Protein is touted to be the most important macronutrient. Especially if your goal is to lose fat and build muscle, designing your meal plan around protein is a smart approach among other things.
If you follow bodybuilders’ advice, the recommended protein amount goes up to 2–3 gram per pound of body weight. Once, a supplement store employee told me that I should be eating at least 500 grams of protein to get results. That is 2.5 grams of protein per pound of my body weight.
However, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is only 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. That is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight.
Why is there such a big difference between the recommendations?
What is Protein?
Protein, in the context of food, is one of three macronutrients found in foods. Calorie-containing foods have one or a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We use protein to generate bones, muscles, connective tissue, hair, etc. Animal products and most plants contain some form of protein.
Proteins are a combination of amino acids. Depending on the food source, certain amino acids can be abundant or lacking in the protein. Since every amino acid has a different role in the body, not every protein is created equal.
However, every protein has the same amount of calories. 1 gram of protein contains 4 Calories.
For adults, protein is used for maintaining regular functions of the body such as hormone production, hair and nail production, wound healing, cell regeneration, enzyme production, etc.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is calculated based on the maintenance of these functions. That means you need 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight to stay alive and healthy.
- For a 70 kg (154 lbs) man, this amounts to 56 grams per day.
- For a 60 kg (132 lbs) woman, this amounts to 48 grams per day.
How Much Protein for Muscle Building?
If your goal is to build muscle, the RDA of protein is not going to be enough. You need to consume extra protein to be used for muscle building.
We build muscle by challenging them to grow by either exercise or manual labor. After every workout, you create micro-tears in the muscle. Over time, these tears are repaired and muscles get bigger and stronger to meet the demands. During this process, the body uses ample amounts of protein (amino acids).
In the hierarchy of needs in the body, muscle building is not on the top of the list. Therefore, the protein you consume will be used primarily to keep you alive and healthy. If there is any protein leftover, only then the muscle-building process will be activated. This means, if you take the recommendation of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, no amount of exercise will help you build muscle.
One of the most popular names in the bodybuilding world, Jim Stoppani recommends you need to get 1.5–2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For a regular person, eating regular meals 4–5 times a day, this number is very difficult to achieve. In fact, this number is not easy to achieve for bodybuilders either. That’s why they reach for a protein shake a few times a day to reach the protein levels.
Coincidentally, Dr. Stoppani owns a supplement line and sells protein powders. I don’t know if the high protein recommendation is a marketing plot for his protein powders. Maybe he actually believes this recommendation and created his protein powder to help people reach the level of protein he recommends.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe you need that high amount of protein to build muscle. However, bodybuilders on steroids build muscle at a higher rate and they may need to increase their protein intake to meet the demand of their muscle building capacity.
I personally prefer to look at what actual scientists say rather than supplement owners with a doctorate degree.
In a review by Brad Shoenfeld and Alan Aragon, the authors conclude that daily protein intake of 1.6–2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight maximizes the muscle building. That is 0.72–1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
How Much Protein for Weight Loss?
What if your goal is to lose weight? Do you still need to eat high amounts of protein?
The simple answer is: not necessarily but it helps.
If your goal is to lose weight, you need to create a consistent calorie deficit. That is to eat fewer calories than you burn. Whatever diet you follow, there is no other way around it.
Consistent calorie deficit, no matter from what macronutrients you eat, eventually puts the body under stress. Evolutionary speaking, the body doesn’t want to lose weight. It is a threat to its life. Therefore, as you lose weight, your body will try to defend against it in various ways. This phenomenon is often mislabeled as starvation mode, but in reality, it is a healthy response mechanism called adaptive thermogenesis.
In order to counter this metabolic slowdown, you want to take measures to increase metabolism. High protein diet helps this in two ways:
- Eating high protein, in addition to resistance training, helps increase the muscle mass. Therefore, increasing the basal metabolic rate. Muscle cost more than fat to maintain in terms of calories, so you burn more calories over the course of 24 hours.
- Digesting protein takes more energy compared to the other macronutrients. Thermic effect of food is the number of calories burned to digest and use the food. When you consume protein 15–30 percent of the calories are used to digest the food. This number is 5–10 percent for carbohydrates and 0–3 percent for fats.
Protein not only helps with increasing your metabolic rate, but it also helps with satiety. Compared to carbohydrates and fats, protein keeps you full with fewer amount of calories. That means, if you follow a high protein diet, you will feel fuller consuming fewer amounts of calories. This is great news for people who don’t want to count calories.
One clinical study showed that people who eat a high-protein diet feel full and think less about food compared to people who follow a regular protein diet.
Based on all of this information, how much protein should you consume to help with weight loss?
There are simply two main ways to calculate protein intake:
- A percentage of total calories;
- Certain gram per pound of bodyweight.
The problem with the former method is that protein is not necessarily an energy source. Protein is used to generate and repair tissues. Therefore, we determine the protein need based on body mass instead of a percentage of total calories.
However, the calculation of protein-based on bodyweight becomes less and less accurate as the body fatness goes up. Body fat doesn’t use protein to main, so if you have too much body fat, eating the recommended amount of protein-based on your body weight will be too much.
In my opinion, a better way to calculate your protein intake is to use your goal weight or lean mass weight.
For fat loss goals, aim for 0.7–1 gram of protein per pound of your goal weight.
Who Else Needs High Protein Intake?
If you are happy with your weight and not trying to lose fat or gain muscle do you still need to eat high protein?
It depends on your unique situation and a registered dietician can give you the best answer.
That being said, people who work at physically demanding jobs that involve a lot of walking, running, lifting, etc. need additional protein to meet the demands of their body.
Elderly population can also benefit from a high-protein diet to attenuate bone and muscle loss. These people do not need as much protein as athletes, but increasing the protein intake from 0.8 grams to 1–1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight (~0.5 grams per pound) is shown to be beneficial for older people.
Athletes also need higher protein intake compared to sedentary individuals. For strength athletes, the recommended protein intake is about 1.4–1.8 grams per kilogram (0.6–0.8 g/lb) of body weight, whereas for endurance athletes this number stands at 1.2–1.4 grams per kilogram (0.5–0.6 g/lb).
People who are recovering from traumatic injuries and burn victims also need high protein intake. Recommendation for such individuals goes as high as over 2 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.9g/lb).
Do You Need Animal Protein?
If you are vegetarian or vegan can you still build muscle?
As I mentioned before, proteins are composed of various amino acids. Animal proteins are considered complete protein because they contain all nine essential amino acids. However, most plant proteins either lack at least one essential amino acid or the levels are too low.
Some plant proteins such as quinoa, buckwheat, and soy are complete proteins.
That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t get all nine essential amino acids if you stick to plant protein.
Dana Hunnes, R.D., Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA states that you can eat a variety of plant proteins throughout the day to get all the essential amino acids.
The keyword here is variety. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you should eat a variety of plant proteins such as:
If your goal is weight loss, however, getting enough protein from plant sources while keeping calories low can be challenging.
While it is relatively easy to find lean animal products that are low in calories and high in protein such as boneless, skinless chicken breast, tuna, tilapia, egg whites, etc. most plant proteins contain a significant amount of carbohydrates along with protein.
For example, in order to get 20 grams of protein you need to eat roughly 250 Calories worth of lentils, whereas you can get 20 grams of protein from chicken while staying under 100 Calories.
Whether you want to lose fat or build muscle, it is a good idea to increase your daily protein intake. If you are not good at measuring and tracking, aim for at least 30–40 grams of protein at each meal. Eating this much protein at every meal will help you feel full with fewer calories and reach your protein goals.
If you want to build muscle and be in a calorie surplus, following a high carbohydrate diet along with high protein will help you increase your calories.
Originally published at https://nerdgettingfit.com on September 1, 2019.