“How much protein do I need?” is a common question many people are asking themselves when trying to get into great shape and change their body. If you follow most traditional bodybuilding advice, it’s typical to hear anywhere from 1 gram to upwards of 3 grams per pound of body weight for the optimal dose.
The difference between 1 and 3 seems negligible, but when you do the math for your own body weight and needs, the recommendations vary wildly.
Not only is protein anabolic, and absolutely necessary for building muscle, and preserving it on a fat loss diet, the old adage of ‘more is better’ is not ideal here.
By the end of this article, you’ll know exactly how much you should be consuming on a regular basis if you want more muscle, less fat, and an aesthetic physique.
What Is Protein?
Protein is an essential nutrient the body needs to grow, repair itself and maintain bodily functions. Our muscles, connective tissue, hair, skin, eyes, and internal organs are made of protein. When broken down further, protein is comprised of what’s known as amino acids.
All in all, there are 20 essential amino acids the body needs daily, and out of those, 9 of them are what we call essential, meaning the body cannot make them — therefore we must get them through our diet.
The amino acids combine to form proteins that are used by the body to rebuild muscle tissue, and to rebuild cells as they turn over in our bodies during repair. You lose skin and hair cells daily, and without adequate protein, it would be very hard for them to be replenished. In short, without an ample supply of protein, your body cannot exist.
When people think of protein, foods such as cheese, milk, eggs, meat, fish, poultry all come to mind. However many grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and other plant-based foods also contain protein, just not in the same quantities as the previously mentioned animal products.
The Difference In The Bare Minimum And Optimal Needs For Protein Intake
The needs of an athlete or someone who’s training using resistance with the goal of changing body composition is going to differ greatly from those who aren’t active and leading a sedentary lifestyle.
The current RDA (recommended daily allowance) is anywhere from 46 to 56 grams daily. There are some varying recommendations for teens, and women who are breastfeeding, but it’s not a huge difference.
When you break it down, some numbers have recommend about ~.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. This equates to about ~.4 grams per pound of bodyweight.
So for an adult male weighing 150 pounds, the recommendation is about 56 grams of protein.
The RDA is a simple measure that is recommended to keep people healthy, free from disease, and to ensure their daily needs are met for bodily functions.
This is important when looking at populations of people who aren’t exercising with the goal of changing body composition, and for those in areas where adequate protein intake might be difficult to achieve (think very poor third world countries).
In America and other industrialized countries, getting your protein needs is very easy to do with the readily available foods. Heck, even if you subsisted on a diet of 2000 calories of nothing but grains, beans, fruit, and plants, this number is easily achieved.
However, this intake is not ideal for building muscle, losing fat, and changing your body composition. Can some do it on this intake? Possibly, but it’s not recommended for the majority.
What’s The Optimal Daily Protein Intake?
There are a lot of differing opinions here, but when you look at the research, it seems to fall right in line with the figures of .8 – 1.5 grams per pound of body weight. Lyle McDonald’s protein book is an amazing resource on this topic.
When looking at various literature, it seems that .8 grams per pound is probably enough. Menno Henselmans’ write-up here does a great job of sifting through the scientific papers to give you all the assurance you need that you’re not missing out on any gainz by pounding the protein powder and getting upwards of 2 grams per pound of body weight.
To keep things incredibly simple, I just round it up to the old recommendation of 1 gram per pound of body weight. My reasoning is twofold:
- on a muscle gain diet, it ensures you’re getting enough to cover your bases.
- on a fat loss diet, it allows enough room for other foods (carbs and fat) that are just as important to have in your diet to ensure you meet nutrient needs.
Protein Quality And Amino Acid Profile
Most animal protein sources are good choices because they contain all of the 9 essential amino acids. In fact, Layne Norton has mentioned multiple times that Leucine plays a major role in muscle protein synthesis. Consuming foods such as dairy (whey, casein, milk, cheese) contain ample amounts of leucine, in addition to the other necessary amino acids.
The good news is you’re probably meeting all your amino acid requirements if you’re consuming foods from various sources, so it’s not worth worrying too much over. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, then it’s going to be a bit more tricky, and I’ll cover that in an upcoming article.
One thing I want to mention that isn’t talked about much when discussing protein needs for individuals, especially those of us wanting to gain more muscle and lose more fat… and that concept is eating nose to tail.
This idea comes from consuming all parts of the animal, not just the muscle meat. When you go to the supermarket to pick up some animal protein, you mostly grab chicken breast/thighs, turkey, cuts of beef, and fish filets.
These protein sources are muscle meats, which are heavy in the amino acid tryptophan, which is good for growing bodies, and definitely a great option for those who want to improve their body composition.
But what about all the other cuts of meat that you might not see in traditional supermarkets like pig feet, chicken feet, marrow bones, oxtail, or tendon?
Something many haven’t considered is the collagen content of the animals they’re eating. Collagen when cooked (say in bone broths or head cheeses), is known as gelatin.
Gelatin can make up for 50% of the total animal protein, but most of us in the west and other industrialized countries focus most of our protein eating on the muscle meats.
Certain amino acids such as glycine are high in gelatinous cuts of meat and very low in muscle meats. Since our bodies are made up of the protein we eat, including collagen in your daily intake might have a positive effect on your joints and connective tissues and their repair.
It’s even believed that degenerative and inflammatory diseases/issues can be positively impacted by incorporating more gelatin into the diet.
So what does this have to do with total protein intake?
Simply put, you might want to think about incorporating some type of gelatin into your meals either through supplementation, or eating more gelatinous cuts of meat, or even making bone broth [this is my favorite recipe].
In general, since I eat a good amount of muscle meat, I try to have 1-2 servings of bone broth, tendon, or Collagen Hydrolysate (dissolves easier in liquids than pure gelatin powder) in my daily meals.
To read more about the benefits of gelatin and glycine, read this Ray Peat article.
What About Protein Requirements And Meal Timing?
Meal timing is one of those things that probably doesn’t matter as much when you’re getting sufficient amounts of protein daily. However, your individual goals may influence a more optimal meal timing. In a Physique Science Radio podcast on protein, Layne Norton, and Sohee Lee Interviewed protein researcher Donald Layman and here are my notes from the show:
13:00 – If you’re aiming for maximal muscle mass accrual, and eating in a caloric surplus to gain weight, you probably want to avoid any type of long bouts of fasting (anything longer than 12 hours).
40:00 – 4-5 meals per day with your protein target spread out evenly. And for muscle retention and fat loss, 2-3 meals with your protein target spread out evenly is fine.
Here’s An Example:
Let’s say you weigh 180 pounds and want to gain the maximum amount of muscle possible, you’d need to split up your recommended protein into 4-5 servings.
For 4 meals per day, it’d be 180/4 = 45g. So you’d aim for 45 grams of protein in each serving.
For 5 meals per day, it’d be 180/5 = 36g. So you’d aim for 36 grams of protein in each serving.
Ideally, these meals would be spaced out fairly evenly, but you don’t need to be super rigid with it. Actually hitting protein numbers while living your life and not stressing about it is far more important than worrying about hitting exactly the same amount of protein within each meal.
The same math applies to fat loss and the 2-3 meal idea.
 “Daily Protein Requirements: Are You Getting Enough?” WebMD. WebMD, Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Aug. 2015.
Image credits: foodiesfeed.com