Meeting Protein Needs
The Relative Importance of Protein Intake:
Protein supports muscle growth by literally providing the building blocks out of which muscle structure is made. Because of this dietary protein intake is THE MOST important of the macronutrients in terms of body composition. If you only consider ONE of the macros, it had better be protein.
Minimum Daily Intake:
Minimum daily protein for health (not maximum muscle mass) is covered with a diet of 0.4g protein per pound bodyweight per day. That means a 200lb lifter would be eating around 80g of protein per day.
You might think that sounds a bit on the low side, and for building and retaining muscle, indeed it is. Research has shown that athletes interested in maximizing muscle mass do in fact need considerably more protein than this.
The minimum daily intake for body composition is higher than the amount for health. For athletes on a serious mission to gain muscle, keep muscle, and lose fat without risking excessive muscle loss, a likely minimum daily protein intake is around 0.6g per pound of body mass. That means a 200lb lifter would be consuming around 120g of protein per day. Now, this is the approximate minimum amount that can remotely claim to effectively support muscle growth and retention. Any amount less than this will likely seriously undercut the results of any diet and training program. Now, this number is the absolute minimum, and is only enough protein under several likely conditions:
- Very good genetics (those with good genes for muscle growth and retention can get good results from minimal amounts of protein).
- Drug use (anabolics enhance the feed efficiency of protein, which means more of the eaten protein than usual is used to save and build muscle).
- A very hypercaloric diet (if you eat TONS of carbs and fats and are always hypercaloric, your basic energy demands are met by those macros, and most protein can be used to spare and build muscle).
- Protein timing (if you eat 120g of your daily protein grams all in one meal, about 5-8 hours later, you’ll begin to lose muscle, and won’t stop until the next day when you get to eat protein again. If on the other hand, you spread your protein out to 4 even meals every 4 hours or so, you can provide a consistent stream of amino acids to muscle, and the likelihood of muscle loss drops significantly).
If you don’t meet anyone of the above criteria (humorously, the first criterion may be tough to admit), then the “minimal for body comp” amount may in fact be too little protein. If you’re a drug-free athlete with good genetics and a real-world job where eating every 3 hours is not always possible, and you’re in a fat-loss phase, it’s highly unlikely that 0.6g per pound of body mass is enough protein for your needs. In reality, your minimal protein needs for body composition may lie closer to the “optimal” values discussed in section d.
Athletes who have been cleared by their physicians as having no organ health or metabolic problems do not have an “excessive” upper limit to their protein intake. That is, short of kidney dysfunction and a small list of other conditions, it’s very unlikely that eating too much protein is deleterious to general health. The research on this is expansive and conclusive. If you weigh 200lbs, are healthy, train hard and eat 400g of protein per day, the only conclusive effect of that dietary regimen is a very fatigued jaw musculature.
For body composition, there IS such a thing as excessive protein intake precisely because of the caloric constraint hypothesis (CCH). Once you’ve met the optimal protein intake (to be discussed next), any protein in excess of that amount could instead be carbohydrate. More carbohydrates can replenish glycogen more completely, give more workout energy via blood glucose, or provide an independent (insulin-mediated) anabolic stimulus. So if you have to cut your carbs to 100g per day just to make room for the pounds of protein you eat, you’re trading away net benefits of carbs for no added benefits of extra protein. Because in very technical terms, any protein amount over the optimal value is considered excessive, in reality, that is in fact the case. However, the optimal protein intake is much more a range than it is an exact amount, and there is some uncertainty as to its application in ALL circumstances.
Therefore, the likely “excessive” ceiling of protein intake for body composition is around 1.25g of protein per pound body mass. This means that our hypothetical 200lb lifter can consume up to about 250g of protein per day. Anything over that on a hypocaloric diet may risk a needless drop in carbohydrate intake (that will hurt overall results), and anything over than that on a hypercaloric diet may needlessly ignore the benefits of added healthy fat consumption (see the discussion of fat intake in the first part of this chapter).
Literally hundreds of studies have been published on optimally meeting protein needs for athletes. These studies have been conducted on a wide range of sports, including powerlifters, weightlifters, bodybuilders, and recreational lifters. Pooling all of the literature together leads us to the tentative conclusion that the optimal daily intake of protein is somewhere in the range between 0.8 and 1g per pound of body mass for those hard-training individuals that are looking to reinforce body composition. This means our 200lb athlete would be consuming between 160 and 200g of protein per day. It turns out that some old-school bodybuilding wisdom is indeed true, and forms a great and simple rule of thumb for those of us interested in body composition success: 1g of protein per lb of body weight per day is a great starting point in most diets.