We’ve all heard that protein is the building block of muscle. The question is, how much protein should you be eating to support the hard work you put in at the gym?
On the one hand, we have the Recommended Dietary Allowance from the National Institute of Medicine at 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, which amounts to 65 grams for a 180 pound individual. To give some perspective, that’s roughly the amount of protein found in one 8 ounce sirloin steak.
On the other hand, we have muscle and fitness magazines advocating up to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, which amounts to 360 grams per day for a 180 pound individual. Not surprisingly, you’d have a hard time consuming that much protein without buying the supplements advertised in said magazines. Things that make you go hmm…
So who’s right? Or is the answer somewhere in the middle?
Let’s see what the research says…
“Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22150425)
Their conclusion: muscle protein synthesis in athletes is maximized with 0.59 to 0.82 grams per pound of bodyweight. Consuming up to 0.91 grams may help prevent loss of muscle when on a caloric deficit.
“Effect of protein intake on strength, body composition, and endocrine changes in strength/power athletes” (http://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-3-2-12)
Their conclusion: no significant difference was observed between groups consuming 0.5, 0.7, or 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight, either in terms of strength gain, body composition, or hormonal changes.
Army paper on “The role of protein and amino acids in sustaining and enhancing performance” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224626/)
Their conclusion: strenuous exercise has been shown to increase protein requirements above the RDA but not above the military recommended dietary allowance of 80 grams/day for women and 100 grams/day for men, and there is no support for using protein supplements to facilitate muscle building or improve physical performance.
“The role of dietary proteins in sports” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22139562)
Their conclusion: the daily intake required for most athletes is in the range of 0.45 to 0.90 grams per pound of bodyweight. Also, there is some benefit to consuming protein before exercise.
“Protein for exercise and recovery” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20048505)
Their conclusion: individuals who are engaged in intense exercise require more protein than the RDA, in the range of 0.65 to 0.90 grams per pound of bodyweight. There’s evidence that consuming protein immediately before, during, and/or after exercise can enhance recovery and immune function.
So what does all of this mean?
All five studies – and there are plenty more out there – conclude that athletes need more protein than the RDA, but in no case was any benefit found from more than 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. In most cases, less was sufficient. For a 150 pound person, the upper limit amounts to 135 grams per day. For a 200 pound person, it’s 180 grams. The idea that you need more protein than that to build or maintain muscle mass is a myth perpetuated by the supplement industry. Timing does matter, and you should make sure to eat some protein just before or after you exercise.
Disclaimer: If you’re a competitive bodybuilder or powerlifter on anabolic drugs, a different set of rules applies to you. My post is for regular people subject to normal human limits and for which studies have been performed.
How to put it into practice
Multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 0.9, and try to eat approximately that many grams of protein each day. If you fall a little short, not a big deal, but you should be able to hit your target if you make it a point to eat some protein-rich food (like eggs, beef, chicken, or fish) at each of 3 or 4 meals. Protein bars and shakes aren’t necessary but can be a convenient supplement in a pinch. Plan to eat one of your meals or a protein shake shortly after your workout to maximize recovery.
To use myself as an example, at 220 pounds, the most protein that I could benefit from is 220 x 0.9 = 198 grams per day, so right around 200 grams. A typical breakfast includes 4 eggs and a breakfast meat, or a protein shake if I don’t have the time or desire to cook. A typical lunch, eaten right after I exercise, includes a medium size portion of meat in something like a sandwich, burrito, or burger. A typical dinner includes a larger portion of meat, like 8-12 oz. of beef or chicken. If you do the protein math and factor in the additional smaller amounts I get from things like bread, rice, fruits & veggies, beans, snack foods, etc., I’m totaling right around 200 grams.
Give the scientifically supported approach a try, and let me know how it goes. If you’ve been skimping on protein, you should find that getting an adequate amount boosts your results in the gym. For those of you who’ve been drowning your system in protein, backing off to a more reasonable level will benefit both your digestive system and your wallet. As they say, balance is key. Yin and Yang and all that.