How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
Enough is enough. Somewhere between ridiculous supplement company recommendations and broscience cooler talk, protein intake has gotten out of hand. Recently, I saw a contest preparation “coach” in my area post a picture of his client’s diet. He was having 500 grams of protein per day. That isn’t a typo. Five hundred grams. But this coach has competed and won shows, so clearly he’s credible, right? Or maybe massive drug dosages can mask idiocy. Just saying. Anyway, this shit needs to stop. When deciding where to set your protein intake, clear your head of all the nonsense that you’ve been told and use common sense.
If gaining tissue was all about who could eat the most protein, we’d all be having 500 grams and walking around looking like Arnold. Increasing muscle mass isn’t high on our bodies to-do list. An overly high protein intake will actually result in higher protein breakdown and potentially desensitize the body to certain amino acids. So much of your expensive protein is just being wasted. Sorry, bro.
Muscle hypertrophy is a pretty complex adaptation that involves interactions between insulin, amino acid availability, growth hormone, androgens, exercise, and other factors. In order for this to occur, muscle protein creation (MPS) must be greater than protein breakdown (MPB). At the micro level, this shit is extremely complicated and I don’t pretend to understand all the intricate pathways involved. But I will pretend to have common sense. When examining much of the nutrition and training questions of today, ask yourself, “Knowing what I know about the human body, does this make sense?
Protein consumption is an easy one to do this with. If you’re 200 pounds, do you really believe that taking in 400 grams of protein will expedite muscle growth? Does this make sense when viewing the thousands of things the human body has to do on a daily basis? Here’s a nice quote from a study investigating the duration of muscle protein synthesis: “The results suggest that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) responds rapidly to increased availability of amino acids but is then inhibited, despite continued amino acid availability” (1). Amino acids were infused in participants for six hours, yet protein synthesis ended near the two-hour mark. Why?
This is often referred to as the “muscle full” hypothesis, which states that once your muscles have reached maximal amino acid uptake, any further amino acids won’t be used for protein synthesis but rather will be oxidized (i.e. used for fuel, stored as fat ). The nice thing is that lifting weights will help prolong the muscle full effect for up to 24 hours (3). This is why protein in the peri-workout window (i.e., pre-, intra-, post-) is so important.
This suggests that the timing isn’t as important as making sure that you’re supplying the body with adequate amounts of amino acids. This isn’t to say that nutrient timing isn’t important. I believe that nutrient timing is beneficial, especially for those who have been lifting for a while and their genetic ceiling is rapidly approaching.
How much do you need? Tough question. There are so many factors at play like age and lean body mass. There are a good amount of studies suggesting that 40 grams of protein is too much and that 20 grams is all that’s needed to maximize muscle protein synthesis (5, 6). I’m not saying don’t have any meals with protein more than 20 grams. This is only in regards to muscle protein synthesis. Protein has plenty of other uses in the body. It just helps to put things into perspective. I don’t believe that a perfect amount exists.
I can sit here and post study after study, but where does that get us? If anything, people just end up confused and arguing over miniscule details. So I’ll take you back to an earlier point—keep it simple. Frank Zane gave me a great piece of advice when we were discussing training and nutrition. Frank said, “It’s not about the extremes. It’s about finding balance, finding that middle ground.” I couldn’t agree more.
So what do we know?
- Eating is anabolic but only if there is sufficient essential amino acids (10 grams needed for MPS).
- Twenty grams of whey is sufficient to maximally stimulate MPS (5, 6).
- Leucine is a very potent anabolic stimulator and a certain amount is required to maximally stimulate MPS (3–4 grams [7, 8]).
- There is a “muscle full” phenomena where once a certain amount of amino acids are reached, the rest are catabolized. This is delayed with exercise.
- Adding other nutrients like carbohydrates won’t enhance muscle protein synthesis (3, 4). This is another reason to question the rush to have post-workout carbohydrates…
- The type of exercise (volume, intensity) can influence muscle protein synthesis.
- “Control of muscle mass is under intrinsic control (4).”
- Eating every two hours not only won’t increase your metabolism, but it won’t increase protein synthesis either. Another hole in that myth.
What I’ve found
This section is based purely on what I’ve found working with a wide array of nutrition clients. I rarely go much above 1 gram per pound of body weight but certainly have in some instances. I’ve also used lower. As with everything, this depends on the person and his or her goals, but I tend to keep it at 0.8–1.2 grams per pound of body weight. I’ve had plenty of people come to me with extremely high protein intakes. We lowered it and they ended up gaining muscle. The question comes down to, what are you trying to achieve with X amount of protein intake?
I think leucine is really underutilized by most people. Leucine essentially turns muscle protein synthesis on, and when the levels of leucine drop, so does MPS. One study found that 6.25 grams of protein was as effective as a 25-gram protein drink in stimulating muscle protein synthesis by including 5 grams of leucine (9). I believe that dosing leucine in the peri-workout window can be very useful.
If you’ve read my previous articles, you know that I utilize intermittent fasting. I believe that this research really supports the notion of fasting on days when you don’t lift weights because there isn’t a huge need for a ton of protein/amino acids that day. The “muscle full” phenomena occurs much quicker without exercise. Therefore, far fewer amino acids are needed to max out protein synthesis. This isn’t a day when you should be expecting to gain tissue. I also believe that breaks from high protein intake will keep you more sensitive to protein.
The RDA has set quite a low amount of protein “needed” at 0.8g/kg of body weight. Remember though, this is just for your average American, not athletes or weightlifters. More recent studies have suggested that the range of protein intake for weight lifters be anywhere from 2.3–3.1g/kg of lean body mass, which seems reasonable (10). Of course, the level of your other macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats) will influence where you set protein. Finding your protein “sweet spot” will be highly individual.
If gaining muscle is your goal, please understand that this is a long-term process. You can’t rush it. Your body will gain tissue at its own pace. Going overboard with protein won’t increase your muscle mass. Time, proper lifting, and adequate, well-rounded nutrition will. So don’t be afraid to spread your meals out. Make sure that you’re getting leucine and don’t be an idiot with three times your body weight in protein.
- Julien Bohe (2001) Latency and duration of stimulate of human muscle protein synthesis during continuous infusion of amino acids. J Phys.
- Atherton PJ (2010) Muscle full effect after oral protein: time-dependent concordance and discordance between human muscle protein synthesis and mTORC1 signaling. Am J Clin Nutr.
- Atherton PJ (2012) Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of Physiology.
- Phillips BE (2012) Regulation of muscle protein synthesis in humans. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care.
- Witard OC (2014) Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise. Am J Clin Nutr.
- Moore DR (2009) Ingested Protein Dose Response of Muscle and Albumin Protein Synthesis after Resistance Exercise in Young Men. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- Padden-Jones D (2004) Amino acid ingestion improves muscle protein synthesis in the young and elderly. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab.
- Tipton KD (1999) Post-exercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. Am J Physiol.
- Churchward-Venne TA (2014) Leucine supplementation of a low-protein mixed macronutrient beverage enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis in young men: double-blind, randomized trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ (2014) Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition.