an option. 23andMe is a saliva test and it is more affordable but requires more work in order to interpret the results and their implications. Right now 23andMe is running an awesome promotion. Get your 23andMe DNA kit for $99, all additional kits are 20% off.

Come join my group on Facebook, where we are always discussing these issues! 

Using my Fullscript dispensary, you can enjoy 30% off MSRP (this was an option that I decided to extend to you rather than keep for myself) on my favorite product lines such as Thorne, Klaire, and Pure Encapsulations.  There are no fees to join, membership or any tricks. Free shipping over $50. This website is designed for me to pass along recommendations to my clients but I want to pass the savings along to everyone. You can visit my Fullscript dispensary here.

This site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Please consult with a qualified medical professional before making any dietary or supplement changes. Read our full disclaimer here.


This article was featured at Real Food Forager, Our Heritage of Health and Natural Living Mamma.



  1. Jan says:

    Looking forward to reading more on CBS polymorphisms. My son had Yasko testing done and has this. After many years of supplements and diet (SCD) – he is completely healed. However, something I read the other day about molybdenum and headaches and CBS upregulation made it suddenly dawn on me that it could possibly be the link I’ve missed in 14 years of trying to discover the root cause of what triggers my migraines that last for days at a time. So, this was rather timely and quite interesting to read. Anyway, great article, glad I found your site!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Hi Jan! I am SO happy to hear about your son’s complete healing!!! It seriously makes my day to hear those things! I will definitely write more about this since there is such an interest in this topic right now. I have heard moly can help with headaches when CBS is an issue. I assume it is because it helps detox sulfites. I don’t have CBS, but when I had migraines that lasted for several days I could usually trace them to glutamate or histamine in the diet. I wrote articles on both of those topics in case you are interested. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for expressing your interest in more info on CBS! Hope you get to the root of your migraines. They can really destroy your quality of life. 🙁

  2. Katie says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have been doing mostly Paleo for the last year, and noticed too much mean is not a good thing! I also started losing hair, so I realized I needed more healthy fats in my mix. I’m in school for holistic nutrition, and hope to help people as you are! I’m following on Facebook! 🙂

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Katie, that is wonderful! It is great that you are so in tune with your body. I am going to go find you on Facebook. Let’s keep in touch!

  3. We have noticed this in our house too. I need more fat and protein than my husband and kids. If I don’t get them I feel terrible. My husband thrives on a higher carb, gluten free (not grain free) diet. The kids need a lot more carbs and fat than my husband or I. It really does have to do with each individuals needs.

    Thanks for sharing on Natural Living Monday. As always, great information. 🙂

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Thanks so much, Amanda! Yes, I need the fat and protein more than my husband and daughter, and they really need more carbs than I do. Some would attribute it to blood type, as I am an O and they are As and Os are supposedly more primal whereas As are supposed to be more agrarian. I don’t know how scientific the Blood Type theory is, but it is interesting! 🙂

  4. Becca says:

    Thanks for sharing this info at A Humble Bumble, Dawn. 🙂

  5. I’m so happy to see you sharing posts with Motivation Monday again! I decided this summer that I would spend my time by the pool reading about the nitty gritty of nutrition to understand it better at a lay person’s level.

    I’m also glad I took the time to read through the comments since I’m type O. I have noticed that I do much better with protein in my diet, though I don’t go all out on the protein. I try to have good fats and protein in each meal. Gluten doesn’t seem to bother my kids and my dh as much as me. My dd6 seems to be bothered by dairy (milk) from time to time.

    I’m hoping this summer to get a better understanding of everything so you may see me digging into posts on your site!

    Thanks for linking up at Motivation Monday!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Thanks so much, Barb! Hey, I want to do my reading by the pool this summer too! 🙂 I am so happy when moms are tuned in to their kids’ different needs like you are. It is so important! Dig away! 🙂

  6. Natasha says:

    This article is very true, we are living it right now. I think each body is different and no one protocol works for everyone. Even though we needed to seal my daughter gut, too much protein caused her body to release undigested proteins into her blood through her leaky gut causing more histamine responses to be created. Causing much more problems than what we started out with! This was not just die-off reactions either, we had the blood, stool and urine tests to confirm her uric acid/ ammonia was way too high. Utilizing the traditional grain cooking methods like sprouting and soaking the body can still heal and seal. In our case, we found that too much protein was damaging her health- but many do very well and heal quickly on a GAPS or AIP Paleo too. So I don’t knock any, just like to share what happened to us. Listen to your body and try to find a holistic, naturopath or integrative support system.

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Natasha, thank you so much for sharing that here! I hope parents read the comments on this post so they can learn from your experience! I am so glad you learned what works for your daughter and I completely agree that you can still heal and seal without GAPS. I do see increased histamine responses in some from too much protein. I think this could also be related to high levels of 1-methylhistidine. Again, thanks for sharing your success with a different approach. Some parents get very discouraged when they find out GAPS is not ideal for their child and you are giving them hope!

  7. Ashley says:

    Hi I am stopping by your blog from the Adorned From Above Wednesday Blog Hop. I would very much love it if you would stop by ours as well. We also have a great giveaway running with a winner to be announced in 8 days. Come on by and join up. We will also have a blog hop Friday.


    Thanks so much!

  8. This is really great information. I do grain free and sugar free (refined sugars) because they cause swelling in my body. It do think it’s important to eat all food groups for nutrition. Your post does a great job pointing that out. I replace flour in baked goods with nut flours. Sugar with stevia and other sugar replacements. Fruits and vegetables are where I get most of my carbs from.

    It’s difficult to follow a lot of the time. I end up giving in and eating regular food, and I certainly pay the price. My legs are still swollen from traveling and eating with my family last weekend. The good thing is that I know what causes it. A lot of people never know.

    Moderation in everything seems to be key.

    Thanks so much for sharing with this weeks Adorned From Above Blog Hop. We always love seeing what you bring to the party.
    Have a great week.
    Debi and Charly

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words! You are so right that a lot of people never know what is causing their symptoms. When I indulge in social situations I always notice a difference in the way I feel, but that is because I know what it feels like to feel good! I also agree that moderation in everything is key. Thank you for stopping by and for the wise words. I hope to “see” you again next week!

  9. Angel says:

    I’m Co-hosting with Katherines Corner this week and wanted to say hello. Your post is awesome. Glad I came by. I’m also your newest follower.

    Angel @

    PS: Hope you will visit me and hopefully want to return the follow.

  10. Mel S says:

    Glad to find you through Katherine’s hop. You are on the money. Everyone’s body is different. I absolutely cannot have bell peppers due to my GERD. The funny thing is that my doctors as well as literature that I have read seem to indicate that I should eat them. However, even a tiny sliver will set things off! I think we all need to listen to our bodies–truly listen, different from falling for cravings.

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Well said, Mel! Cravings can be a little confusing. Especially when we are dealing with our children and their needs vs. their cravings! Thanks for visiting!

  11. I do believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. I myself need a lot of protein in order to live, while a friend of mine can hardly stomach any at all. We are all built differently, thus we absorb foods differently too.

  12. […] Grain-Free Diets: How Much Protein is Too Much? from Peeling Back the Onion Layers. Something to consider if you are on a grain free diet  or low carb diet for a long time. […]

  13. I don’t understand all the scientific information presented here, lol, but I agree with your conclusion that all 3 macronutrients are essential in a diet. I don’t see anyone retaining healthfulness for very long on a diet that eliminates either of the 3. Thanks for linking up to Healthy 2Day Wednesday!

    • Dawn Tasher says:

      Thanks Anne! You might be surprised how easy it is to lose your balance when you are implementing a special diet. Particularly with a picky eater and multiple food intolerances!

  14. Hannah says:

    Thanks for sharing this info at Eco-Kids Tuesday. Hope you stop by again today!

  15. Lisa Lynn says:

    A very balanced approach to diet and nutrition! Thanks for sharing on Wildcrafting Wednesday! Hope to see you again today at:

  16. Jenny says:

    Great info! Thank you for sharing this post on the HomeAcre Hop. We’d love to have you back this morning:

  17. Thanks for sharing this information! I love to learn from you! 🙂 Thanks for linking up at our Gluten Free Fridays party! I have tweeted and pinned your entry to our Gluten Free Fridays board on Pinterest! 🙂

    Cindy from

  18. […] Grain-Free Diets: How Much Protein is Too Much? by Peeling Back the Onion Layers: […]

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