Q: How much protein should I be eating? How much does my body actually use?
A: Oh boy! This is another can of worms that is likely to spur debate amongst trainers, coaches, gym rats and scientists. But, over the past few years and through some personal research and continuing education, I’ve come to find some answers that seem to work pretty well for the vast majority of people.
First off, it may sound elementary, but so everyone is on the same page proteins are organic compounds that make up one of the macronutrients we eat and is needed to sustain life. Protein breaks down into free form amino acids, which are the building blocks of the musculoskeletal system. Through activity muscles sustain micro-tears and trauma which, during the recovery period, is repaired by protein/amino acids. This yields more strength, better fitness, and improved health over time and adaptation.
The common standard is “30 grams per meal”. Where that came from is beyond me, but that’s a really rough guideline to go by, however, as an average it works. One of the thoughts was that protein supplement companies put that out there to coincide with their dosage recommendations on their particular brand of protein. There was little else scientific to go on to validate those amounts at the time but now we are seeing some research to put 30 grams as a decent average for people to follow.
That may be a fairly decent guideline to use though, but it can go many different directions, either positive or negative due to the intake and use of protein. Many factors are involved in the ingestion and utilization of protein in the human body. For me, I look at overall diet, the body type of the individual, their activity level, and what kind of activity it is that they are engaged in. For example, a 220 Lb male bodybuilder would have a different protein need than a 115 Lb female runner, a skinny guy trying to put on mass or a heavier person looking to lose weight while utilizing an exercise routine. With those considerations in mind, we also need to pay attention to meals per day and what kind of protein is being taken in. So, let’s take a look at proteins, starting with supplements – an addition to the natural diet.
Supplements are a necessary evil these days, especially proteins. If you were getting your requirements from animal sources alone, you’d be eating a crap-load of meat. I don’t think you’d be feeling real grand after a couple days of that. So, supplements can be put in place and work quite well as long as it is a clean, high quality supplement. There is junk and some really good stuff out there, so choose wisely and don’t listen to the part-time, high school kid behind the counter at the local muscle store wearing the “250 Lb Bench Press Club” t-shirt. Do some research and choose wisely.
The most popular protein supplements out there are whey, casein and egg based. Whey is a milk-derived protein that absorbs fairly quickly and assimilates well in the body. This is important for quick recovery post workout. Casein is another milk based protein source that takes a bit longer to digest. This can be a benefit dependent upon a person’s dietary or fitness needs. Egg proteins are out there and are also a slow digesting protein, however, they tend to be a bit funky for most people’s digestive systems.
Then there’s soy. Soy proteins are available but soy also has some issues with it that have serious hormonal effects on people, men and women, that are deleterious to your long-term health. (If you have certain health issues that preclude you from milk-based proteins, then go egg based before soy, in my opinion.)
With all protein powders that are digested as a liquid, they all have a time release due to their make up, but they will all digest more quickly than a whole food based protein.
In the case of whole food based proteins, there are animal based proteins and some plant based proteins. Meats are an obvious choice and the kind of meat preferred is completely up to the individual. When it comes to plant based proteins, you are in for some work and those proteins will not yield the same results as an animal based protein and/or a supplement. The bioavailability of a plant based protein is minimal and since many plant based proteins are from legumes, soy, or grain-like sources (Quinoa), there are again hormonal and health issues to be concerned with. Outside of religious reasons, this is one of the reasons a vegetarian diet is not as healthy as some may think. But, that is a topic for another day.
The digestibility rate of a high quality protein is about 94-97%, and even plant-based proteins have been found to be around 78-85%. Remember, you are going to need A LOT of plant based proteins to meet daily allotment requirements, even more than just animal based proteins alone, and that’s a lot in it’s own right. Our ancestors ate large amounts of animal protein per sitting and had no ill effects. Their guts adapted to the large intakes and processed it quite well. So, the body is efficient at handling high protein loads if it adapts to it.
Activity levels and meals per day are the next area to be concerned with. This has a lot of variability to it as well, dependent upon the needs of the person at hand.
For the vast majority of people who are looking to lean out, increase health and still gain lean body mass, I go along with the accepted notion of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. If you are a strength athlete or bodybuilder, that number can jump to 1.25 to 1.5 grams of protein/LB of bodyweight.
If you are overweight and want to lose weight, protein is still a must, however, the number should drop a tad, perhaps to about .75 grams/LB of bodyweight. You will still need the protein to help recover from workouts and fitness efforts, which will in turn will help build lean body mass, which will increase your metabolism, which will increase energy consumption, which will increase weight loss….it’s a big positive circle.
Once you have figured out a daily allotment, you can quickly figure out a meal schedule that is reasonable and can be met. This meal schedule should basically revolve around protein – in other words, no meal is complete without “X” amount of protein per sitting. If you are supposed to be taking in 200 grams of protein per day, and you want to eat 5 times per day (including a post workout meal), then math dictates you will need to eat 40 grams per meal. That is entirely reasonable and also not “over the top” in the body’s ability to process protein and maintain positive nitrogen balance.
If you are looking to gain muscle mass, you need to eat over your weight recommendations. In this case, a 180 Lb male who wants to “get swole with maximum jackage” should take in protein like a 220 Lb male. The same goes for caloric intake – it needs to go up to support the anabolic reactions in the body. Yes, you will gain some body fat, but you won’t get “fat”. It will shed easily once you hit your target and throw in some metabolic conditioning work and a tight hormonally controlling diet.
Keep in mind that ANY macronutrient – carbs, fat and protein – can turn to bodyfat if taken in excessively. If the body isn’t using it, it will convert it to fat. This is not very easy to do with protein since the conversion process is inefficient, but it can happen. This means you need to keep tabs on how things are working and tweak things accordingly. This is where a food journal comes in handy for the initial couple months of a new diet.
With that number in mind for an overall picture for the day, the next concern would be with the most important time of protein intake – post workout. I don’t care if you are training for strength, muscular gains, general fitness or even as an endurance athlete, protein supplementation post workout is a MUST!! I consider this intake as a meal, since you are feeding the body.
Recovery nutrition should come within 45 minutes of finishing exercise. This is the “golden window” where nutrients are the most readily absorbed and the body is in hyperdrive to repair and replenish itself. Failure to meet this cut off slows the recovery rate and can make you feel noticeably worn out and “flat” the next day.
The amount of protein and carbs taken in post-workout will vary a bit. For hard strength training workouts where a lot of muscle is broken down and in need of repair, I recommend about 35-45 grams of protein and about 20-30 grams carbs. The carbs act to replace some of the minimal degradation of internal energy stores through activity, but more so to help transport amino acids into the body. Keep fat intake very minimal here as the insulin spike will encourage a boost of IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor), which in turn boosts HGH (Human Growth Hormone). Post workout meals are the ONLY time you want an insulin spike to cause the above reaction. The rest of your meals go back to hormonal control via lower carb/higher fat intake.
For longer training efforts with less muscular break down, endurance based or high intensity metabolic conditioning, I recommend about 35 grams of protein and double that in carbs. In these longer efforts, the most important recovery/replenishment macro nutrient here being carbs/glycogen since you have tapped into internal energy stores a bit more in this type of exercise. The carb source once again helps as a shuttle to get amino acids and recovery macronutrients into the body. Again, stick with minimal fat intake.
Runners, triathletes, cyclists, or any other endurance athlete would benefit greatly from increased protein intake and a reduction in carbs in their overall diet. That’s contrary to belief (remember I used to be an elite endurance athlete, so I speak from experience in the “old” and “new” trains of thought). Although it is not thought of, muscle is being broken down over long endurance based training sessions. Think of the last 10k or 5-hour bike ride you did – remember that deep down muscle soreness and connective tissue achiness you felt? Yeah, that’s not from singing too loud in church. Protein supplementation, along the 1 gram/LB of bodyweight rule of thumb, would be a wise choice here with a higher post workout carb intake.
Also of importance, some protein intake during a long athletic event is a good idea. Whey proteins can be added to a carbohydrate beverage. For example, add about 10 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbohydrates to 32 ounces of liquid. This can be continually consumed during long training or competition to increase performance and reduce muscle damage. By taking in protein during long training cycles, the body has an added ability to properly use & store glycogen and reduce muscle wasting via Gluconeogenesis, which is when the body eats away at muscle to use as a fuel source. Protein intake during long exercise helps recovery, lessens the chance or injury, and prevents you from having that rad marathoner’s emaciated physique and one-dimensional athletic ability…. There are some really good research articles out there about strength training and dietary shifts to improve endurance athletes but that’s another soapbox rant.
Scientists have been playing around with “pulse dosing” protein and have seen some good results. In these cases, one or two meals per day were larger intakes of protein than the rest. One would be best done in the beginning of the day and the other post workout. The rest of the meals in the day would be smaller in dosage.
Insofar as dosages, there is no real set limit. I would contend that more than 45-50 grams per sitting per meal would lead to wasted protein, but even that hasn’t been completely hashed out. For the average, 30-40 grams per sitting is a decent place to hover and is workable for the body. There is much discussion of too much protein being hard on the kidneys, but this again has not been proven. Adequate intake of water and slowly adapting to more protein intake over time has shown to alleviate any issues or concerns about this myth. Human tissue does not become injured due to an increase workload instead, through adaptation, it learns to function with new requirements.
Also, new research is showing that higher protein diets are not causing calcium leaching/bone density reduction in people, as long as they are active and incorporating some resistance training into their lives – read that last part again, it’s important. Many doctors have for years told elderly patients or young girls to ease up on protein intake since it will cause a reduction in bone density. Still, old folks are snapping femurs like spaghetti and young girls set themselves up for osteoporosis early on. A new crop of open minded and smart doctors is discovering the opposite to be true.
The last thing to touch on is when to eat in the day, specifically the front and back ends of the clock. Breakfast is important, so start in on a meal within that first hour of waking. This is especially true for strength athletes. I have some personal opinions about getting an immediate breakfast in if you are looking to lose weight, in which case I like some intermittent fasting thrown in a couple times a week. But, for most cases and people, eat breakfast, protein, fat and some carbs.
The last meal of the day is another place to make tweaks dependent upon your training goals, lifestyle or health goals. For folks who wish to get leaned out and add some lean body mass through training efforts, a small protein only meal prior to bed may be a good idea. In this case, an animal based protein or slower digesting casein or egg protein a short while before bed can help the body get through the night where the most recovery takes place and will also help boost the metabolism a bit due to protein’s thermogenic effect during processing.
This is just a brush across the surface of the in’s and out’s of protein intake to help you along. There is a ton more tweaking and adjusting you can do to use protein to your advantage in your quest for fitness and health gains. Remember, protein is essential so all of your meals should have some form of it in them.