Do you really need to shovel down chicken breasts daily and buy your bodyweight in steak and egg whites each week, or is protein seriously over-rated?
Stances on protein intake tend to come at polar opposite ends of the spectrum.
At one end, you’ve got the guys and girls who recommend super high intakes, reaching as far as 2 grams per pound of bodyweight. At the other end, there are those who say that eating a high protein diet is almost as dangerous as smoking cigarettes, and that protein (particularly from animal sources) is a key cause of disease and early death.
The former view generally comes from bodybuilding folklore, whereas the latter view is often eschewed by vegans and animal rights activists. Unfortunately, neither is backed by science. That’s where this article comes in.
We’ve dug deep into the science for you, reading the research, and looking at the literature to get to the bottom of just how much protein you really need.
Protein’s Role in the Body
Protein’s main role is to build and repair cells—organs, skin, hair, nails and so on. That’s great, but what we care most about is protein’s effect on body composition.
Protein plays a key role in building muscle by acting as a temporary switch to turn on muscle synthesis, and by supplying the necessary raw material needed to grow and repair muscle. Weight training causes micro-traumas to muscle tissue. Without adequate protein, this damage can’t be repaired. When it is repaired though, it regrows bigger and stronger. Over time, with years of progressive lifting and ample protein in your diet, you can add pounds of new muscle tissue.
Protein is also helpful for fat loss. Since it takes the body longer to break down protein than either fat or carbohydrate, protein can keep you fuller, longer—a huge advantage when you’re dieting. Protein also has a higher TEF (thermic effect of food), meaning that you burn approximately 19-23% of the calories consumed in the digestion process itself . Finally, protein helps to preserve muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit.
What Does the RDA Recommend?
The current RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kg of body weight per day (around 0.36 grams per pound.)
That’s pretty low by any flexible dieter’s or hard trainer’s standard. But it’s important to remember that the recommended daily allowance is set as the minimum amount of protein needed just to function and avoid illness, not the optimal amount needed to build muscle and burn fat. When it comes to maximizing your body’s physical potential, the government’s cover-all recommendation simply won’t be enough. For the purposes of this article, we’ll just be looking at studies examining athletes and resistance-trained folk.
A Case for High Protein Diets
If “some” protein is good, then more must be better, right?
There is a case for this notion.
A 2014 study from Helms et al found that athletes in an energy deficit required an intake of 2.3 to 3.1 grams per kg of fat-free mass (1.1 to 1.4 g/lb of fat-free mass) to support muscle retention while dieting (remember that this is based on fat-free mass, not total body weight). The leaner the athlete and more severe the calorie restriction, the greater the protein need and closer the athlete will be to the 3.1 g/kg end of the spectrum .
Another interesting finding is that high protein diets may be less likely to contribute to fat gain when in a calorie surplus. Antonio et al experimented with what they deemed a normal protein intake of 2.3 g/kg (about 1.1 g/lb) against a supposed high intake of 3.4 g/kg body weight (about 1.5 g/lb) and found that the high protein group had a greater decrease in fat mass and body fat percentage. They noted that this higher intake may have physique benefits and didn’t show any detrimental effects .
For those concerned that a high protein diet may be a danger to health—you needn’t be. The research strongly suggests that a high protein intake in healthy, active individuals is in no way a risk factor for kidney or liver damage, osteoporosis, or heart disease. [4-6]
Can You Go Low?
So far, it looks like an open and shut case. High protein is the way to go.
It’s certainly pretty clear that high protein diets can have an advantage in terms of performance and body composition, but are they always completely necessary?
Phillips and Van Loon noted that 1.3 to 1.8 g/kg body weight (0.6 to 0.8 g/lb) would likely be enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis, provided it was spaced evenly throughout the day. While going higher could be beneficial in a deficit, even then, 1.8 to 2 g/kg (0.8 to 0.9 g/lb) was around the maximum required . Additionally, The International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand states that most athletes need between 1.4 and 2 g/kg (0.6 to 0.9 g/lb), with those involved in endurance sports or intermittent events shooting for the lower end (8).
There are no studies to suggest that going any lower than 1.4 g/kg (0.6 g/lb) is in any way beneficial for improving body composition, but there is data to support that going below 2.3 g/kg body weight (about 1 g/lb) is perfectly acceptable.
While the studies can help you to get a grasp of what’s needed, perfecting your diet (and your protein intake) all comes down to making it right for you.
You need a very base minimum of protein to support your training and your goals. That minimum is probably around the 1.4 g/kg per day target (0.6 g/lb body weight). However, your exact individual protein needs come down to a number of factors.
These include (9):
- Age – Adults over the age of 40 need more protein than younger adults to trigger muscle synthesis.
- Meal timing – 3 to 5 meals that each contain about 20 – 40 grams of protein is optimal for maximizing satiety and muscle growth.
- Goals – If you’re looking to build muscle or lose weight, you may benefit from more protein.
- Total calorie intake – If you’re in a calorie deficit you will need more protein than if you’re in a calorie surplus. The more severe the restriction and the leaner you are, the more protein you will need.
- Protein sources/Protein quality – Plant-based protein tends to be less bioavailable and also lower in the amino acid leucine than other protein sources, increasing the total protein need.
Of all the factors that impact protein need, perhaps the biggest player is whether you’re in a calorie deficit or surplus. In a deficit, your body fights to hold on to lean tissue, making a higher protein intake favorable. When in a surplus, your body already has ample calories to help with the muscle growth and recovery process, eliminating the need for extra protein.
While there may be a benefit to boosting your protein intake slightly above 2 g/kg (0.9 g/lb) on a cutting diet, when it comes to bulking, you won’t need any more than this, which goes along nicely with the 1 gram per pound rule. Avatar Nutrition takes every factor into consideration when setting your protein target, using science to determine the specific intake that’s right for you. Rest assured that with Avatar, you won’t be leaving any gains on the table.