How much protein do we actually need in a day? This is a great question and usually one of the first things asked by client’s who want to start improving their diet. Like with a lot of things though unfortunately the answer is far from clear!
Even just a quick Google search will give you some pretty different results:
· 0.36g of protein per lbs of bodyweight (www.healthline.com)
· 1g of protein per lbs of bodyweight (this is the age old bodybuilding recommendation which you will find on most bodybuilding sites, YouTube channels and so on)
So why is there such a difference? There are a few potential answers to this, but let’s go all political just for a second and I’ll explain a theory that has been used to explain the high protein recommendation in addition to the ‘protein window’ (the idea that if you don’t consume sufficient protein in a 30 minute window post workout your muscles wont repair or grow properly).
Okay so the theory goes a bit like this; with any data you always need to look at who commissioned it, because unfortunately this can skew the results or alter the perspective of the research. A lot of the studies for a protein eating window or sufficient protein are likely funded by protein supplement companies, the best example of this is the ‘protein window’ unless you are super prepared and have a tub of a pre prepared protein source such as chicken or tofu just waiting and ready to go you will need another source of this protein and protein powder conveniently and perfectly fits this gap. Additionally, when it comes to high recommended protein intakes most people’s ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ diets don’t include enough protein (according to traditional bodybuilding recommendations) so they need to get additional supplementation from protein shakes, bars, cookies and flapjacks. Although this is just one theory, it is always worth questioning where data has come from, especially if it contradicts other data!
Okay so a little bit about my personal experience with it all; I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum here, when I was at University and first started taking the gym a bit more seriously I joined the club of people who was terrified of not getting enough protein and in turn ‘leaving some gains on the table’ (as some YouTuber I watched had said) and I remembered hearing something about ultra high protein diets helping to build muscle and get leaner so 18-20 year old me was having dinners including ridiculous amounts of beef and chicken (yep both of them (also yep this was before I was vegan)) and it wasn’t uncommon for one meal to contain over 100g of protein which is almost twice the daily recommended amount by the British Heart Foundation. So what happened? I did actually build a fair amount of muscle and stay pretty lean (but I think the latter could be just as likely due to the fact there was nowhere to park so I was cycling everywhere). From an all round health standpoint this approach isn’t really healthy or sustainable since you end up substituting out other valuable nutrient sources just to make more room for protein.
I’ve also taken a relatively low protein approach, when I switched to a vegan diet my protein numbers definitely dropped but my carbohydrate numbers went up and physique wise I haven’t really noticed much difference!
So why do we need protein:
On the most basic level you need protein to help your body repair cells and make new ones. From a fitness standpoint this is why people often advise people who are training to eat slightly more protein because when you train you get little microtears in the muscle and the protein is needed to help them repair and become stronger. Protein is also very important for your tissue, bones, skin and hair and even plays a role in helping to carry oxygen throughout your body in your blood.
Protein is made up of amino acids, roughly 500 amino acids have been identified in nature, but only 20 apply to humans. Of these 20 there are 9 we need to focus on: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These are called essential amino acids because our bodies cannot produce them, so we need to get them from food. So when people are talking about protein the real focus should be on these 9 little guys because they are what does all of the important stuff!
The logical next question is where do you get the essential amino acids? If you eat meat you’re in luck, because most animal protein sources contain all amino acids so you don’t have to worry too much. If you are vegetarian or vegan you still don’t have to worry but you will need to be slightly more mindful of what you eat, the ‘vegan burgers’ may taste amazing but if they are mostly made from potato and veg covered in breadcrumbs then having this as the main meat substitute of your dinner probably isn’t going to help on the amino acid front! A few examples of plant based foods that contain all the essential amino acids are; tofu, tempeh and edamame.
Is it dangerous to consume too much protein?
Like a lot of things too much protein can be harmful for you the following are just a few of the problems and dangers which can arise from eating too much protein:
· Weight gain
· Bad breath
· Kidney damage
· Increased cancer risk (especially if you eat a lot of red meat studies have linked this to colorectal, breast and prostate cancer)
· Heart disease
· Calcium loss (can lead to osteoporosis)
So what is the recommendation:
Well I think it’s important to first highlight a point which while it may sound obvious is very important to always remember! It isn’t the eating of protein which makes you gain muscle or tone up. If you just ate protein but didn’t work out it wouldn’t really do anything for you, except make you gain weight. So the intensity and stimulus of training has to be high enough to promote adaptation in the body in the first place. As for the actual recommendations it is somewhat impossible to say with absolute certainty since all of the available information often contradicts each other, but I would suggest avoiding the extremes, going really low with your protein 0.3g per lb of bodyweight in my opinion is a bit low, but I definitely wouldn’t go lower than that, and I wouldn’t really recommend going much over 1g per lb of bodyweight. It is often suggested that when ‘cutting’ (trying to lose fat and preserve muscle) you should bump your protein up and while this may help your physique it could be doing some pretty hefty damage to your insides. Even if you aren’t vegetarian or vegan I would recommend changing up your protein sources for 2 reasons:
1. There are lots of health benefits of many protein sources including, beans and nuts so excluding these from your diet will mean you are missing out.
2. A growing amount of research is supporting the suggestion to reduce red meat intake, obviously the research could be wrong or disproved in the future, but since there are plenty of other protein sources available I would suggest doing your future self a favour and trying to limit your red meat intake!
The other thing to remember is how many calories you have to work with, I have had client’s come to me for diet plans and for them to lose weight at the rate they want in the time frame they want they need to set their calories really low around 1,200 calories! If this is the case the only possible way to hit 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight would be through a very unpleasant diet mainly consisting of turkey and chicken breasts and not all that much else. So this then has to be factored in and sometimes a compromise made away from the scientifically ideal to make the diet more sustainable is necessary. Since sustainability is always going to be one of the factors which ultimately determines success!
So to sum up while each case is different I think most non active individuals will likely be fine eating 0.4-0.6g per lb of bodyweight and more active individuals should aim for 0.6-0.9 g per lb of bodyweight. If you are an athlete who is eating a high number of calories to fuel your exercise, then I would even recommend 1g per lb of bodyweight because if your calories are high it shouldn’t be too difficult to work in the additional protein while not detracting too much from any other macro or micronutrients.
If you think you need some help structuring your diet, then just drop me a message and we can get a diet plan and/or a Nutrition consultation booked.
Next week’s topic – The Ketogenic diet