Protein is described as a magical macronutrient. A nutrient that comes from a land far, far away and that will make all of your wildest fitness dreams come true.
It is true that protein is the most important nutrient in growing and maintaining our muscle. For this reason it gets a great deal of attention. But in the words of Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility." Unfortunately, people have misused the power of protein resulting in the widespread of misinformation.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of how much protein you should eat, we should first learn a little bit more about what protein is.
Protein is an essential nutrient to the structure and the function of the body. Proteins are the building blocks for our bones, muscles, tendons, and organs. They help balance the acid levels in our bodies and transport a variety of substances. Proteins are made up of amino acids which are classified as either essential or nonessential. Our bodies are able to make the nonessential amino acids but are unable to create essential amino acids; hence the word "essential" (Manore & Thompson, 2000).
Every now and then food brands will advertise that they contain all of the essential amino acids. This is known as a complete protein. While it is cool that this one food contains all of the nine essential amino acids, it is not necessary. You do not have to eat complete proteins to get all of the nine essential amino acids. This is because our bodies can combine amino acids from a variety of sources to get all of the essential amino acids (Manore & Thompson, 2000).
This can be seen in vegetarians who consume many of their proteins from plant sources. Plant proteins have significantly less amino acids than meat sources, which may cause you to worry that they are not eating all of the essential amino acids. However, vegetarians are perfectly healthy human beings who you do not see dying in the streets due to their lack of amino acid intake. This is because they are still consuming all of the essential amino acids everyday. They just may not be consuming all of the essential amino acids in one food in particular.
Alright you get it, protein is important! But how much should you eat?
Recommended Daily Allowance
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight. The RDA is set by the Food and Nutrition Board which is part of the Institute of Medicine. The values that they have calculated are based on the needs for sedentary individuals to maintain good health. So, if you are a sedentary individual with no fitness related goals, than around 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight should be the number that you are aiming for. This means if you are a 150 pound person, 48 grams of protein will be sufficient.
However, if you are reading this, that is not you. You are someone who is active and conscientious about your diet because you are trying to enhance your body composition in some shape or form. In this case the RDA value of 0.36 grams of protein is far too low.
Many scientist are going after the RDA values because they have not changed since 1968. Research is constantly evolving making it a necessity to continuously update the RDA values. The Food and Nutrition Board have added additional nutrients to their Recommended Daily Intake since 1968 but have not changed their previous numbers (Barr et al., 2003).
Some of the problems that exist with the RDA of protein is the concern that consuming above the RDA is harmful (Layman, 2009), whether or not you participate in resistance training (Gibala, 2007), and your age and any health complications that you may have (Wolfe, 2006).
Consuming Above The RDA
Despite a great deal of new research highlighting the benefits of consuming additional protein, many people still believe that there is no benefit in consuming above the RDA value. In addition, some believe it may pose harmful long-term health effects. In fact, consuming above the RDA of protein is beneficial in maintaining muscle, maximizing lean body mass, and treating various diseases (Layman et al., 2008).
The excess protein that we consume will either be stored as fat or used as energy. The potential downsides occur if you are someone with impaired renal function. In this situation, consuming above 1.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight may be dangerous (Earle & Baechle, 2004, p. 113).
Another problem with RDA is that it does not consider if you workout or not. Resistance training increases the rate or protein breakdown and synthesis. Therefore, we need to increase our protein intake in order to maintain our muscle mass. Also, people who engage in resistance training are typically trying to increase their lean body mass which requires additional protein (Phillips & Van Loon, 2011).
During endurance training, protein can account for upwards of 15% of our total energy use. Even though carbohydrates are our main source of fuel during exercise, protein still plays a role. So if you engage in any type of exercise, you should eat more than 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (Phillips & Van Loon, 2011).
Lastly, it has been shown that high protein diets are beneficial in treating various diseases such as sarcopenia, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis (Heaney & Layman, 2008; Layman et al., 2008; Paddon-Jones et al., 2008).
Many of these diseases begin to arise as you age. It should be noted that as you age you need more essential amino acids in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. This is because when you get older your protein utilization rate decreases (Layman, 2009).
The Food and Nutrition Board are neglecting all of these considerations when recommending 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. I would also like to point out that there are a wide variety of other circumstances where people need more protein that I have left out of this article.
The Bro Recommendation
On the opposite side of the protein spectrum we have some people recommending to eat 1-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. My personal theory is that the two grams of protein per pound of body weight recommendation came from some supplement companies who profit off people eating high protein diets. The more popular recommendation of one gram per pound of bodyweight came from the conversion between kilograms to pounds. Telling someone to eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight leaves them with an easy to follow recommendation.
Why has America still not adopted the metric system? Can this please start being a political conversation?
Wow. We just went from 0.36 grams to upwards of 2.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight!
Let me note, two grams of protein per pound of body weight is not dangerous, it is just not more beneficial than a lower protein diet. Like I said you can eat a lot of protein without posing a threat to your health. Renal failure would be a special circumstance where your doctor would have informed you about eating too much protein.
My main concern with this recommendation is if a high protein diet interferes with other aspects of your diet.
For example, say we have a female trying to “tone-up” on 1500 kilocalories a day. She weighs 135 pounds and decides that she needs 250 grams of protein a day based on her bodyweight. Depending on how she wants to distribute her fats and carbohydrates, she may be left eating under 40 grams of carbohydrates.
This is not ideal.
I would rather give this girl, significantly less protein in order to increase her carbohydrates with the ultimate goal of increasing her training performance and retaining muscle. Carbohydrates are our main source of energy during exercise and they will help fuel her workouts (Earle & Baechle, 2004, p. 113). Furthermore, when the body has glycogen storages to get energy from, our body will use less energy from protein. Remember how I said protein can account for up to 15% of our energy use during endurance training? Well if we eat carbohydrates to keep our glycogen storages full we can use far less protein to fuel our workouts (Phillips & Van Loon, 2011).
Also, what if this female doesn’t like protein? She doesn’t want to be loading up 12-ounces of chicken on her plate or grabbing two protein shakes a day. What if protein irritates her stomach? If she was consuming 60 grams of protein per day before her new magical “toning” diet, jumping to 250 grams of protein will leave her feeling like shit (literally). Her body is not use to that amount of nitrogen in her body and she will be left with an upset stomach (Davies, 1990). Why make her do this if it’s not necessary?
Evolution Training System Recommendation
Where does the current research come in to find out the optimal protein intake?
When I calculate an individual’s protein needs I take a great deal of things into consideration; such as how old they are, what type of training they’re doing, are they in a caloric deficit, how lean they are, and what are their preferences to determine an ideal range.
For healthy individuals who are trying to maintain or gain weight, 0.6-0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is generally a good range that I will use. Now if this person goes above that intake, I am completely fine with it. You just have to note that you’re not necessarily getting any additional benefit from eating more protein (Phillips & Loon, 2011; Tipton & Wolfe, 2004).
There are many circumstances that I will recommend someone to consume more than this range of protein. For example, when you are in a caloric deficit there is a high probability that you will lose lean body mass. In this case, consuming additional protein can help preserve your lean tissue. Also, if you are someone who is very lean there is the need for a higher protein intake. My recommendation in these circumstances can range from 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass (Helms et al., 2014; Phillips & Loon, 2011).
I would like to point out that protein has a high satiety factor with only 4 kilocalories per gram. Fat also has a high satiety factor but it is more calorically dense coming in at 9 kilocalories per gram (Earle & Baechle, 2004). This is another reason why people in a caloric deficit may do better adding more protein in their diet. This will help them feel full and avoid feeling the need to consume an excess amount of calories.
You may have noticed that I used some pretty big ranges for my recommendations of protein intake. A college aged 150 pound female at 23% body fat trying to gain or maintain her weight will consume between 90 to 120 gram of protein a day. If she decided to lose weight, this recommendation would increase to 115 to 160 grams. I personally would start her at 115 grams and adjust the intake as needed. Most likely, increasing protein with a decrease in body fat.
Although there remains to be a great debate over the ideal protein intake, the researchers are arguing about very small differences. At the end of the day, 0.8 or 1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass is not a huge deal. You will still grow muscle eating slightly less or slightly more than the ideal amount of protein. We cannot be perfect.
Finally, some people just like protein! They like the tastes of meats, fish, and eggs and feel like eating more protein. Why give it up? They may already be eating plenty of carbohydrates and fat to give their body the energy and nutrients it needs. For this reason there is no reason not to consume more protein.
Hopefully this article allows you to gear your protein intake in a more individualized realm. I disagree with the RDA value as it is far too low for many individuals. The bro recommendation of 1-2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is good in the sense that it ensures you are consuming more than enough protein, but it fails to take into account what the individuals preferences are and their other macronutrient intakes. If you don’t like protein and love carbohydrates, you will do better eating on the lower end of protein, perhaps 0.6 grams per pound of bodyweight. If you love protein and dislike carbohydrates, you will do better eating on the higher end of protein, perhaps 1.1 grams per pound of lean body mass. You can relax on the days where you may have consumed a little bit less protein than you should have. If you are still within one of the ranges described above you will continue grow muscle.
Remember Calories are King! When you adjust your protein intake you will either lower or raise your carbohydrate and fat intake. The goal is to balance these three macronutrients into a lifestyle that meets your health goals.
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