If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I frequently do live Q&A sessions using the hashtag #AskBorn. I save these sessions because I find your questions invaluable, and they help me better understand what information you need and desire. As part of the process, I decided to review all of the questions and find the most popular, the most difficult, and the most bizarre. After all, when someone asks, “What’s the best way to build muscle,” you’d like to give a good answer.
I decided to start with the most popular, which was, “How much protein should I eat?” I’ve answered this repeatedly, but the answer isn’t always cut and dry.
I think the greater issue is that people want to understand protein, and not just protein powders. (After all, there’s no magic dust in the protein.) You know protein is important for building muscle, but beyond that there are so many questions, such as: How much? How often? And what sources are the best?
I have a lot to say about protein, but I went to the brains behind examine.com because they can do it better. If you haven’t visited Examine, the site is a wealth of knowledge and all backed by research. It’s a no-nonsense, no-BS approach to nutrition, which is exactly what you need to make an informed decision. What you’re about to read might be the greatest article on protein ever written. This is part 1 of a four-part series that answers every question you could possibly have about protein. Take out your shaker cup and prepare yourself a smoothie because you’re about to learn everything you could possibly want—and more—about protein.
By Kurtis Frank and Sol Orwell
Part I: Uses, Sources, and Supplements
Protein is one of the three dietary macronutrients (we are excluding alcohol as the fourth), and by far the most popular macronutrient to be sold as a supplement. It is usually recommended that carbohydrates and dietary fatty acids (aka fats) be consumed through a healthy diet, but it is quite common that protein consumption be augmented with protein powder supplements.
As protein powder is the best selling supplement, there is a lot of competition around various powders. Highly unregulated and of questionable ethics, supplement companies regularly come up with the latest and greatest formula to continue to drive sales up to stay ahead of competitors.
Different sources of protein are used, different additives are used, and different processing techniques are used. Do these modifications live up to their grandiose claims? To answer that, we first need to understand what exactly protein is used for, how the various powders differ, and then deconstruct the modifications and whether they are supported both in clinical settings and practical settings.
Protein is known for being the critical macronutrient for muscle formation. It does more than that, acting in unison with a large amount of enzymes and transporters in your body in vital functions that support life and proper metabolism. In a sense, protein are bricks in the construction of your body. Continuing our analogy, carbohydrates tend to be workers, cementing these bricks together, while fats are the managers, making sure this process is running smoothly. All three are of course critical, and work together in keeping your body in proper shape.
What does it all mean?
Protein intake is basically a daily quota. There are lots of amino acids that do a lot of things, and many of them can be converted to one another (ones that cannot be obtained via conversion are termed essential, familiar to anyone who has seen essential amino acids on sale). Without complicating things, you need X amount of protein each day to live and perhaps bump that up to Y each day given some circumstances (the actual values of X and Y will be elaborated on later).
The idea here is that there is a rough amount of protein you should be consuming every day to facilitate optimal body functions.
Protein Lesson #1: Protein are the bricks your body uses for all internal construction, be it building new muscle or maintaining existing functions. If you deprive your body of protein, there will be problems.
The RDA for dietary protein is currently set at 50 grams a day. A surprisingly low number, but if you meet this level of intake it is unlikely you will be deficient in dietary protein.
The RDA was set based on ‘normal’ people, which was a sample of sedentary people of somewhat normal BMI (18.5-25) with a mixed diet of adequate calories.
So if your goals are merely to live and not regularly partake in any physical activity, the RDA is enough. This does not mean it is optimal, but 50g is at least sufficient.
The amount of protein needed for everyone else is more debatable, as it depends on both your body weight and activity level. Although there is no set of perfect guidelines, it seems that the scientific consensus has currently landed in the following approximate ranges:
There are a few caveats to the above recommendations:
Protein Lesson #2: The base amount of protein you should take is roughly 1g/kg bodyweight. If you are active, 2g/kg is a good target. If you are obese, calculate that based on your target bodyweight, not current weight.
The bare minimum recommendation for protein is based on complete protein sources.
Remember that protein is a mixture of amino acids. A protein source is considered complete if consuming the 50g minimum would give you enough essential amino acids to support life.
Any protein source that is lacking in one or more essential amino acid is deemed “incomplete.” Rice is deemed an incomplete since it is low in the amino acid lysine. If you got all 50g of your protein from rice, you would be deficient in lysine.
So we have two options here:
Worrying about complete vs incomplete protein sources is only a valid concern if your overall intake of protein is very low. At higher intakes of dietary protein intake, you should be covered; it is highly unlikely you’ll fail to meet requirements on a mixed diet of incomplete protein sources if overall protein intake is higher than the minimum.
Protein Lesson #3: Your body can convert one amino acid into another. The ones it cannot convert are called essential amino acids. A protein source is considered complete if 50g of that protein will give you all the essential amino acids.
If you’ve ever wanted to know the best types of proteins and how to select the best protein powders, look forward to Part II.
Want More Diet Advice?
For a complete diet and exercise program and all my protein recommendations, check out my latest book, Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. Or, if you want to work with me personally, apply for my coaching program so I can help you reach your goals.