The myth of optimal protein intake

No doubt you have heard the old muscle building adage “eat A MINIMUM of 1 gram (or more) per pound of bodyweight for maximum muscle.” This is absolute bullshit. I always try to remain objective and I love questioning “common knowledge, and most times I discover that common knowledge is rooted in mythology and dogma and not in actual evidence based science…protein intake recommendations are one of the biggest myths that permeate the muscle building world.

First a personal account…I used to eat 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight every single day for YEARS. This meant that if I weighed 200 lbs my protein intake was 300 grams a day. I got good results but I always had digestive issues and my grocery bill was astronomical. It hadn’t occurred to me to question this since it was such a staple in bodybuilding recommendations. About 6 years ago I decided to look deeper…motivated by my lack of progress and my continued issues with digestion. When I searched for studies to support my insane protein intake I was shocked!! None (ZERO) supported the recommended “1 gram or more per pound of bodyweight” advice!! I switched to eating closer to 150 grams of protein a day and BOOM…I felt better, my digestion was better and my performance in the gym improved. I could eat more complex carbohydrates and healthy fats since I was eating less calories from protein…this meant I could eat a greater variety of food and my body LOVED IT. I have never gone back to eating the crazy amounts of protein I used to and I never will…its that big of a difference.

The science…below I will list multiple sources from studies that test protein intake in athletes. I picked these studies because they had the best controls and test samples (not all studies are the same…some are controlled much better than others). In short the average consensus is that a hard training strength athlete receives optimum performance and muscle building benefit from an upper limit of about .77 grams per pound of bodyweight. If you weigh 200 lbs thats about 154 grams a day. Here is another cool take away…experienced athletes need LESS protein than new trainees!!!! Yes you heard me right…if you are experienced then you need less protein than a beginner. This is due to the muscle breakdown that occurs in novice lifters (they damage muscle easier) versus advanced lifters. Makes perfect sense and the science fully supports it.

In short you do need a diet high in protein however you DO NOT need to eat the crazy amounts that the muscle building magazines recommend. Aim for .6 to .8 grams per pound of bodyweight for maximum muscle adaptation and health.

*side note: eating protein immediately post workout is consistently supported to improve recovery by numerous studies.

Effect of protein intake on strength, body composition and endocrine changes in strength/power athletes. Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, Falvo MJ, Faigenbaum AD. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006 Dec 13;3:12-8.

Macronutrient content of a hypoenergy diet affects nitrogen retention and muscle function in weight lifters. Walberg JL, Leidy MK, Sturgill DJ, Hinkle DE, Ritchey SJ, Sebolt DR. Int J Sports Med. 1988 Aug;9(4):261-6.

Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. J Appl Physiol. 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75.

Influence of protein intake and training status on nitrogen balance and lean body mass. Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. J Appl Physiol. 1988 Jan;64(1):187-93.

Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38.

Protein and amino acid metabolism during and after exercise and the effects of nutrition. Rennie MJ, Tipton KD. Annu Rev Nutr. 2000;20:457-83.

Hartman, J. W., Moore, D. R., & Phillips, S. M. (2006). Resistance training reduces whole-body protein turnover and improves net protein retention in untrained young males. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, 31, 557–564.

Moore, D. R., Del Bel, N. C., Nizi, K. I., Hartman, J. W., Tang, J. E., Armstrong, D. et al. (2007). Resistance training reduces fasted- and fed-state leucine turnover and increases dietary nitrogen retention in previously untrained young men. Journal of Nutrition, 137, 985–991.

Effects of exercise on dietary protein requirements. Lemon PW. Int J Sport Nutr. 1998 Dec;8(4):426-47.

Effects of high-calorie supplements on body composition and muscular strength following resistance training. Rozenek R, Ward P, Long S, Garhammer J. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2002 Sep;42(3):340-7.

Increased protein maintains nitrogen balance during exercise-induced energy deficit. Pikosky MA, Smith TJ, Grediagin A, Castaneda-Sceppa C, Byerley L, Glickman EL, Young AJ. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Mar;40(3):505-12.

Dietary carbohydrate-to-fat ratio: influence on whole-body nitrogen retention, substrate utilization, and hormone response in healthy male subjects. McCargar LJ, Clandinin MT, Belcastro AN, Walker K. Am J Clin Nutr. 1989 Jun;49(6):1169-78.

Macronutrient Intakes as Determinants of Dietary Protein and Amino Acid Adequacy. Millward, DJ. J. Nutr. June 1, 2004 vol. 134 no. 6 1588S-1596S.