“All students will participate in a diet modification project that will consist of eating a primarily plant-based diet for a minimum of 4 continuous weeks.”
When I read that line from my syllabus I had a flurry of panicked thoughts:
He can’t be serious.
I lift weights. I need my protein.
I can’t follow a plant-based diet for 4 weeks—that long without my eggs, my steaks, and my chicken will be the death of me.
It was the first day of class and I was already looking up the add/drop deadline.
Maybe it was my academic zeal or the fact that the class was required for my major (probably the latter), but I didn’t jump ship. In fact, I ended up loving the class—especially the plant-based diet assignment.
I would be lying if I said it was easy. I started to do some strange things—like getting excited about exotic grains and even sprouting my own alfalfa. I spent an entire month doing the best I could to follow a plant-based diet (confession: I had some poultry and seafood. Shhh, don’t tell.) and it turned out to be an eye opening experience.
I didn’t need as much protein as I thought. Even though my protein intake was dramatically reduced, my muscles did not disappear, I began eating more satisfyingly well-rounded meals, and I felt great.
You see, prior to the assignment I had no idea how much protein I needed. But the assignment shed some much-needed light on the situation and I decided to dig deeper into nutrition to increase my understanding. I learned a couple things:
- I’m not the only person that has been confused about protein consumption.
- Old school bodybuilding set an accurate, albeit vague, high-protein precedence that has been around longer than awful Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations.
- Scientific research helps clarify what we learned from the bodybuilding community by providing guidelines for how much protein you actually need.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
For Fat Loss
If fat loss is your goal, you want to lose fat without losing lean body mass (muscle). There is evidence that supports consuming as little as 0.5 grams per pound of body weight each day is sufficient to maintain lean body mass in bodybuilders.
Let’s imagine that Johnny weighs 180 lbs and wants to lose fat. According to the research, he could have as little as 90 grams of protein each day and maintain his lean body mass.
Odds are, if you’ve ever celebrated Thanksgiving or even been to an all-you-can-eat buffet, you’ve probably eaten somewhere in the ballpark of 0.5 grams of protein per pound in one sitting (hello Brazilian Churrascaria). Truthfully, it isn’t that much. But studies support that it’s enough to maintain lean body mass when trying to lose fat.
For Muscle Gain
Okay. Now we’ve covered the fat loss, this is where we get to talk about eating endless amounts of protein, right? No more merely maintaining mass, it’s time to build it. Now we’re getting to the good stuff—feasting on steaks, ribs, and chugging eggs like Rocky. …right?
Actually, you don’t need nearly as much protein as most people think in order to gain muscle. There is evidence supporting muscle gain with only 0.5 grams per pound—assuming that everything else is in order (adequate calorie consumption, proper training stimulus, getting all of the essential amino acids, etc).
That’s right. You don’t need to eat more protein to build more muscle.
Remember Johnny? Let’s say he wanted to put on some mass instead of lose fat. He could gain muscle with just as much protein as he would have during a fat loss program—90 grams per day.
To most, 0.5g/lb is surprisingly low. But the evidence shows it can get the job done. There are, however, several research review papers that conclude 0.82g/lb will help maximize muscle protein synthesis.
So how much do you need? According to science, 0.5g/lb can be enough to build muscle.
There is one problem, though. We aren’t asking the right question.
How much protein do you want?
“All of it.”
That’s my answer, at least. What can I say? I like high-protein foods. Even though I may only need 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight to see results, I want more than that. So I usually have more than 2 times as much as the 0.5g/lb I “need.” I love every single bite of it, too.
But eating more protein has benefits for everyone, not just protein lovers like myself. Here are a few:
– Research supports increasing protein consumption when in a calorie deficit—consuming fewer calories than expending. This means that whenever you’re burning more calories than you’re eating, increasing your protein intake can help maximize your results.
– Compared to the other macronutrients (carbs and fat), protein’s thermal effect of food (TEF) is largest. The TEF is the number of calories burned while your body digests your food. You actually burn more calories digesting 100 calories worth of protein than 100 calories of carbohydrates or fat.
– Protein is associated with helping you feel full and satisfied longer than carbohydrates or fat do. Feeling fuller will help limit overeating and being more satisfied is just that—satisfying. Plus, being full and satisfied during any eating program will help increase adherence, results, sustainability, and happiness.
– Foods high in protein like animal meat and fish—especially beef, salmon, and tuna—are high in natural creatine monohydrate. Creatine is a well-known supplement used in aesthetics and athletics to enhance lean body mass and improve performance.
Simply put, tasting fantastic isn’t the only reason why you might want more protein.
But we all know that more isn’t always better. Anyone who’s seen a bad sequel knows that (Ocean’s 12 anyone?). The same goes for protein—more is not always better. For example, having 300g of protein isn’t twice as good as having 150g.
Even though more isn’t always better, it isn’t necessarily worse, either. It’s okay if you would rather hit your calorie goals by having more steak instead of another potato. Again, we’re looking at what you want. As long as you’re sticking to your total calorie goals, having too much protein will be nearly impossible.
How much protein do you want?
I usually recommend 1g/lb as a jumping off point. Start there and either increase or decrease to find your personal “sweet spot.”