Since around the mid 1980’s, when the fitness craze exploded, personal trainers, fitness enthusiasts, the media and of course protein powder manufacturers repeated the same thing; without consuming high amounts of protein each day we would have difficulty building muscle or loosing weight. Over the years the belief that, of the three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) a high intake of protein, even at the expense of not getting enough carbs or fats, is the most important factor has become a standard belief. This believe is so prevalent, that even among people with little experience in fitness, they believe consuming a lot of protein is the key to success. While of course protein is an important factor in muscle growth and overall athletic performance; we’re consuming a lot of protein each day thinking it is the magic ingredient to obtain the body we want, however, we need to consider how much is right for our individual needs.
Let’s examine what the science tells us about how much protein our bodies actually need and is it possible to take in too much?
What is protein?
The following definition is courtesy of Harvard Medical School:
“Protein is found throughout the body – in muscle, bone, skin, hair and virtually every other part or tissue. It makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.”
“At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.”Harvard Medical School
“Protein is made from twenty-plus basic building blocks called amino acids. Because we don’t store amino-acids, our bodies make them in two different ways: either from scratch, or by modifying others. Nine amino acids – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine – known as the essential amino acids, must come from food.
How much do you need… well, that depends
Rather than taking the old school approach and focus on protein, protein, protein, lets consider a few questions first. For example, age, activity level, any health issues, fitness goals (runner versus weight-lifter), and most importantly, how much protein can our bodies absorb at one time. By considering these factors, hopefully you are starting to see it is “not” one size fits all; and that’s where science can help us make good decisions which lead to better overall health.
Let’s look at activity level
For most people who follow either an all plant based diet or include lean meats in their diet and their exercise activity level is low; protein requirements are recommended to be 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (ie: 170 lb person would need 62 grams per day).
People who are athletic, working out or training four or five days-per-week can require more protein. For example, if you are an endurance athlete (swimmer, cyclist or runner) the protein requirement increases to 1.2 – 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight (ie: 170 lb person would need 92.4 to 108 grams per day).
For bodybuilders and strength athletes this group can require up to 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 170 lb person 123.3 to 169.4). This higher amount is due to the continued tearing down and rebuilding of the major muscle groups.
As you can see, depending on your lifestyle and activity level, not everyone needs large amounts of protein.
How to calculate your daily protein requirement
As you saw above there are a few examples of how much protein you need based on a 170 lb person. So, how do you calculate your individual protein requirement? The formula is ideal weight x activity level requirement as outlined above. First, lets consider body weight. If you are overweight, do not use your current weight, be sure to use your “ideal” weight. Then using the information above, determine your activity level and multiply your ideal weight (in kilograms) by that number.
Example: Ideal weight is 150 lbs, activity level is athletic working out four or five days per week so you need 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight.
- Formula: 150 lbs = 68 kilograms
- 68 kilograms x 1.3 (average between 1.2 and 1.4)
- 68 x 1.3 = 88.4 grams of protein per day for an athletic person
What happens if we consume too much protein?
It’s important to consider your individual daily requirements as consuming too much protein can have negative effects. For example, too much protein can cause waste to build up and your kidneys may not be able to remove it all. Also, too much causes heightened levels of ammonia in your blood and can have negative health consequences. Lastly, for those who consume animal protein, it could lead to high cholesterol and coronary artery disease as you consume more and more meats to increase protein intake.
Additionally, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health, our bodies absorb about 30 grams of protein at a time. To quote their study, “In terms of stimulating muscle growth, it therefore appears likely that under resting/non-exercising conditions, consumption of more than 30 grams of protein in a single meal is not justified. Indeed, it may well be the case that a slightly smaller meal would produce a similar protein synthetic response.” That’s why it is important to keep in mind we need to get our protein (as well as fats and carbs) throughout the day. Don’t try to get your daily protein requirement in one or two meals or load up on a 50 gram protein shake two hours before a workout.
“…consumption of more than 30 grams of protein in a single meal is not justified”.National Institutes of Health
Good sources of protein
According to a Harvard Medical School study, they highly recommend getting your daily protein from plant sources rather than animal sources. Eating beans, peas, nuts, seeds and whole grains along with many other plant-based sources of protein significantly improves your overall health and helps protect you from heart disease. When using plant sources eating a variety of plants is important to ensure you get a complete protein with all the essential components. And, that isn’t difficult as there are plenty of options.
- Legumes: beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, tofu, tempeh and peanuts
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, hemp seeds, squash and pumpkin seeds, flax seeds and chia seeds.
- Whole grains: wheat, quinoa, rice, oats and buckwheat
- Other: these are in smaller amounts, corn, broccoli, asparagus, and brussels sprouts.
Protein is of course an essential component for our bodies’ health. We can’t survive without protein, however, just like anything else, too much can be a bad thing. It’s important to know what is right for you and perhaps use apps like myfitnesspal or MyNetDiary to track not only your protein intake, but also your carbs and fats too. Remember it’s all about the “complete package”. Protein, carbs and fats make up the three essential macronutrients we need everyday so try to consume all three throughout your day to ensure you are fueling your body properly.