If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I frequently do live Q&A sessions using the hashtag #AskBorn. 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.
One of the most frequent question is, “How much protein should I eat?”
You 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?
To provide he most thorough, research-based approach to eating protein, I teamed with examine.com to help you figure out what is ideal for your body. -AB
The Protein Guide: How Much Protein Should I Eat?
By Kurtis Frank and Sol Orwell
Part I: Protein 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 101: Uses and Sources
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:
- The base level (assuming no activity and no desire to change body composition) is around 0.8g per kilogram body weight (50g for a 137.5lb person) or above. More is not harmful, but this seems to be the bare minimum
- An athlete or highly active person, or a person who is sedentary and looking to lose body fat would do well with a range between 1-1.5g per kilogram. For a 200lb person, this equates to 91-136g daily
- An athlete or active person who wishes to beneficially influence their body composition (lose fat and/or gain muscle) or a very highly active endurance athlete should be consuming in the range of 1.5-2.2g per kilogram daily (for our 200lb person, this equates to 136-200g daily)
There are a few caveats to the above recommendations:
- The above assumes that you are of somewhat average body fat percentage. If you are a male above 20% bodyfat (or 30% for a female), then the above information would lead to a needless overconsumption of protein. Use your goal weight to calculate your protein requirements.
- Any recommendation above 1.5g/kg is, unfortunately, not too well supported by scientific literature. The limited evidence that there is suggests it adds more benefit, but most of the recommendation is derived from a history of anecdotal usage and general guidelines from practice. This isn’t a bad thing, just needs to be disclosed.
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.
COMPLETE VERSUS INCOMPLETE PROTEINS
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:
- Combine two incomplete protein sources that nicely cover each other. For example, rice is low in lysine but high in methionine, while pea is high in lysine and low in methionine; combining them gives you a complete source.
- Just eat more. Rice gives you you some lysine, and so you could literally eat 100-150g of incomplete protein to get enough of the deficient amino acids.
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.
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