Americans consume a huge amount of protein per capita. New research shows that our obsession with protein could be causing pollution in the country’s drinking water.

According to research published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, balancing individual protein consumption could reduce levels of nitrogen pollution in U.S. aquatic systems by 12 percent. This could mean a 4 percent overall reduction in nitrogen in the air and water.

Consuming excess protein results in a surplus of amino acids, which then transform into nitrogen. This excess nitrogen can pollute drinking water and pose a risk to animals and humans. It also leads to excessive nutrients, which contributes to high plant life growth and decreased animal life because of the lack of oxygen. Excess nitrogen can also lead to dangerous algae blooms in water.

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“When protein consumption outpaces physiologic protein demands, excess amino acids are degraded in the human body and nitrogen is excreted and released to the environment, mainly in the form of urea,” said researchers.

Researchers estimated protein has a 16 percent nitrogen content, 80 percent of which is excreted in the urine and 10 percent in feces. If Americans adjusted their protein intake to just the recommended amounts, nitrogen excretion rates would be 27 percent lower in 2055 despite projected population growth. If current consumption levels continue, nitrogen rates will increase by 20 percent from 2016 to 2055.

Although there is a technology that can remove nearly all of the nitrogen from wastewater, it is rarely used because of its high cost.

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

Read more to understand the dangers of protein overconsumption and how to avoid it.

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