How Much Protein Do You Need?

If you’re working out hard — squats, deadlifts, plyometrics and just your normal sports activities — you’ll be breaking down muscle and rebuilding it. That requires protein (and lots of other stuff, but for now will stick to protein). The problem is that you will get all sorts of answers about how much protein you need. If you go by federal dietary guidelines, those numbers will be suited to moderately active or sedentary people. It’s commonly said that Americans eat too much protein, but that’s not necessarily the case if you’re working big weights.

We need to look to scientific literature aimed at athletes. Even there, we find a fairly broad range of opinion. One study assigned strength athletes to one of three groups: low protein intake (0.86 grams per day per kg body mass), medium (1.4gms) and high (2.4gms). The researchers then measured whole body protein synthesis and leucine oxidation. They found that the athletes on the low-protein diet had lower protein synthesis compared to those on the medium and high protein diets, meaning they were not building muscle as well as they could. Meanwhile, those who had a high protein intake did not have a higher level of protein synthesis than those on the medium intake diet. They did, however, have higher levels of leucine oxidation which indicates a “nutrient overload.” In other words, they were taking in more protein than they could use and their body was needing to work to break it down [1]. Also, excess protein intake is associated with dehydration, which is not good for performance, and may also be related to excessive urinary calcium losses [2], which is to say you pee your bones out! (okay, that’s maybe an exaggeration).

This has been corroborated over the years by several similar studies that generally find that the right protein intake is generally around 1.2–1.4 gms/kg/day for endurance athletes and about 1.4 to 1.8 gms/kg/day for an athlete during a muscle-building phase. Bodybuilders might occasionally even need to go to 2gms/kg/day, but usually only when they are not getting enough calories from other sources to meet energy needs [2].

So this means that we can take 1.5gms/kg or about 0.7gms/pound per day as a good level for most athletes. So a 150-pound athlete should be looking to take in about 105gms of protein per day, preferably spread out throughout the day. I like to supplement with whey protein, widely regarded as the best protein, meaning it has the best amino acid profile. You want to look for whey protein isolate, rather than concentrate, but otherwise whey is pretty much whey and the price differences are mostly just about branding. To me the best deal out there by far is the 10-pound pack of unsweetened whey protein from NOW Nutrition. It’s cheap and really good. If you buy the unsweetened one, you can mix it with whatever you want — fruit smoothie, chocolate syrup, or just plain in a glass of water (lots of people HATE this, but I don’t think it’s too bad). A dose of whey protein before bed can really help with recovery, so however you mix it, it’s worth a try. The advantage of taking it plain with water is that you don’t add a lot of useless and unhealthy sugars and calories to your diet just before bed.

Sources:

  1. Tarnopolsky MA et alia. “Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes.” J Appl Physiol. 1992 Nov;73(5):1986-95. (abstract online).
  2. Josephine Conolly-Schoonen, MS, RD. “Dietary Protein Intake Differences Based on Activity Levels.” Medscape, 03/06/2001.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *