“How much protein do I need per day?”
This is probably one of the most hotly debated areas within bodybuilding and sport and it can become downright controversial when you include misconceptions from the general population. I’m sure you’ve heard that too much protein can damage the kidneys and that the body can’t absorb more than 30g of protein in one sitting? These among many other myths are just scratching the surface of the protein controversy.
In this article, I’m going to put your mind at ease and tell you exactly what you need to know.
What is protein and why is it important?
Protein is a macronutrient and along with carbohydrates and fat, makes up all of the food you eat. Protein is essential for many functions within the body but for the purposes of this article we are interested in the muscle building aspects. In short, protein builds muscle but won’t automatically make you massive. It takes years of hard training to build ANY muscle let alone ‘too much’ so let’s put that myth to bed straight away. Drinking protein shakes or eating chicken alone won’t make you look like The Hulk. Learn about your macros and counting calories here.
In fact, muscle wastage is a natural process as you age so eating enough protein is even more important just to MAINTAIN what you already have. If you think you don’t need muscle then think again… less muscle means a slower metabolism and more chance of putting on fat in the long run. Muscle mass and strength is also a key measure of health and independence in elderly populations – in short, the more muscle you have, the better your quality of life is likely to be well into old age!
How much protein do you need for building muscle and losing fat?
The amount I am going to recommend is relevant for the vast majority of the population and includes any one from athletes to overweight individuals just trying to lose fat for the first time. The aim is to preserve and build as much muscle as possible while minimising fat. Even if your goal is pure fat loss, maintaining muscle is so important as it keeps your metabolism ticking over and adds shape to your physique. As I’ve mentioned, protein alone won’t pack on the muscle and even with hard training it’s a long, slow process, so don’t worry about getting too bulky overnight.
Generally speaking, the absolute minimum amount of protein you should be consuming is 1.6g per kg bodyweight. This means that for a 80kg male you’d be eating 128g as a minimum. To allow for a bit of leeway and because the calculation is easier, a lot of nutritionists will recommend 2g per kg bodyweight (so 160g in the above example of the 80kg male). This also allows you have regular protein feeds throughout the day maximising the all-important muscle protein synthesis (find out everything you need to know about MPS here) which is the mechanism through which muscle growth takes place.
So the rules for optimal protein intake, for MPS and therefore muscle are:
- Eat a minimum of 2g of protein per kg bodyweight
- Eat an adequate amount of protein, at least 20-30g, each time
- It needs to be a good quality (high leucine) source
- You need to eat this protein every 3-4 hours to keep MPS maximised
Can you eat more protein?
In short, yes. Unless you have underlying health problems (with the kidneys in particular,) there is no issue with going higher with your protein intake and this is extremely common among bodybuilders and athletes with cases of people going as high as 3 or 4g per kg bodyweight.
Why would you go this high? Well, there are a number of possible reasons:
- Protein tastes good – think steaks, roast chicken, protein bars.
- It might just happen this way after you eat your normal day’s food.
- Protein uses more calories per gram to process and digest within the body than carbs or fat (it has a higher thermic effect.)
- Protein can keep you fuller for longer. There are multiple mechanisms for this but for one, it simply slows stomach emptying.
- Protein will lower the glycaemic index (GI) of any food consumed at the same time and this can be very important for diabetics!
- Did I mention protein tastes good?
Can you eat less protein?
If muscle gain or fat loss is your aim, then ideally not. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit under for a day or so but try and keep the average nice and high in the longer term.
If your goal is purely health, you are already in shape and you’re not worried about muscle mass then yes, theoretically you can drop your protein even lower without any ill effect. There are certain populations in the world who are extremely healthy who don’t eat huge amounts of protein at all although they usually don’t lift weights and it’s often more about their cultural or religious norms then a specific choice to avoid it.
The take home message
I hope that this short article has cleared up some of the mystery and misinformation surrounding protein intake and that you can carry on your day with a clear idea of how much you need and why.
- Eat 2g protein per kg of bodyweight.
- Spread it evenly throughout the day.
- Not all protein is created equal – you need good quality protein (i.e. high leucine) sources such as meat or whey.
And finally, while we’re at it – yes, you can absorb more than 30g of protein in one sitting, you will digest and use it ALL. Once the body has had enough amino acids, it will use the rest of the protein as energy so eat away! Find a great range of protein sources here.
As always Team CSN are here to help, call or email us today and we can give you professional, unbiased advice on all your nutrition and supplement needs.