How Much Protein is “Enough”?
It’s no secret that protein is one of the most important nutrients in a muscle builder’s diet. If you flip through the pages of today’s muscle mags, with their unrelenting focus on protein, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the fact that other nutrients exist!
The bodybuilding world’s obsession over protein is well justified. Protein helps build muscles in two ways: forming the building blocks of muscle tissue and sending muscle building signals to your body (especially a specific set of amino acids known as Branch Chain Amino Acids).
Protein helps build muscles in two ways: forming the building blocks of muscle tissue and sending muscle building signals to your body
Without enough of it, you’ll shrivel up like a prune, no matter how much you lift at the gym.
While everyone can agree of protein’s importance, you’d be hard pressed to find two people that can agree on the idea amount.
On one hand, you have organizations like the Institute of Medicine which sets the RDAs for most nutrients. They recommend .08 grams of protein per every kilogram of bodyweight, which amounts to approximately 56 grams of protein per day for men and 46 grams for women. If you’re like most active people you probably down 46 grams in a few chugs of your recovery shake!
And on the other end of the spectrum you have professional bodybuilders who recommend 2 grams of protein for every pound you weigh, which would amount to 340 grams for the average 170 pound male.
As you’ll see, there’s not much research supporting either of these extreme positions.
Fortunately, there is a fair amount of science out there that can give us a ballpark figure of how much protein our bodies and muscles need.
Forget the RDA’s Protein Guide
First, let’s tackle the RDA (Recommended daily allowances). The protein RDA was developed as a way of preventing lean muscle mass. It simply determines the absolute bare minimum you need to maintain the muscle you already have. In other words, to prevent a deficiency.
The first problem with the RDA is that it assumes you’re an average, semi-active person. As soon as you pick up a weight the RDA becomes null and void. However, despite this obvious fact, the RDA’s committee states that “…no additional dietary protein is suggested for healthy adults undertaking resistance or endurance exercise.”
Second, you’re not trying to simply stave off protein deficiency, you’re trying to live a healthy lifestyle and grow more muscle! As pointed out in a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the RDA isn’t meant to be used as a practical guide on how much protein you need each day (even if that’s how many dietitians view it).
Protein For “Athletes” Isn’t Enough
Some nutrition experts have created a modified form of the RDA for so-called “athletes”. This modified version of the RDA is generally 1 gram per kg.
However, this doesn’t cut the mustard either. The word athlete describes anyone from a power walking grandma to a Mr. Universe finalist.
And according to research published in the 2011 Journal of Sports Science, protein intake for people that regularly strength train should be significantly higher than people that do mostly aerobic exercise.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Research on an idea protein intake for strength trainers is somewhat sparse. And much of the research that does exist, in the words of a paper published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition sends “mixed messages”.
However, there are a few insights from the world of exercise science that can help you set benchmarks for your daily intake.
First, we have a 2011 review published in the aforementioned Journal of Sports Science. After reviewing the current science, they found that you can maximize protein synthesis by consuming between 1.3g-1.8g of protein per kilogram, more than double the RDA.
1.8g-2g per kilogram can actually help stimulate muscle mass even further
They add that there’s no harm in upping your intake beyond this 1.3-1.8g figure. In fact, the authors report that intake to 1.8g-2g per kilogram can actually help stimulate muscle mass even further for those that train especially hard.
Importantly, the paper notes that during times of caloric restriction — for example, when you’re cutting — protein intake should bump up to around 2 per kilogram.
Next, another thorough review published in the August 2012 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition. This paper also bashed the RDA as flawed and concluded that a range of 1.2g-1.6g will suffice for most athletes. Although not explicitly stated in the paper, based on other protein intake ranges, people that strength train should eat protein at the higher end of the range.
The authors also suggest a more straightforward guideline: eat no more than 35% of your daily calories in the form of protein.
What If I Eat Too Much?
Many people limit their protein intake to avoid health problems like bone loss and kidney damage.
Fortunately, dozens of studies have shown that these fears are unfounded and amount to “nutritionist propaganda” that lack a scientific backing.
The only issue with eating too much protein is that you’re displacing healthy fats and carbohydrates from your diet, two macronutrients that also play an important role in muscle growth and performance in the gym.
You’ll be OK as long a you keep your protein intake below 35% of total calories.
Please note as your protein intake increase so should your water intake.
Quality vs. Quantity
It’s also important to note that all protein is not created equal. From a physiological standpoint, 100 grams of hemp protein is completely different than 100 grams of whey.
In short, animal based proteins tend to naturally contain more of the building blocks that you need to grow. Also, amino acids found in animal protein, especially leucine, send anabolic signals to your muscles.
So if you’re eating a fair amount of your protein in the form of eggs, steak and whey protein, you probably want to aim somewhere towards the lower or middle end of the 1.3-1.8g per kilogram range.
But if you eat a vegetarian diet then you should set your target at 1.8grams per kilogram.
Overall - How Much Protein to Build Muscle
For athletes and those lifting weights looking to build muscle, you should be aiming close to 2g per kilogram or near 1g per pound. At least 1.3g/kg is would be the minimum amount you need meet however.
It is ok to eat more protein as long as your are watching your overall calorie consumption and consuming adequate amounts of water.
Be sure to vary your sources of protein and do not rely on just protein shakes; eat whole foods and quality protein sources like lean beaf, chicken breast, fish, eggs.