Protein, protein and more protein! Every bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast you find in the gym bows down to the mighty macronutrient known as protein.
A lot people have probably been caught up in the protein craze before. It's not even uncommon to see meal plans that push their followers to eat up towards 2 grams of protein or more per half kilogram of bodyweight. This begs the question; does anyone really need that much protein?
I'm an educated pharmacy technician, and dedicated health and fitness enthusiast myself, and I can't lie my way out of having been caught up in this very protein craze before too. After finishing my education and taking a couple of nutrition courses, I came to an answer (a quite simple one in fact):
You do not need that much protein.
So why is it so common to see athletes and gym rats embark on a daily quest to consume such incredible amounts of protein? If you are an athlete who weighs around 90-91 kg, that is well over 300 grams of protein! That equates to approx. 1500 calories from protein alone which, if you were to consume your protein from sources like chicken breast, that would equal to somewhere around 1,5 kg of chicken breast every day!
Don't get me wrong: I do love me some chicken but, if I was trying to consume anywhere close to 1,5 kg of chicken a day,
I would start doing some serious reevaluation of my choices in life. Why is it that there is such a huge emphasis in the fitness industry to consume enough protein then? Yes, of course: because protein is hugely important! You absolutely need protein in your diet to support your immune system, hormone production, and repair and replace old cells and tissues (incl. muscle tissue).
How much protein is needed per day?
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So how much do protein does one actually need then? A sedentary individual (a.k.a. a couch potato) only requires about 0,4 grams per 0,5 kg of bodyweight. That's it. This means that a couch potato sitting at between 90-91 kg needs no more than 80 grams of protein on a daily basis.
Since you're reading this very article, chances are that you are indeed not a couch potato yourself. In the case of dedicated fitness enthusiasts, the need for protein gets increased to 0,8-0,9 grams per 0,5 kg of bodyweight, which is hardly close to the 2 grams per half kilogram that we touched on earlier. To put things in perspective, that's 160 grams of protein vs. 400 grams of protein, which comes out to a massive 240 gram difference. That's a lot of protein you don't actually need.
This enormous difference in protein consumption guidelines can be attributed to the thought of; "if a little more is better, then a lot more must be WAY better!" Sadly, this is simply not the case. The majority of the research involving protein quantity confirms that if you're an athlete or a dedicated fitness enthusiast, you do have a bigger need for protein than the average person (or couch potato).
However, there is a cap to which additional protein consumption doesn't provide any additional benefits in terms of muscle gain. That cap seems to be around 0,9 grams per half kilogram of bodyweight. This means that anything beyond 0,9 grams of protein per half kilogram of bodyweight is just extra calories you consume for your body to utilise as an energy source and not as raw material for muscle building and/or preservation.
Another reason for excessive protein consumption is because the average person models their nutrition after a bodybuilding contest preparation diet. Bodybuilders who're on a diet leading up to a show tend to raise the amount of protein that they consume because of the satiety effect it offers. In effect, this doesn't leave them feeling any more hungry than what's absolutely necessary when being in a calorie deficit. You would be hard pressed to feel any form of hunger at all as a result of consuming 1.8 kg of meat in one day.
Extreme High Protein/Low Fat Diets
Ketogenic-type diets have become increasingly popular over the past decade. As a result of that, there's been a decline in more moderate approaches. The general public got into the high protein diets for the same reason that bodybuilders consume more protein during a contest preparation/cutting diet. It's very difficult to overeat when on a high protein diet because of its' satiety effect. As a result, high protein/low carbohydrate diets became the "easy way" to lose fat or cut calories without actually having to do the work that lies in counting your calories.
Everyone seems to love extreme diets where one macronutrient is emphasised over the others or gets completely cut out all together. The general public got carried away with the extremely high protein quantities because - for some reason - the majority of people believe that extreme diets are the only ones that work. This is just not the case, and there's a lot of progress that can be made from a diet that has balance between all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat).
It's also important to understand that the other macronutrients are known to be protein sparing, which means that if you consume a sufficient amount of calories from carbohydrates and fats, your body favours using these nutrients for energy and is capable of utilising proteins for building new muscle tissue and repairing muscle tissue that's been damaged from training.
When you make sure to keep your diet balanced, you can reap the benefits of all the macronutrients and won't have to worry about consuming massive amounts of protein. Furthermore, you have to account for the fact that if you're eating whole food, there's going to be some protein in your carbohydrates and fats alike.
| A dedicated fitness enthusiast only requires 0,8 - 0,9 grams of protein per half kilogram of bodyweight.
Experienced Trainees and Efficient Protein Partitioning
There's an interesting research review from McCaster University that hints at the possibility that as you become a more experienced trainee, your body requires an even smaller amount of protein because it becomes more efficient at both partitioning and utilising it.
So of course, I had to put this to the test on myself. I cut out all the protein shakes in my daily diet and eased off of eating so much meat for a couple of weeks. What happened? Nothing happened. My muscles didn't fall off or magically disappear from my body. I didn't get fat from eating carbohydrates or fat either. In fact, I was able to train harder and longer. I also noticed how it got easier for me to get a good pump while working out as a result of increasing my carbohydrate intake on a daily basis.
A few other observations from decreasing protein consumption and increasing the other two macronutrients is that I was still able to recover from my workouts and it seemed that the level of soreness that I experienced was significantly lower as well. Another benefit that I wasn't expecting was that I was able to significantly cut down on my meal frequency.
I found it almost impossible to eat the 1.5-2g of protein/0,5 kg bodyweight without breaking it up into the typical bro-type diet with 5-6 meals a day. Now I can easily eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and get the protein I need for the day. I'm aware that may be minor for some but, I prefer to not worry about finding time to chow down a chicken breast and some broccoli every 2-4 hours. The typical three square meals a day and a post-workout protein shake fits into my lifestyle very well, so that's some good food for thought.
Protein Does Build Muscle - No Doubt About It
You shouldn't be in doubt about the point here not being about downplaying the importance of protein as part of a muscle building diet. I can't stress it enough: if you train hard, you can't neglect protein. However, the requirements for protein have been inflated for far too long - either by various kinds of diet trends or from so-called or self-appointed nutrition experts that are trying to sell you something.
If you've found yourself struggling to fit tons of protein into your daily diet, I encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself why you need such huge amounts protein in your diet. Here are a few important points to keep in mind:
- A lifter only requires 0.8 - 0.9 grams of protein per 0,5 kg of bodyweight daily
- Any additional protein over 0.9 grams per 0,5 kg is used by your body for energy purposes rather than growth and repair. Consuming more protein will allow for greater satiety when being calorie deprived but will not result in increased muscle mass
- Carbohydrates and fats are protein-sparing nutrients, which means that your body prefers to use them for energy and spare protein for growth and repair and muscle tissue.