Protein is easily the most important macro-nutrient for body composition because the maintenance and production of new muscle requires protein.
During exercise, muscle is broken down and torn apart. When this happens the body’s natural response is to repair the damaged tissue.
Protein from our diet is broken down into amino acids and then reassembled into protein in the muscle to repair and build new muscle. This process cannot occur without enough protein in our diet.
How much protein do we actually need though?
The current recommended protein intake for adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of an individual’s body mass (or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight). For me at 170 pounds this would be 61 grams of protein per day.
Here’s a secret….
The RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein is likely much lower than what you actually need. This is because the recommendation is based on the amount needed for the average cough potato to avoid malnutrition. The active individual that wants to change their body composition is going to need more protein than that.
how much protein do you need?
Ask most health and fitness experts or the internet and you’re likely to get the answer: 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight or 2.2g/kg or more is ideal.
The idea that you need this much protein per day to build muscle has become so entrenched in the fitness industry that nobody even thinks to question it’s validity.
I’ll confess that for years I believed and adhered to the recommendation of eating one gram of protein for every pound you weighed.
I’ve seen incredible results eating this much protein and so I, like many others, didn’t think twice about questioning the whether or not I actually needed this much.
I believe the best way to learn and find out the truth is to question everything. I decided to question my own beliefs about the amount of protein we need and take a look at the actual research and evidence.
What does the research say?
Before I set out to find the answer, I had to set my biases and previous beliefs aside. It was hard. For years I had been recommending to friends, family members, and clients as well as myself that we need to eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight and that even more than that may be better. I was pretty sold on my beliefs and would argue with anyone about their validity. Initially, I wanted to find studies that supported my beliefs and reject ones that contradicted them.
I wanted to find the truth more than I wanted to be right and this required me to be willing to accept if I was wrong. I needed to look at the research with an open mind and review all of the available evidence.
I’m asking you to do the same. Be open-minded as you read this. Set your beliefs, biases, and previous opinions aside. Be willing to change your opinions if the evidence encourages you to do so.
A number of older studies dating back to the late 1980’s have suggested that less than one gram of protein per pound of body is actually needed to maintain and even build new muscle. The results of these older studies continue to be replicated to this day.
One such study in 2006 looked at the effect protein intake had on collegiate power and strength athletes. One group ate 1.7 g/kg or 0.7g/lb of protein per day and the other group consumed over 2g/kg or >0.91g/lb. After an identical 12 week resistance training program, both groups increased their muscle size and strength. There was, however, no difference between the groups suggesting that 0.7 grams per pound of protein was as equally effective as eating nearly 1g/lb of protein intake.
The same results found in these studies have been reported in a number of review papers.
The study that tops them all though was a meta-analysis and systematic review done by a group of the world’s leading fitness researchers including Brad Schoenfeld, Menno Henselmans, Alan Aragon, and Eric Helms among others.
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses are considered to be the most accurate research studies available. They limit bias and produce the most reliable results.
In their review and analysis, the researchers looked at 49 studies with over 1800 participants. The graph below summarizes their findings perfectly
On the left side is the change in fat free mass or muscle. The bottom shows the total protein in terms of grams per kilogram each day. As you can see that as protein intake increases from 0.8g/kg/d up to 1.6 g/kg/d so does the increase in muscle mass. Protein intake above 1.6g/kg/day resulted in no further increases in muscle mass.
The Researchers concluded based on the evidence:
“Our meta-analysis found that the benefits of protein topped off at 1.6 g/kg/d of total bodyweight for increases in fat-free mass (‘muscle’). “
It appears that the 1g/lb of body weight required to achieve optimal muscle growth and strength is a myth. As long as you are eating up to .73g/lb or 1.6g/kg of protein per day, you are likely receiving maximal benefits from dietary protein. Anything above this amount is providing no further benefits in terms of building more muscle.
This may not seem like much of a difference simply based on the numbers but let’s look at it in practice. I would only need to consume 124 grams of protein per day instead of 170 grams a day at .73g/lb/day of protein compared to 1g/lb/day.
Remember, nothing in fitness is concrete and there is not one cookie cutter plan for everyone. We all differ in our goals, lifestyle, health conditions, needs, wants, and more. Some of us may do better with one type of diet or protein intake than others. That being said, the evidence has suggested that for most people:
- You may be consuming more protein than you actually need
- Protein intake beyond .7g/lb or 1.6g/kg will likely not provide any further muscle growth or strength benefits
- Eating a Eating a high protein diet will not result in kidney failure but will require you to reduce your carbohydrate or fat intake in order to make room for the extra protein
- If you prefer protein to other macro-nutrients then go ahead and continue eating more protein than necessary.
- Personally, I’d rather eat more pancakes than more grilled chicken and by reducing my protein intake from 170 grams to 124 grams per day, I save 184 calories which leaves me room to eat pancakes instead of more grilled chicken