Are You Consuming Too Much Protein – Optimal Intake For Athletes


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May 13, 2016
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Protein. Just typing the word makes me think of muscle. It’s every weight lifting, wanna be bodybuilder’s favorite macronutrient and for good reason. Not only is protein an essential nutrient, it helps promote anabolism, is satiating, and who doesn’t love a juicy steak . Aside from “how much do ya bench?”, a question regarding protein intake is probably the most common question a fit person gets asked. It’s widely known that protein plays a large role in maximizing protein synthesis and overall muscle building. High protein diets and lifting weights go together like peanut butter and jelly. We all know we need to be eating A LOT of protein but how much do we actually need? How much protein is too much, and most importantly how much is optimal?

The RDA For Protein

Dietary protein needs are defined as the interaction between the amount and quality of protein to meet metabolic requirements. The current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g/kg or in terms we are more familiar with, 0.36g per pound of bodyweight. These RDA figures provide only the minimum amount of protein to maintain short-term nitrogen balance for sedentary individuals. The RDA figures are basically the lowest amount of protein intake needed for people who are not active and are not looking at maximizing muscle mass or athletic performance. Since many of you reading this do not fit that description I’m not going to spend much time talking about the RDA. However, I am going to point out that not only is it safe to consume over the RDA, if you are an athlete you will need more protein and your bottom number will go up even before trying to pinpoint what is optimal for muscle building and athletic performance.

Per Meal Protein Intake

One of the more common myths surrounding protein intake has to do with there being a limit to how much protein you can consume at one meal. Typically its said that the body cannot use more than 20-30g of protein in one sitting. If this were the case, humans would have died off a long time ago. Do you really think our hunter and gatherer ancestors made sure when they killed a huge buffalo to only consume roughly 5oz at a time? Definitely not! They ate as much as they could before it went bad whether that was 30g or 200g.

The human body is a lot more efficient than we give it credit for. You can absorb and assimilate however much protein you throw at it, it will just take longer to digest. Intermittent Fasting research has shed light on this. A study done by Soeters and colleagues compared two weeks of an IF protocol which involved 20-hour fasting cycles with a more conventional meal pattern [1]. The IF group consumed over 100 g protein in their 4-hour feeding window, and they found no difference in preservation of lean mass and muscle protein between groups. If it were only possible to absorb 20-30g of protein at one time surely there would have been a significant difference. There are numerous other studies that show similar results on large protein intakes in a short feeding window. I’m not trying to say IF is what you should do or even if its optimal, I just want to point out that there really is no limit to how much protein you can consume in one sitting. Like I always say, overall protein intake at the end of the day is MOST important.

Meal frequency goes hand in hand with the 20-30g of protein in one sitting myth. If you can only consume that little protein in one sitting, it would be nearly impossible to hit your daily protein requirements in only 3 or 4 meals thus requiring 6-8 “small” meals a day. I already debunked the meal frequency myth in the article “4 Nutrition Myths You NEED to Know” so I’m not going to get into that here. However, there is some research that suggests the small frequent meal model is actually suboptimal to a lower meal frequency with a higher protein intake per meal. If you follow any of Layne Norton’s research on maximizing protein synthesis, you know he recommends consuming at least 3g (~.05g/kg BW) of leucine per meal to maximize protein synthesis. Several studies have demonstrated that 3g of leucine is sufficient to maximize the anabolic response of a meal [2]. Different protein sources have varying levels of leucine but most animal protein contains ~10% leucine, indicating that 30g of protein may be the minimum needed to get the full anabolic benefit of the meal. Also of note, after consuming a meal containing 3g of leucine there is a refractory period that delays the ability of another protein dose to have an anabolic response for approximately 3 hours [3]. Looking at this data, it may be fine to allow at least 3 hours but probably more effectively, 4-6 hours between protein doses.

What does all this mean? Eating small doses of protein in 6-8 meals is theoretically less effective than larger protein doses less frequently.

The Gold Standard – 1g of Protein Per Pound of Body Weight

I would be willing to bet the majority of people reading this article have at least heard the recommendation of 1g of protein per pound of body weight at least once. This recommendation tends to be the general “bro” guideline. Surprisingly, this may be one thing the bros got right. One gram of protein per pound of body weight seems to be pretty effective and supported by the literature.

However, there is some research that suggests a lower protein intake then the common standard. Instead of breaking down all the literature that supports a lower protein intake (<1g/lb) I am going to direct you to a very well researched article written by Menno Henselmans, you can check out here. In the article, Henselman broke down numerous studies looking at optimal protein intakes for athletes. Based on the research he concludes there is no advantage to consuming more than 0.82g/lb (1.8g/kg) of protein per day to preserve or build muscle. This is probably considerably less than what you are consuming. Although I agree with petty much everything in the article (you are probably eating too much protein), I can’t really cap my own recommendations off at exactly .82g/lb.

In defense of slightly more protein, there are a couple of studies to support such a claim. A study by Mettler S, et al, took 20 healthy resistance trained athletes and put them on a calorie restricted diet containing either 1g/kg or 2.3g/kg of daily protein intake. The subjects lost considerably less LBM on the 2.3g/kg than the 1g/kg, however for the purpose of this article the subjects who consumed 2.3g/kg (just over 1g per pound of body weight) still lost lean body mass. This suggests there may be a value above this figure that would be better at preserving lean body mass [4]. There just is not enough research on protein intake with lean resistance trained people in mind.

Eric Helms recently performed a systematic review of protein needs during caloric restriction. He looked at current studies on resistance trained lean athletes and analyzed the effects protein intake had on their body composition. He found, “protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely (2.3-3.1g/kg) of FFM scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness” [5]. Based of this paper, Helms found between 1.05-1.40g of protein per pound of Fat Free Mass (Lean Body Mass) not body weight, to be ideal for maintaining lean body mass during caloric restriction. The high end of the range being very lean athletes in a severe caloric restriction. The only time I see those circumstances coming up would be the last couple weeks before a bodybuilding competition.

What Determines How Much Protein You Need

  • Caloric Intake -Protein needs go up as caloric deficit goes up. Not much changes in the middle range (slight surplus, maintenance, slight deficit)
  • Lean Body Mass – Theres is not much research looking at protein needs based on lean body mass. It would be great if there were more, because ideally protein needs should be based on LBM more so than just body weight. However, since we don’t have much literature to give us those figures we must largely base needs off body weight. Also since most people do not have accurate body fat numbers, body weight is a lot easier to implement. The higher your body fat percentage is the lower your protein needs are. This is even more true for people who are obese. Obviously you can not recommend protein based solely from body weight with someone who weight 350lbs at 40% BF.
  • Training Age – As your training experience goes up, your protein needs actually go down. However, since most people who have been training a long time frequently train harder with more intensity, volume, and frequency, this is often a mute point.
  • Training Intensity, Volume, and Frequency – The “harder” you train the more protein you need. If training is set up to create a high level of adaptive stimulus you need to intake more protein, since protein turn over is higher. This works the other way around as well.

What Happens If You Eat More Protein Than You Need

There’s nothing inherently wrong or unhealthy about consuming more protein (within reason) than your body can use to build muscle. The excess will simply be used as energy. No, your kidneys are not going to explode! However, there are a couple reasons why this may not be the best idea. One, protein makes a terrible energy source. You would be much better off just getting energy from the macronutrients your body is designed to get energy from – Carbohydrates and Fat. Eating more protein does NOT translate to building more muscle. Eating extra protein is equivalent to eating more carbs, just a less efficient version of carbs.

For example purposes lets take a 130lb female who is eating 1600 calories.

She decides she needs 1.75g of protein per pound of Body weight. This may seem unrealistic but trust me I know of female competitors who eat MORE than this!

130 x 1.75 = ~228g protein = 912 calories

That only leaves her with 688 calories left for carbs and fat. Divided equally that is just 86g of carbs and 38g of fat. Now lets take her protein down to only 1g per pound of body weight. (All she really needs, possibly even more than necessary)

130 x 1 = 130g protein = 520 calories

This leaves her with almost 1100 calories left to divide up between carbohydrates and fat! But you say you love eating protein foods? I do too, but I also like having more energy and building up a higher metabolic capacity so I can eat more calories. Besides, protein foods are considerably more expensive than carb and fat sources. It’s economically better to take the extra calories from protein you don’t need and just buy more carbs or fat.

Practical Application – My Recommendations

  • Spread your total protein intake out evenly into 3-5 doses (meals), of at least 30g of protein in order to hit 3g of leucine to maximize protein synthesis throughout the day. Also space at least 3 hours between meals, however, 4-6 hours between meals might be best. This is NOT as important as hitting your daily protein goals. At the end of the day how much protein you consume is of utmost importance. This is just a minor detail that may help improve anabolism. For most people this will not make a huge difference but for competitive athletes looking for every advantage possible I recommend giving this a go.
  • If you are a recreational lifter who does not compete and/or have a body fat above 15% males and 23% females: I recommend (.8-1.0g) of protein per pound of body weight. The higher your body fat percent is the lower on the range you should be and vice versa.
  • If you are a hard training athlete, who is lean (sub 15% male, 23% female), in a slight caloric deficit, maintenance, or slight surplus: I recommend (1.0-1.2g) of protein per pound of body weight.
  • If you are a competitive athlete and are lean (sub 15% Males, sub 23% Females) and have an accurate body fat measurement, I recommend (1.1-1.4g) of protein per pound of Lean Body Mass.
  • The more severe the caloric restriction, the more protein needs go up. On the flip side being in a surplus of calories causes protein needs to go down. Keep this in mind.

Final Thoughts

I think most people in the fitness industry actually eat too much protein. I see it all the time especially from the “clean eaters”. I hear about outrageous protein intakes from athletes almost every day. When you restrict food items and fail to track intake, you end up eating more protein than you need. I think a lot of this stems from thinking excess calories from protein are somehow metabolically different than any other macronutrient. This is not the case. I hope after reading this article you have a better understanding of what your specific protein needs really are.