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What is Nitrogen Balance?

Marjorie McAtee
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The term "nitrogen balance" refers to the amount of nitrogen the body excretes, as opposed to the amount of nitrogen the body takes in. All of the macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate, and fat — are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Protein alone also contains an additional nitrogen molecule. When the body digests protein, these nitrogen molecules are generally released into the blood. Measuring bodily nitrogen levels can be the most accurate way to determine whether the body is receiving adequate, inadequate, or excess protein.

There are three states of nitrogen balance: negative, positive. and equilibrium. If an individual has a negative nitrogen balance, that person's nitrogen output is greater than his nitrogen input. Because protein is the only macronutrient containing a nitrogen molecule, a negative balance can be a sign of inadequate protein consumption and malnutrition.

If an individual has a positive nitrogen balance, it means that person is consuming more protein than his body needs. This is an ideal state for athletes and body builders, because the extra protein will most likely contribute to muscle growth. Excess protein can also help athletes and body builders recover faster from workouts.

If an individual's nitrogen balance has reached a state of equilibrium, it means that person is excreting about the same amount of nitrogen as he are taking in. This is generally a normal state of affairs for healthy adults eating a balanced diet. Most people don't usually need to consume the high levels of protein that body builders and athletes often need to grow strong muscles.

Nitrogen is usually excreted through the urine, so nitrogen levels in the body are often measured using a urea nitrogen test of urine. The results of the test are then typically compared to the nitrogen content of the individual's diet. The person will generally be said to have a positive, negative, or equal nitrogen balance, depending on the difference between his urea nitrogen levels and the nitrogen content of his diet.

The human body usually needs more than just protein to maintain appropriate nitrogen levels. Dietary protein should be of high quality, such as that typically found in eggs and lean meats. The human body also generally needs an adequate supply of fats and carbohydrates. These macronutrients are widely considered essential to energy production. When dietary levels of fat and carbohydrate fall too low, the body uses protein for energy, which may deplete the body's nitrogen levels and inhibit the body's ability to renew damaged cells.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Marjorie McAtee
By Marjorie McAtee , Former Writer
Marjorie McAtee, a talented writer and editor with over 15 years of experience, brings her diverse background and education to everything she writes. With degrees in relevant fields, she crafts compelling content that informs, engages, and inspires readers across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a skilled member of any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By anon1001074 — On Feb 27, 2019

I was told in my nutrition and fitness class that the body can't break proteins down for muscle and for fuel at the same time. I can't say it is the "truth", but I should probably ask her why to understand better.

By anon955206 — On Jun 05, 2014

The Atkins diet is absurd. The only people who go on it are fat people, and they always gain the weight back. It's unhealthy, abnormal and unsustainable.

People who are healthy and in excellent shape don't resort to nonsense like that.

By Monika — On Aug 19, 2011

@starrynight - You are right that depleting the bodies nitrogen is a bad idea. However, I'm not convinced the Atkin's diet causes this to happen. I believe they encourage people to replace carbohydrates with protein.

So it sounds like a person on this diet probably consumes more protein than the average person. In theory, if you up your protein intake, even if your body is using it for energy, you wouldn't deplete your bodies nitrogen.

That being said, I really think you should consult with your doctor before trying any kind of diet. For example, a doctor could monitor someone on the Atkin's diet to make sure their nitrogen balance is OK.

By starrynight — On Aug 18, 2011

This is interesting, because the body using protein for energy is exactly what diets like the Atkin's diet try to encourage. They purposely tell dieters to stop eating carbohydrates so their bodies will turn to protein for fuel.

However, this article makes it sound like that's probably a bad idea. Depleting the bodies stores of protein also lessons the amount of nitrogen in the system. Since nitrogen helps renew cells, this probably wouldn't be too good of an idea!

Marjorie McAtee

Marjorie McAtee

Former Writer

Marjorie McAtee, a talented writer and editor with over 15 years of experience, brings her diverse background and education to everything she writes. With degrees in relevant fields, she crafts compelling content that informs, engages, and inspires readers across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a skilled member of any content creation team.
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