People who are looking to build muscle or retain muscle often consume a large amount of protein in a day. Yes, protein helps build muscle and you need to be consuming regular amounts of protein through your day in order to build and maintain lean muscle mass… but how much do you actually need? (again, if you don’t want to read scroll to the bottom where it says TAKE HOME POINTS).
When you want gainz (urban dictionary: ‘gainz’ is the most alpha way of describing your muscle mass) you likely think “GIVE ME ALL THE PROTEIN… Imma drink this protein shake and eat 17 egg whites and tilapia for every meal.”
I’m not here to tell you you DON’T need protein.. because yes, if you want gainz you need to consume about 2 to 4 times more protein than a person that is not trying to build muscle (ISSA Sports Nutrition 2017)… but how much do you ACTUALLY need?
If you are eating so much protein you aren’t eating enough carbs or fats, your protein gets turned into energy and fat anyways and not used for gainz. Eating too much protein can also be really hard on your body and kidneys. And protein is REAL HARD ON THE BANK ACCOUNT. Let’s get real, protein is great and all but, personally, I would like to free up as many daily calories for carbs and fats as I can… because carbs are life (disclaimer: this statement is not supported by science).
The recommended amount of protein to live and function properly for a 25-50year olds is about 0.8g/kg per day or 50g/day for a females and 63g/day for males (source: ISSA 2017 based on USA RDAs). For people to live and function properly, we really don’t need that much protein. Food labels don’t even have the % total daily protein because we often get enough protein in a day without even thinking about it (disclaimer if you are vegan or vegetarian you do have to think about it because you don’t get everything you need from plant based proteins so need to mix and match strategically).
BUT when your goal is lifting weights and gaining muscle, you do need to think of how much protein you are eating.
How much protein do you actually need to meet your gainz goals?
… I nerdily really love “gainz goals” and will likely overuse that phrase in this post and posts to come..
The main study for this post is a recent systematic review (2017) called A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta- regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.
What in the world is a meta-analysis?
For those that don’t speak methods and stats, a systematic review is essentially going out and finding ALL the studies that have been done to date on your question and combining them together. The meta-analysis part, means they combined not only the general findings to look for patterns across studies, but they actually combined the numbers. By combining the numbers, you get a pooled effect– or rather, an actual number that represents a combination of all the studies done to date. Yes, these are a lot of work. And yes, these are (if done properly) high-quality study designs.
What kind of studies did they look for?
They looked for studies that inlcuded:
- protein supplementation during resistance training
- interventions (or the protein/training programs) had to be at least 6 weeks long (average ended up being 13 weeks)
- participants had to be doing resistance training at least twice per week (average ended up being 3 days per week with an average of 4 sets of 9 reps for 7 exercises per session)
- the protein was not consumed with other supplements that are thoughts to increase muscle mass (like creatine or testosterone enhancing supplements, etc.)
- participants in the studies had to be randomized to different groups. By randomizing we can be relatively confident that the comparison groups are similar enough that if changes were to occur between the groups, it would be because of the intervention and not other personal characteristics (and yes, the groups were eating the same amount of calories a day)
- they excluded people in a deficit – so this study did not look at people trying to lose weight or in prep for a fitness competition
- they included people who did and/or did not have previous training experience
What studies did they find?
They looked at over 3000 studies (yes, 3000 studies… and this is a small number of studies to have to look at for a systematic review…DOESN’T IT SOUND FUN). From this, they found 49 studies with 1863 participants.
Then they did a bunch of fancy stats and combined these studies together and found the people consuming more protein had:
- increases in one rep max strength (aka they could lift more weight one time)
- increases in fat-free mass (yay less fat, more gainz)
- increased muscle size (#swoll)
no difference in total body mass (this is good, as essentially this means they gained muscle and lost fat) or maximum voluntary contraction (another indicator of strength…so aka they might have looked stronger and grunted a lot when performing one super heavy rep to appear physically stronger, but they actually might not have been stronger)
…however, there were lots of differences between the studies that the authors couldn’t explain (a fancy term called heterogeneity) so we might not be super confident in these results… but we kind of already knew protein did these things, right? What I actually want to answer is how much do we need?
The Big Answer
They found ~1.6g of protein/kg/day was the “break point.” aka eating more than this did not seem to produce any additional benefits/gainz.
Studies also calculate this thing called a 95% confidence interval which means they find a range of values that might be the true effect (because the beauty of stats is that we never say we know anything for certain so no one can ever tell us we are wrong because we never say we are 100% confident we are right). So the INTERVAL of values they found went from 1.03g/kg/day to 2.2g/kg/day. So if you were reallllllllyyy trying to gain your muscle mass and you wanted to make sure you were getting enough, the authors of this paper recommend 2.2g protein/kg/day to maximize muscle strength/gainz potential. This high end of the confidence interval or “upper max” of daily protein intake (2.2g/kg/day) was also found in a study of male body builders (found here however this study only had 8 men).
They also looked at other characteristics of daily protein intake and found timing of protein (like pre or post workout), the protein source, and actual amount consumed in one sitting played a small role.
However, another study (find it here) looked at how much protein you should have in one meal to maximize the use of that protein for gainz. They found, for the goal of 1.6g/kg/day, protein should be consumed in 0.4g/kg/meal doses across at least 4 meals a day. For the high goal of 2.2g/kg/day, they reocmmend 0.55g/kg/meal. But the rule of thumb is 20-25g/meal.
TAKE HOME POINTS
- If you are looking to build muscle, you should try to eat at least 1.6g of protein/kg/day or at most 2.2g of protein/kg/day
- Try to spread this protein out over multiple meals thorugh the day so your body has a constant supply of protein. You should try to keep the protein in meals either at 0.4g/kg/meal or at most 0.55g/kg/meal.
- Timing does not appear to play that big of a role besides making sure you have a constant supply through the day.
Other important notes:
- All proteins are not equal. Different proteins absorb differently (i.e. speed or the amount of protein actually available to the body). As a rule of thumb – eggs, whey, and fish are “better quality” proteins (aka we can use more of the protein we eat for gainz) where as beef, oatmeal, and rice are lower quality.
- Proteins are made up of amino acids – theres a whack ton of different amino acids that supplement companies thrive on. I’ll do another post about BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) but to give you a teaser, BCAAs do appear to be helpful during your workout particularly for the added Leucine (an amino acid). Leucine is used up disporpritionately when we work out, so make sure your BCAAs have more Leucine than other amino acids.
- You need to eat other things with your protein. If you JUST eat protein, your body will convert that protein to energy and you won’t get the full value of your protein. So when you are eating protein, add some carbs and fats to the meal as well. So the ALL PROTEIN meals bodybuilders eat, may actually be counter productive.
Using me as an example:
I am 130lbs so about 59kg and I want ALL THE GAINZ. So I should eat 2.2g x 59kg /day = 130g of protein per day spread out over at least four meals of at most 32g protein per meal (the rule of thumb is 20-30g protein per meal). I am currently eating ~1800 calories per day, so this would be 520 of my daily calories or roughly 30% (if you want to be specific, 28.8888888889%). According to the International Sports Sciences Association Fitness Nutrition course, you should try to eat </=30% of your daily calories from fat (note: I have not researched this any further than this textbook). Therefore, I should be eating ~25-30% fat, ~25-30% protein, and ~40-50% carbs.
However, if I was using the International Sport Sciences Association Fitness Nutrition calculation, I should be eating 88g/day (~110 lean body mass x 0.8 [moderate weight lifting/activity per week]) which seems to be an underestimate. With this in mind, I am not sure how accurate the fat recommendation is and will do a post on this later!
What makes us kind of confident in these results?
Since it is a systematic review they found lots and lots of studies and put them together, so we are not just looking at one study (which increases our confidence). They did all the analyses including and excluding studies that had a high risk of bias (aka because of the way they designed their study we are not confident in their results), but found similar results (increases our confidence). They also found similar findings as other studies (which increases our confidence). But, they had high heterogeneity (aka that fancy term for big differences between the studies) so arguably, these studies were not similar enough to combine in the first place (decreases our confidence). The authors also say they didn’t have enough info to make any real recommendations for older adults and the recommendations are more applicable to young adults. They also remind the readers that this study included participants who were not in an energy deficit (aka not dieting).
The findings on the amount per meal were based on a literature review not a systematic review so we are less confident in those, but they did appear to do a fairly thorough review of the literature and are consistent with other studies.
**DISCLAIMER** NUTRITION RESEARCH. IS. TOUGH. It is really hard to know how to properly conduct nutrition research – do you manipulate one component (like the amount of protein) or do you manipulate an entire diet? How long do you have to observe someone on a diet to know if it is effective or harmful? How long can people even adhere to a particular diet long enough to test the results? What about other things they are doing like sleep, how hard they work out, the other food they eat in the day, the type of protein…the list goes on.
Another disclaimer…welcome to research…disclaimer after disclaimer..
There are obviously other things to consider, like your personal body composition, basal metabolic rate, exercise routine, etc. This recommendation is a recommendation for most people, but obviously the specific requirement varies person to person. The only way to know for certain how much YOU need is to test all your sweat, pee, and poop for the nitrogen content to determine your personal nitrogen balance (and yes, there are ways to do this…).
SO THERE IT IS…
Eat your protein but don’t JUST eat protein. Protein does not need to be a majority of your macros. Do make sure you are consistently eating protein through the day (but add in some other stuff to those meals too). Although there are limitations, this was the best evidence I could find (if you find something better, send it my way).
Eat your protein. Lift your weights. But don’t forget your carbs & fats.
Sending positive vibes and virtual hugs,
The Fitnerd – Jillian
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