Home Blog How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Written on March 19, 2015 at 6:23 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from the good folks at Examine.com, a great website to which I refer often for unbiased information on supplements and nutrition. Enjoy! - EC

Protein is everyone’s favorite macronutrient. Why?

1. The media doesn’t go crazy over it like it does over fats and carbs.
2. It’s been proven to help build muscle.
3. Protein shakes are as well-known (and used) as energy drinks.

protein

Although there is the occasional study or media report that suggests too much protein can cause organ damage or increase cancer risks, these concerns are typically overblown. People with certain medical conditions may exacerbate their symptoms by eating too much protein, but the most likely damage that excessive protein will do to a health person is lighten their wallet.

The most frequent question posted online about protein consumption is a simple one: what’s the optimal daily protein intake?

Protein intake recommendations

The Examine.com page on recommended protein intake breaks down the existing research on protein intake. Recommended daily protein intake depends largely on health goals and activity level:

0.8 g/kg body weight (0.36 g/lb) if your weight is stable and you don’t exercise
1.0-1.5 g/kg (0.45-0.68 g/lb) if your goal is weight loss or you’re moderately active
1.5-2.2 g/kg (0.68-1 g/lb) if your goal is weight loss and you’re physically active

People who are obese should calculate their daily protein intake based on their goal weight, not existing body weight (in order to not ingest too many calories).

At least one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight a day is sufficient for an athlete. Studies show that there isn’t a significant practical difference between 1.5 to 2.2 g/kg(0.68 – 1g/lb) of daily protein intake. For a 180 lb athlete, this is 122 to 180 grams of protein (the difference being the equivalent of about two chicken breasts).

Protein intake and bulking

Bulking and weight gain doesn’t necessarily require increased protein intake. Muscle growth is affected by protein availability and protein elimination rates, or how fast protein is used up in metabolic reactions.

The more calories the body has to work with, the more efficiently it utilizes protein because fewer amino acids are converted into glucose. However, increasing protein intake may not be necessary during a bulk, because the added calories are contributing toward more efficient protein use. Ingesting protein also increases protein signaling, which is necessary for muscle growth. That being said, exercise has a similar effect, which means working hard in the gym could render the extra signaling effect from additional protein intake negligible during a bulk.

Excessive protein intake

There is enough evidence to support the safety of 0.8-1.2g/kg (about .5g/lb) of protein per day. Although there is little evidence to suggest excessive protein intake may be harmful, there are also not many studies on the topic.

People with kidney or liver damage should consult their doctor when determining how much protein to eat. Too much protein can overwork previously damaged organs and can exacerbate symptoms. Otherwise healthy people can eat an extra chicken breast or opt for another protein shake without worrying about their health.

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Supplementing to replace protein intake

People who cannot eat enough protein due to finances, diet preferences, or motivation often turn to supplementation to avoid eating yet another can of tuna.

The two best supplementation options for conserving muscle mass during caloric restriction are leucine and β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (HMB). Leucine is the primary amino acid in protein that’s primarily responsible for signaling muscle tissue to grow. HMB, leucine’s metabolite, also helps preserve lean mass and reduces the rate of catabolism. Leucine turns into HMB at a 5% rate, so one gram of HMB is equivalent to about 20 grams of leucine.

Supplementation should only be used if dietary changes cannot be made to meet your protein requirements. It is however, worth noting that consuming protein in the form of actual food can yield benefits that supplementation can’t. But if dietary changes are not practical, supplementation can help improve muscle growth and minimize muscle loss.

Ideal sources of protein

As long as the protein is coming from a bioavailable source (not pure gelatin) and contains all the essential amino acids, it doesn’t matter what food it’s coming from.

Protein sources do matter in the context of the overall diet. For example, eating fatty tuna means there will be less room in the diet for other calories, since the fat in the tuna means the protein source contains more calories overall. Prioritizing lean meats can help keep calorie count low, or free up some calories for treats.

Worrying about the differences between whey protein vs casein protein vs hemp protein (and other protein powders) is an exercise in futility. The primary distinction between them is how you find their taste, and potentially their consistency (as casein is gel-like, it’s usually more applicable in baking situations). The slight difference in micronutrients is literally not worth the headache.

The bottom line on protein

The media and supplement industry overcomplicate recommended protein intake because it generates clicks, creates dogma, and helps sell product. As long as you’re eating a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise frequently, one gram of protein per kilogram to pound of body a day is plenty for your muscle and health-related goals. Yes, you read that correctly: 1 gram per kg to lb is likely sufficient. That means if you're 200lbs, targeting between 90 to 200g of protein is fine. People tend to overthink how much protein they need, and unless you are on a diet or an endurance athlete, you don't actually need as much protein as is often suggested. That said, having more is also likely not detrimental.

Examine.com is the internet's largest and most trusted unbiased resource with respect to supplement reviews. In celebration of their 4th anniversary, they've put all of their guides on sale for 40% off HERE.

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  • Abe Cruz

    Great lakes Hydrolyzed Gelatin powder is better than whey protein, less pro inflammatory amino acids and less allergenic.

  • Musk Ox

    What amino acids have been shown to be inflammatory? Thx

  • Kurtis Frank

    Such a product may be more bioavailable, but you’re losing out on many EAAs by using a gelatin product (leucine takes a huge drop) and it being less inflammatory doesn’t matter too much for the average athlete; if it did it might actually be counterproductive as the rate of muscle building is increased by inflammatory signalling.

    Also, the amino acids aren’t really the inflammatory components. Peptides or other milk-based components left in during processing might have a role, but not the amino acids.

  • I’m glad the guys at examine.com understand the important negative impact of over complication and unnecessary decision fatigue. The less we need to worry about, the better.

    Great article. Succinct and informative.

  • Ken Stuart

    It shows how brainwashed we have become…. in a discussion of how much protein we need – independently of all other nutrients – you still manage to reference the 19th Century “calorie” gibberish – i.e. that if you eat 2000 calories a day, it is the same regardless of what the macro-nutrients are. The whole article is contrary to that viewpoint, but somehow you cannot quite keep yourself from typing “calories” – as if the heat generated by the food in a bunsen burner really means anything.

  • Ken Stuart

    Over complication and decision fatigue are directly proportional to the effective population. As billions become connected by the Internet, everything becomes increasingly complicated simply by the actions of all those people. Compare the simplicity of paying your phone bill 50 years ago to today’s “rollover minutes”, “pay-as-you-go vs monthly” “family and friends plans” “data plans” “3G vs 4G LTE” and on and on.

  • James Hart

    Ken, I think it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that the article claims that 2000 kcals is the same regardless of macros. Will your body look the same eating 2000 kcal of mars bars vs 2000kcal chicken breasts long term? Of course not. But if I overeat whole, nutrient dense foods, I’m still going to put on weight….I’ll be in a surplus. Are you suggesting calories have no bearing on weight loss?

  • Ken Stuart

    You just made the case yourself – as you said, your body will not look the same eating 2000 kcal of mars bars vs 2000 kcal of chicken breasts.

    So, calories are irrelevant, they do not tell you anything.

    For example, if you managed to eat nothing but 10,000 calories a day of butter, you would never gain an ounce – and in fact would gradually lose weight from muscle mass.

  • James Hart

    Not exactly. At the end of the day, energy balance will decide whether weight is gained or lost. Now if we’re talking body composition, of course macros matter; but to ignore calories or label them irrelevant is shortsighted I think. Energy dense foods like fats are very easy for people to overeat, even if they’re ‘good fats’. Dogmatic diet crap like going ‘no carb’ or avoiding carbs at night etc doesn’t work because there’s some magic in excluding a macronutrient. It works because as people cut out an entire macronutrient, there dropping their total calories down.

  • Ken Stuart

    “At the end of the day, energy balance will decide whether weight is gained or lost.” More 19th Century gibberish. It’s 100 times more complicated than that in the body. Various web pages will post nonsense like that to get clicks (or to sell subscriptions, like NYT).
    If you eat way more food or way less food, then by brute force, you are eating more or less of whatever is triggering weight gain. Here is some information on how the body works (what you call “magic” and I call “science”):

    Increased lipid synthesis – insulin forces fat cells to take in blood lipids, which are converted to triglycerides; lack of insulin causes the reverse.

    Increased esterification of fatty acids – insulin forces adipose tissue to make fats (i.e., triglycerides) from fatty acid esters; lack of insulin causes the reverse.

    Decreased lipolysis – insulin forces reduction in conversion of fat cell lipid stores into blood fatty acids; lack of insulin causes the reverse.

  • that1dudeFromOC

    10,000 Calories a day and you’re going to lose weight? maybe if you burn 11,000 calories a day working out.. who does that? calories do matter, but so do your macros. you’re not going to eat 5,000 calories of chicken breast and not put on fat and gain weight if you’re only expending 3000 calories for the day. Right? or you have some different information

  • Ken Stuart

    Read what I said in that post carefully.

    Here is how it works:

    10,000 calories a day of butter is only fat. Fat does not stimulate insulin.

    As stated above, lack of insulin causes an increase in conversion of fat cell lipid stores into blood fatty acids. And since there is no protein or carbohydrates being ingested, then your body will slowly convert your muscle tissue into glucose..

    So, you will slowly lose both your fat and muscle on your body.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catabolysis

  • James Hart

    Notice I said WEIGHT Ken, not fat. In the next sentence I agreed that for BODY COMPOSITION, of course the make up of those calories matter. I am not claiming that’s it’s only about calories in vs calories out as I’m aware the human body is much more complex as you’ve stated. But I’m sorry, if you eat 10,00 kcals of butter and your maintenance kcals are around 2000, you’re in a HUGE surplus my friend and you are going to get FAT! Therefore, calories are NOT the whole story, obviously….but saying calories are ‘irrelevant’ and ‘tell you nothing’ is ludicrous.

    I’m not sure what your point about insulin is. Are you just saying keep insulin low and you’ll lose fat? Because eating protein releases insulin as well….should we not be eating protein?

  • Ken Stuart

    Quote: “I’m sorry, if you eat 10,00 kcals of butter and your maintenance kcals are around 2000, you’re in a HUGE surplus my friend and you are going to get FAT! ”

    Again, all of that is Newspaper Living Section Article advice, and does not have anything to do with what goes on in the human body.

    Here is how it works:

    10,000 calories a day of butter is only fat. Fat does not stimulate insulin.

    As stated above, lack of insulin causes an increase in conversion of fat
    cell lipid stores into blood fatty acids. And since there is no protein or carbohydrates being ingested, then your body will slowly convert your muscle tissue into glucose..

    So, you will slowly lose both your fat and muscle on your body.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catabolysis

  • Sam Hayward

    “19th century calorie gibberish”

    It is as if you have no idea what you are actually talking about. Congratulations. It is a good thing that in the 21st century we have literally dozens of medical studies to investigate the very same thing you seem to think is 19th century gibberish!

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19828708
    “Increased energy intake appears to be more than sufficient to explain weight gain in the US population.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8561057
    “The results of this study showed that it was energy intake, not nutrient composition, that determined weight loss in response to low-energy diets over a short time period.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1734671

    “Even with extreme changes in the fat-carbohydrate ratio (fat energy varied from 0% to 70% of total intake), there was no detectable evidence of significant variation in energy need as a function of percentage fat intake.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8968851
    “Neither diet offered a significant advantage when comparing weight loss or other, metabolic parameters over a 12 w period.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15800559
    “Both the high-carbohydrate and high-protein groups lost weight (-2.2+/-0.9 kg, -2.5+/-1.6 kg, respectively, P <.05) and the difference between the groups was not significant (P =.9)"

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18025815
    "This study showed that independently of the method for weight loss, the negative energy balance alone is responsible for weight reduction."

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10805507
    "There was no significant difference in the amount of weight loss in response to dissociated (6.2 +/- 0.6 kg) or balanced (7.5 +/- 0.4 kg) diets. Furthermore, significant decreases in total body fat and waist-to-hip circumference ratio were seen in both groups, and the magnitude of the changes did not vary as a function of the diet composition. Fasting plasma glucose, insulin, total cholesterol and triacylglycerol concentrations decreased significantly and similarly in patients receiving both diets. Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure values decreased significantly in patients eating balanced diets. The results of this study show that both diets achieved similar weight loss. Total fat weight loss was higher in balanced diets, although differences did not reach statistical significance. Total lean body mass was identically spared in both groups."

    Why this is still a debate is beyond me. By and large when it comes to your figure, all that really matters is calories and the science proves this.

    Now, there is something to glean from this – your diet does have a significant effect on your overall health. A guy eating 2000cals a day in only butter is going to have a lot more issues with overall energy, stomach, blood cholesterol, etc than someone who eats a balanced diet. I don't think anyone doubts that. You are what you eat is true when it comes to how healthy your well being is. But by and large nobody eats 2000 calories in butter a day, everyone is operating on some kind of balanced diet even if it isn't an ideal diet. And by and large, almost every health issue related to food is solved by simply eating a more balanced portion of calories a day. There have even been studies looking into "mediterranean diets" to verify why people who live in that region live longer lifespans. The answer is pretty simple – the foods they eat happen to get them fuller with less calories. AKA – they simply eat less.

    You can pretend your fancy quinoa-kale-sweet potato-broccoli dinner served with a spinach shake that you bought all organic from whole foods for triple the price is making your figure better than your neighbor who eats a balanced diet if you want. But it simply isn't true, as an objective 21st century scientific fact. Now you could argue that your overall health levels are going to be better (from a standpoint of cholesterol, overall energy feeling, stomach/liver, etc) and I'd agree. But you really aren't winning out much more vs the guy who is active, has a multivitamin every day and eats a reasonably balanced pretty average diet with some treats thrown in as long as he doesn't go too over his calorie goals.

    I honestly really apologize if I am coming across rude or pedantic, but its frustrating seeing so many people I know spend so much time, energy, stress and money into proven BS. Calories are the single most important metric you should track in your diet if you want to be healthier, and it is almost entirely the only thing that affects your figure in any significant way (you do need/want plenty of protein to build muscle, which is why it is also the only macro that you should really focus above all others when bulking muscle or cutting fat). If you are striving to have some kind of balanced diet while also hitting calorie goals, you will be a very healthy individual.

  • Nice slow down and review of some protein basics. There is one source of protein which is usually pretty affordable for the budget-conscious: eggs. Now that we’ve taken yolks off the “bad foods” list, these can be a super efficient way to get in protein without forking over the paycheck. Alternatively, milk is an option, even though it has received some bad press lately.

  • Ken Stuart

    This is entirely assertions, except for the “studies”, so I will deal with those, since it makes your post look like it is authoritative and scientific.

    The first one is entirely an after-the-fact epidemiological analysis. It has weasel words “appears to be”. Not a scientific study.

    The second one is a study, but not very many people, and not very long. Nevertheless, the lower carbohydrate diet had “Fasting plasma glucose, insulin, cholesterol, and triacylglycerol concentrations decreased significantly” while the high carb one did not. In the long run, plasma glucose and insulin are what drives obesity. A study with different results than yours is:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15941879

    The third one is extremely weird (the fat given was entirely corn oil). The conclusions in the abstract are contradicted by many in the text of the study. The study is a meta analysis of a study on a statistically insignificant number of people 60 years ago (!).

    The fourth one is a classic straw man – both the “low” and “high” carb diets compared are actually high – note that is 1996, prior to any of the modern low-carb diets.

    The fifth one is exactly the same thing – both diets are high in carbs, and the number of people in the study is statistically insignificant.

    The sixth one is diet vs diet and exercise (you need to actually read what you are posting).

    The seventh one only varied when the food was given through the day (you cannot just search the web for “energy” and just paste all results).

    I won’t bother to post counter studies, since I don’t have the time, and it’s well known that no one has ponied up the hundreds of millions of $ that would be needed for a real scientific study of diet composition, and that was not my point anyway.

    My point was exactly in line with your statement “you do need/want plenty of protein to build muscle, which is why it is also the only macro that you should really focus above all others when bulking muscle or cutting fat”. In other words, the body has millions of different processes, and each one is affected differently by every different food item.

  • James Hart

    Ken you’re making out that insulin controls everything. Not sure why you believe the law of thermodynamics is gobbledegook. If all that matters is blunting insulin, like you’re suggesting, your argument would hold true regardless of how much butter you consumed. So, I challenge you to eat 20,000 or 30,000 kcals of butter daily and let me know in 3 months if your scale weight has increased or not. Let me know how you go.

  • Ken Stuart

    There are four laws of thermodynamics, but in any event, this is not a closed system, and butter is not “energy”. Constant pounding of that idea does not make it true. Your argument is circular – “Butter has a lot of calories of energy, because obviously butter has a lot of calories of energy.” If that is what you have been convinced of since age 7, no science can convince you.

    Insulin does not control “everything”, it merely has the major effect on lipolysis and fat storage.

  • James Hart

    butter is not energy??? Any food you put in your body is energy and I’d argue butter is ALOT of energy (9 kcals/gram of energy ). Your body uses a certain amount of energy every day for many functions (BMR)….digesting (thermic effect of food), breathing plus extra for moving, exercising etc etc. Guess what happens when you bring in much more energy than your body is currently using? It gets stored as adipose tissue. Now the wiki link you posted about catabolysis states that catabolysis occurs after 1-2 months of the cessation of nutrition going into the body. But if we’re ingesting a metric shit ton of butter, I’d argue that’s very far from a starved state. Read up on Alan Aragon or Jade Teta and I think you’ll be surprised. Unfortunately I think you missed the science altogether when you were 7 Ken. Try my proposed experiment above and if you lose scale weight I’ll eat me own hat : )

  • Ken Stuart

    I thought of a good example. Coal has potential “energy” – if you put
    it in a furnace, it will create heat. But if you eat lumps of coal,
    they will just pass out of your body – because your body has no
    biological mechanism to process coal. So, you can eat 10,000 “calories”
    of coal, and it does not become fat, and the four laws of thermodynamics are not involved.

    The point is that the biological mechanisms of the body determine what happens. Quote: ” It gets stored as adipose tissue.” Not if the biological mechanisms of storage do not occur. They do not occur if there is not sufficient levels of insulin.

  • joble

    Catabolysis is irrelevant to anyone who intends to live, humans can’t live on fat alone. Do you have any studies that show that people on any long-term sustainable diet (even keto) don’t gain extra weight when given a large caloric surplus of dietary fat?

    Calories in vs. calories out still holds as a general rule in all but the most extreme and ridiculous cases.

  • Ken Stuart

    I thought of a good example. Coal has potential “energy” – if you put
    it in a furnace, it will create heat. But if you eat lumps of coal,
    they will just pass out of your body – because your body has no
    biological mechanism to process coal. So, you can eat 10,000 “calories”
    of coal, and it does not become fat, and the four laws of thermodynamics are not involved.The point is that the biological mechanisms of the body determine what happens, not a laboratory measurement of heat potential.

    Each food has a different makeup of molecules that are treated differently by the body, depending on circumstances. “Calories” are irrelevant, what is relevant is what hormones and enzymes are stimulated or not stimulated.

    But 90% of people cannot understand that, so we still have calories. Also, billions of dollars in the economy depend on people not understanding their body, so that money can be made fixing them later.

  • joble

    You seem to be under the impression that bioavailability and metabolism is not taken into account when nutritional calories are calculated. This simply isn’t the case. Protein for example will yield around 5.4 kcal/g in a bomb calorimeter, but it’s reduced to 4 kcal/g in nutritional contexts because of various inefficiencies in our metabolism.

    Nobody would put the gross chemical energy in coal on a nutrition label, that’s ridiculous. I agree that the 9/4/4 numbers we use for calories are just approximations, but they are fairly reliable and useful approximations.

  • Ken Stuart

    You are still missing the point.

    Calories are the amount of heat generated by putting the food in a flame.

    It really has very little to do with evaluating a particular food item, because it has very little to do with what happens when you eat the food.

    In other areas, the measurements have slowly evolved to sync up with science. For example, we went from the never-scientifically-supported “total cholesterol” to the somewhat correlated LDL and HDL, and now with the “oxidized LDL” we at least have something that may have to do with CVD.

    I think that the calorie has persisted because the intelligentsia have ignored it for 10-20 years, instead focusing on which foods they are eating, while the working classes have always ignored it, because they really don’t care about anything other than whether it tastes good.

    So that leaves the Sheeple Class, average people who believe what they are told by corporate spokesmen – partially because they don’t have either the skills or the time to research it for themselves, and also because they don’t feel comfortable doing anything different from the people around them.

  • joble

    “Calories are the amount of heat generated by putting the food in a flame.”

    *sigh* Did you not read my previous reply? After determining the gross energy in a calorimeter, the number is adjusted to account for our metabolism. For example insoluble fiber will yield energy in a calorimeter, but the nutritional labels on food will list it as zero calories because the human metabolism can’t extract energy from it. The same goes for coal.

    If you’ve got some actual literature to support your stance that might help, but I’m not going to waste any more time on this nonsense.

  • Ken Stuart

    You’re not reading past the first sentence.

    It’s not that the heat/energy needs to be adjusted to be “accurate”, it is that it is irrelevant, because the “extract energy” aspect is a tiny fraction of what is going on in the body.

    For example, if you wake up in the morning and ingest 100 calories of sugar, the effect on your body will be vastly different than if you first eat a full breakfast, and then eat 100 calories of sugar. In the first case, there is a big blood sugar spike and release of insulin. In the second case, the blood sugar spike and insulin release are significantly less. Just one example.

  • SoloX

    Sigh Ken – you’re the perfect example of how “a little knowledge is dangerous.”

    Your body has multiple mechanisms to store fat. 11k calories of pure butter will still be stored – if you think your body does not have processes it will ramp up to deal with the change in macros, you are mistaken (and flat out wrong).

    I hope this helps: http://weightology.net/weightologyweekly/?page_id=319

  • Ken Stuart

    Thanks for your comment – it proves my original point – which was that “calories” are an irrelevant oversimplification, because the body’s processes are so numerous and complex.

    I’m not planning to eat only butter every day, it’s just an example. Your point is that the body’s processes are even more numerous than in my example, so thanks.

    As far as the article you linked, it is argued pro and con endlessly in its comments, so let’s keep the debate on that article in its comments, and not let it spill over into here.

    I’ll just leave you with:

    https://ello.co/kenstuart/post/0qNvfxsCwBxTIsHxDk7y9Q


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