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The Protein Guide: How Much Protein Do You Need?

how much protein

Editor’s note:

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. 

-Born

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. (Born Protein recommendation: This blend or this whey powder.)

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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About Adam Bornstein

Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning editor, speaker and business consultant. He is the CEO of Born Fitness, a company that specializes in viral content creation, publishing, online coaching, social media, and branding. View all posts by Adam Bornstein →
  • https://www.rentything.com/ landland

    Nice article. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Wei @ Workout Plans For Men

    Makes sense to consume protein amounts depending on how much you work out. The best types of protein should be interesting considering the increasingly commercial nature of protein powders these days

  • http://www.facebook.com/evilcyber Freddie Fit

    My goodness, there are workout websites that do make sense! Well written, Adam!

  • kurtes

    great post, gave me a few ideas. Thanks.

  • http://www.samuellozano.net/ Samuel Lozano

    I need to be eating way more for gains.

  • Fatty

    Don’t these 2 points negate each other?

    “Any recommendation above 1.5g/kg is, unfortunately, not too well supported by scientific literature.”

    “If you are active, 2g/kg is a good target.”

    I’m a bit confused.

    • Cruton

      I believe he means its anecdotal evidence within the fitness industry (2g/kg). Personally I find that the majority of these recommendations are all too high. I put on muscle with a hell of a lot less than 2g/kg.

  • http://www.jeetchowhan.com/ Jeet Chowhan

    Protein tends to
    play a starring role at mealtimes, but you might be better off if it moves
    out of the spotlight and becomes part of a supporting cast of foods on your
    plate.Although important in the diet, extra protein will not help you build
    more muscle or make you stronger. When you’re consuming too much of it,
    you’re probably taking in more calories and fat than your body needs.

  • Greg

    I believe
    that nutritional supplements are necessary. I’ve read thousands times that we
    don’t have enough nutrients from our everyday food. Especialy additional
    nutrition is important if you are doing some sports or living active lifestyle.
    You just have to find a high quality product. I’ve searched through internet, studied
    articles and reviews, and finally found the product for myself – Military Grade
    supplements. My basic criteria was natural compounds. Then, I liked the
    reviews, which were mostly positive, highlighting the visible effect of the
    product. So, I’ve tried them myself. Started with 1 bottle of their pre-workout
    formula and was surprised greatly! Almost no fatigue after my workouts, lots of
    energy throughout a day, and even better sleep! This product is definitely
    worth trying.