How Protein Helps the Body
If you’ve ever had a fitness goal, you’ve probably upped your protein intake. It’s the right thing to do, protein is the all-important nutrient responsible for cell growth and repair. It’s the staple in every fitness enthusiast’s diet and at the foundation of any bodybuilder’s meal plan. Protein is the go-to nutrient health conscious people try to get more of.
Over the years protein has become synonymous with a healthy lifestyle. Manufacturers ensure that their products are packed with protein. Protein content is displayed on the nutrition label, and lately, more and more brands include it an attention-grabbing manner on the front.
The recent hype is justified. Why shouldn’t there be an emphasis on a macronutrient so packed with essential amino acids? Along with dietary fat and carbohydrates, protein is the other component of the balanced and healthy diet trifecta.
With so many diets emphasizing it, interest has spread beyond the bodybuilding community. Casual gym goers and fitness enthusiasts alike see the appeal as well now. Additionally, it’s not burdensome on your lifestyle. If you want to eat more protein, you have a lot of choices when choosing how. It’s also likely to keep you full for longer periods of time.
The macronutrient takes on a variety of roles in your body: it builds and repairs tissue, which is especially useful after a good workout session; it contributes to hormone production; makes up enzymes; and is a foundational part of your bones, skin, and cartilage.
With so many benefits, overdoing would be justified. There are numerous misconceptions related to consumption and most center around the same thing. How much protein should I eat? How much can I eat per meal? Do I need more if I’m bulking? Thankfully, the science has us covered.
How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle?
If you’ve ever asked that question, especially at the gym, you were probably told, “one gram per pound.” This artifact of broscience is so entrenched in bodybuilding that it refuses to go away. Thankfully, there’s a great amount of research which will steer you in the right direction. Before we take a look, I’ll give you the gist, .8 grams per pound of body weight is more than enough.
With many different numbers floating around, it’s easy to be skeptical of an absolute digit. But as a McMaster University study1 determined, the “.8g/lb” is the real deal. The research concluded a higher intake did not affect lean body mass, even in individuals performing strength training.
To reiterate, strength athletes don’t notice gains from intake exceeding .8g/lb. The study also found that more sedentary subjects would experience “nutrient overload” at higher intake rates.
But what if you’re somewhere in the middle? You’re not inactive, you go to the gym, you try to make the right diet choices, but you’re not a strength athlete.
Well, research2 out of Kent State found that even during the early stages of training, “protein intake over .82g/lb does not enhance muscle mass/strength gains.”
A variety of subjects, but the number stays the same. Whether you’re a strength athlete devoting your life to the craft or a casual gym goer looking to stay in shape .8g/lb is more than enough to experience protein’s benefits.
On a Cut
Increased protein intake is often associated with bulking. A tub of whey protein is probably first on your “getting serious about the gym” list.
But Phil Heath isn’t everybody’s idea of”fit.” For some, optimal fitness is a lean and toned physique. Fortunately, if you think you have enough muscle mass but need to lose some fat instead, there’s guidance for you too.
Specifically, a 2008 study3 out of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine found that there was no difference between individuals who consumed either 0.41g or 0.82g of protein per day when looking at muscle retention in subjects experiencing calorie deficits of over 1,000 per day.
The Second Group was Protected from Muscle Loss Better Than the First.
A further study4 examining protein’s impact concentrated primarily on cutting weightlifters. For this specific subset, the research concluded that .73g/lb was sufficient to maintain lean body mass in the subject group. Hence, the .82g figure is sufficient for bulking, however, if you’re on a caloric deficit, you may want to increase your protein intake.
Also, keep in mind, with continuous protein intake your body performs synthesis more efficiently. Subsequently, it requires less overall protein consumption to achieve the same result. The same mechanism applies to continued resistance training.
The more you advance at the gym, and the more muscle mass you attain, the less synthesis occurs after a workout. So because you’re building muscle at a slower rate, your protein needs diminish accordingly. Two recent studies from University of Dundee5 and McMaster University6 encapsulate these findings well.
Too Much Protein
An important nuisance gets lost in all the data; most research concentrates on the amount for optimal muscle growth. The .8g figure is not the maximum amount that your body can digest.
So if you consume more than .8g/lb, don’t fret, your body deals with the “excess” in several ways.
Around 95% of your protein intake is absorbed by the small intestines7. While the small intestines take up the bulk, the remainder is fermented by the colon8. Luckily, the small intestines are adept at holding on to large amounts of protein, and use them on an “as needed basis.”9
To elaborate, that means the organ “stores” protein until it’s needed, then releases it as your body calls for it.
So, whether for muscle building, or general dietary habits, the body is more than capable of handling excessive amounts of protein. Don’t worry about how much you’re consuming, your body will use it or store it until it’s needed.
How much can your body “use” in one meal? Unfortunately, there is no magic number. But if you’re meal prepping, having a number to aim for can help stay disciplined and make planning a lot easier.
30g has always floated around as the absolute maximum of how much your body can absorb in one sitting. Debunked by actual science, the number probably came about alongside another piece of gym folklore, the “eat every three hours” myth.
30g became “the number” because it was previously assumed that your body could only break down 10g of protein every hour. Consequently, to maximize efficacy, bodybuilders subjected themselves to meals every three hours.
So here’s a quick tip, determine what .8g/lb of your body weight is and divide that by how many meals you have per day. Quick and easy. Don’t worry if the number you come up with seems high. Remember there is no magic number.
I joined the gym five years ago. I didn’t have an aim, I just lifted heavyweights. Getting to know everyone else, it’s fair to say that’s most people’s experience. They signed up because they wanted to gain muscle or lose fat. There was never a plan, just a goal.
Recognize that not quitting after a couple of months is already an accomplishment. Most people don’t understand that they’re signing up for something to keep up for the rest of your life.
It sounds daunting, but why not? Just as you should stimulate your mind, you should stimulate your body.
But if you’re serious about staying fit, just showing up isn’t as impressive as it once was. You have to know what you’re doing, that way you achieve better results with the same amount of effort.
So after a year, I revamped my diet. I gained strength and size, but now I wanted to get leaner. I wholeheartedly subscribed to the protein myth. One gram per pound seemed tame, so I went above and beyond.
I was getting close to 2g/lb. In my mind, I was simply replacing carbohydrate calories with protein calories.
Initially, there were no issues. Without getting into the necessity of carbohydrates, I wasn’t experiencing any adverse effects.
People often feel tired and groggy from carb deprivation, not me. I had another problem, severe stomach pains.
The pain made sense, I was flooding my lower intestines with an overabundance of protein. As the research points out, your lower intestines store the excessive amino acids, so your body could utilize it as needed. But how much can they possibly store? In my case, 2g/lb was that number.
I solved my problem with an easy solution, and I urge you to adopt it as your own. Listen to your body. Even if we had a magic number, it may not be your magic number.
Do what works for you. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And so over the following weeks, I gradually dropped my protein intake to where the pains subsided.
The best tip I can give is for you to find a balance, just as I did. Consider the research, and consider your body’s reaction. Reconcile the two, and you’ll find out how much protein you should be taking.