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.
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.
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.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!