Protein is the building blocks your body uses to rebuild muscle so that you can grow stronger. If you do not consume enough protein, your body will not have enough material to make the proper repairs that lead to muscle growth. This could also lead to losing muscle as it cannot be maintained without the right amount of protein. But what is the right amount of protein to accomplish this?
In this article, we are going to go over the general rules of thumb for how much protein you should consume in a day, when you should consume it, and what sources are the best way to get the protein you need. Let’s dig in!
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Exact protein requirements can vary dramatically from individual to individual since there are many variables at play. The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is about 0.4g per pound of body weight. Is it as simple as that?
Sadly, no. Many studies, like this one, have found that the RDA is too low for most people’s dietary needs.
Examine.com has put together an extensively researched list of typical protein requirements by different cohorts:
- If you’re overweight, aim for 0.54-0.68 g/lb of total bodyweight.
- If you’re a healthy weight, active, and wish to lose fat, aim for 0.82-1.10 g/lb, skewing towards the higher end as you become leaner or if you increase your caloric deficit. Intake as high as 1.4 g/lb may enhance fat loss and minimize muscle loss in lean lifters.
- If you’re of healthy weight, active, and wish to build muscle, aim for 0.64-1.09 g/lb.
- If you are an experienced lifter on a bulk, intake as high as 1.5 g/lb may help add muscle while minimizing fat gain
These ranges are great to start with and then you can experiment with different intakes levels as your body changes. Some of these ranges mean you would be eating A LOT of protein during the day. Which leads to the question, can you eat too much protein?
There was a belief for a time that eating too much protein could lead to kidney or liver damage. However, studies have largely shown that this does not appear to be the case. The exception would be if there is already pre-existing damage and dysfunction in those organs . Plus, it appears that bone health can be improved by eating more protein .
Another benefit of eating a high protein diet is that protein is highly satiating. This means that protein will fill you up faster than other macronutrients and keep you full for a longer time. This is because protein takes longer for our body to digest than other macronutrients, like carbs and fats. Furthermore, protein has the lowest calorie content per gram compared to the other macronutrients, This is because of how hard our body has to work to digest it. Ever heard of or experienced the meat sweats? The meat sweats occur because of all of the heat our body is producing digesting the protein.
Therefore, protein can be a helpful tool in weight maintenance and weight loss.
Furthermore, consuming enough protein can be an important part of a bulk and a cut.
- While bulking, it will help you gain muscle mass with minimal fat gain. Pro tip: while bulking you only need a calorie surplus of about 100-300 calories above maintenance levels. You do not need to force feed yourself junk food. This will help minimize the fat you gain while putting on muscle.
- While in a calorie deficit for a cut, eating high amounts of protein will help you maintain muscle mass while losing body fat (and if you are a beginner lifter, you can even gain muscle while losing fat).
Now that you have an idea of how much protein you should be consuming, let’s dig into the best ways to get protein.
What Are The Best Sources of Protein?
The absolute best way to get protein in your diet is through whole foods (not the supermarket). Whole foods is a term used to describe a food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives.
For protein, these types of foods would include:
- Meat (steak, bison, pork, venison, etc.)
- Fowl (chicken, turkey, etc.)
- Eggs (contrary to an outdated belief, they will not increase your blood cholesterol level )
- Fish and Shellfish (salmon, tuna, shrimp, scallops, etc.)
- Legumes (black beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.)
One serving of protein is about the size and thickness of your palm. For men, 1-2 servings per meal is a good rule of thumb, while women can use 1 serving as their starting point. The amount of protein in one serving of the above foods roughly comes out to:
- 4oz chicken has around 30g of protein.
- 4oz salmon has around 23g of protein
- 4oz steak has around 28g of protein
- 1 whole egg has around 6g of protein
- 100g black beans has around 9g of protein
- 100g of lentils has around 9g of protein
If you can get your daily protein needs from these sources, that would be ideal, however, this can be difficult for some as this can feel like you are eating a lot of food. If you are finding it hard to reach your daily protein needs, you can supplement with a protein shake. While protein shakes are not necessary for muscle gain, they can be a great way to quickly add extra protein to your diet with minimal extra calories.
When selecting a protein powder, there are several options out there.
- Whey Protein is the most popular and cheapest protein supplementation available. Whey contains all of the essential amino acids and is a byproduct of milk. Whey protein is the fastest digesting protein, making it great for right before/after a strength training workout (although you do not have to)
- Casein Protein is the other byproduct of milk and also contains all the essential amino acids. Casein protein is digested slower than whey protein. This leads many people to consume it before bed in hopes that it will improve muscle recovery while they sleep. Don’t worry if you are not consuming protein before bed. It is not necessary at all and the actual benefit could be very small, if any. Overall protein consumed during the day is more important.
- Egg Protein is powders made from eggs. This can be an alternative if you cannot use whey or casein.
- Vegan Protein can come in many sources, whether that be soy, peas, hemp, brown rice, etc. There are hundreds of differences of types of vegan protein out there with all sorts of different quality ranges. General consensus is that they are not as tasty across the board as other types of protein. Sorry vegans.
While protein powder is not necessary, they can be a great tool. I personally try to get the majority of my protein from whole foods and only use protein powder as a flavor additive for different meals, like protein oatmeal or protein ice cream. However, the convenience of protein powder cannot be beat sometimes.
Now that we know how much protein we need and what to get it from, let’s take a look at when we should consume it.
When Should I Consume Protein?
If you were to listen to many high profile people in the fitness industry, they would lead you to believe that the timing of protein intake is extremely important for muscle growth. These people try to make it seem like you need to consume a protein shake immediately upon waking up, right before bed, and before/during/after your workout. In reality, the timing of protein throughout the day is much less important than the overall amount of protein consumed in the day.
The reason many influential people in the industry try to push the belief that you need to be constantly consuming protein is because they want you to buy their products. This is extremely disingenuous and preys on people who do not know better. The majority of these people who claim that constant high protein intakes from shakes and supplements is the key to being as big and shredded as they look are typically on another supplement that they are not telling you about (cough steroids, TRT, SARMs, etc. cough).
Like I said before, protein shakes are not necessary for muscle growth. And now you are one of those people who knows better. Congrats 🙂
In the hierarchy of importance, the overall level of protein you consume in the day is the most important protein factor for muscle growth. This can be found using the ranges that were mentioned earlier in the article. As long as you are eating in these ranges, you should have everything you need for muscle growth. You can go above these ranges, you will just not see any added benefit to muscle gains. But it can help you feel more satiated throughout the day.
The next lower step in the hierarchy is the frequency of protein consumed throughout the day. This means that you want to try and space out the total amount of protein throughout the day. So instead of eating all your protein in one meal, you want to try and spread it out throughout all your meals/snacks. This ensures that the body constantly has protein available to make repairs and feed the muscles throughout the day.
The least important thing in the hierarchy is the timing of consuming your protein around your training. This could have a small benefit, and I go into much more detail in this article, however, the added benefit is much less important than the growth you will get from hitting your overall protein goal for the day.
So, while the frequency and timing of your protein can help with muscle growth, the incremental gains are much smaller than the overall picture of eating enough protein in the day. If you are a competitive athlete, these small incremental gains can be extremely important for getting the most out of your body, but for us NARPs (non-athletic regular people), the added benefit might not be worth the extra struggle to hit those targets.
In my completely, definitely accurate number terms, total protein intake would account for 85% of your gains while frequency would take up 12%, and timing would be the remaining 3%. These numbers are definitely not accurate but they can give you a better idea of importance.
Protein intake is an important part of making sure that you get the benefits of the hard work you put into your gym sessions. It can also be a key part in helping you maintain or lose weight. Exact protein needs will vary from person to person, but experimenting with different amounts will help you get an idea of what works best for you.
At the end of the day though, weight loss and gain all comes down to calories in versus calories out. Therefore, if you are eating a bunch of high calorie foods and thinking that protein intake will balance it out, you might find that you are gaining more fat than you want to. As a result, you should aim to find out how to set up your diet so that you are hitting your protein goals within your allotted daily calories.
Now that you have protein figured out, you can focus on a solid plan for the gym so that you can build your muscles to look how you want to. To do so, you can check out my articles on the basics of setting up a lifting program for the gym or my article on lifting to look good. Or, if you hate reading (how the hell did you just read this whole article?), you can reach out to me HERE for a free 30 minute consultation to find out how I can help you find an exercise and diet program that works for you and your life.
Happy meat sweats everyone,