How Much Protein?

How much protein does a bodybuilder need?

How much protein you need depends on the physical stresses you put on your body, the quality of the protein, how much sleep you get, and your goals. A 120 pound vegan who doesnt lift weights and just wants to be healthy has vastly different protein needs from a hardcore weight trainer who also does endurance cardio.  The free meal plans generated by CustomMealPlanner are aimed at serious athletes so they use 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

USRDA and WHO recommended protein intake

Before we talk about how much bodybuilders need, lets look at some other measures.  These organizations have made recommendations about how much protein a person needs to stay healthy:

  1. 0.33 grams/pound – World Health Organization
  2. 56g/day – USRDA (0.29g/lb assuming average 195 pound male)

Quality of protein

Before we go too deep into how much protein a bodybuilder needs, we should talk about the quality of the protein as all protein is not created equal.  A lot of attempts have been made at helping people gauge how effective various forms of protein are at being used by the human body.  There is the Biological Value (B.V.) rating, the Protein Efficiency Ratio (P.E.R.), the Net Protein Utilization (N.P.U.), and the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS).  Although its really nice to put numbers on things, the bottom line here is that the reason we have so many ways to gauge the quality of the protein is that each is an attempt to make a better estimation of something we really dont understand very well.  About all we can really say for sure is that a bodybuilder will gain more muscle eating 150g of egg white protein a day than eating 150g of protein from celery – how much more is just a guess.

What does the research say?

Let me point out that there has NEVER been a single research paper which has even hinted that consuming less protein is superior for muscle and strength gain.  This is important.  What we really want to know is what is the “sweet spot” for protein consumption.  Protein is expensive and its healthier in my opinion to eat vegetables so how much protein do we need to consume to get 95% of the gains?  This question has not been answered.

Before we look at the research, lets look at why its so important that the research be for a duration of at least 6 months.  The basic problem is that because of the extreme difficulty in measuring LBM accurately and precisely, you need at least a 6 month experiment to get meaningful results.  Even the DEXA scans can be off by 10%. Most of the research uses experienced lifters who are only gaining muscle at the rate of 5lbs muscle a year which is 6 ounces a month, a tiny amount.  Lets say the high protein group gains 20% more muscle, that is VERY significant to bodybuilders!  What do you think the chances are that a DEXA scan can tell the difference between 6 ounces of muscle gain and 7 ounces of muscle gain when simple things like salt intake can throw the test off by 10%?  The research must be 3-6 months in duration to have any meaning at all.

It is also important to remember that research does not “prove” anything, it merely suggests.  Lets look at some research: This was a great study with 23 advanced powerlifters, the problem as I stated above is that it didnt run long enough to provide useful results.   The problem is that with advanced lifters, no measurable muscle gain will occur in 12 weeks regardless of protein intake.  Our current technology simply cannot measure a 3 ounce difference in muscle gain rate accurately.

Lets look at some more research.

Tarnopolsky et al. (1992) – A one month study, useless for above stated reasons

Walberg et al. (1988) – A one week study, useless for above stated reasons.

Tarnopolsky et al. (1988) – A 10 day study, useless for above stated reasons.

So what is going on here?   These studies determine the amount of protein required to stay in positive nitrogen balance.  The leap of faith people are making is that there is no muscle gain or strength gain benefit to consuming more protein than the amount required to achieve positive nitrogen balance.  On what scientific basis is this assumption being made?  Also, say the research subjects were getting 100% of their protein from my personal favorite black beans which are low in the essential amino acids lysine and methionine.  What good is your positive nitrogen balance if you are missing essential amino acids?  How sure are we that we know exactly what ratio the essential amino acids need to be in to optimally gain muscle?  If we do not know the exact ratio of these essential amino acids then we need to consume more protein than is required for positive nitrogen balance.

Where does the 1g/lb recommendation come from?

As I am fond of saying, bodybuilding is more art than science and this is the case when it comes to protein consumption.  Science is decades behind bodybuilding best practices when it comes to protein consumption.  Millions of bodybuilders over decades have found that there does not seem to be any benefit to consuming more than 1g/lb of protein.  Could you consume less and still get your gains?  Maybe, it depends.

Is the 1g/lb number based on LBM or total weight?

A 500 pound obese person does NOT need 500g protein per day if they start powerlifing.  In reality, if you based your 1g/lb on LBM that would probably be enough.  The only reason that we use scale weight rather than LBM is that so few people know their bodyfat to with any sort of accuracy.

Which athletic activities require the most protein?

Its not just powerlifting and extreme bodybuilding that requires these high levels of protein, its endurance athletes as well.  If there are people reading this who are training for the Boston Marathon, I would strongly recommend the 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.

Can the body only digest 30g of protein at a time?

Where does this though-garbage come from?  This is utterly ridiculous and has no scientific basis at all.

Will too much protein damage your kidneys?

For those who have damaged kidneys from disease or thru taking tainted supplements, too much protein is bad for you.  Kidneys remove excess protein and if your kidneys are damaged, this routine protein removal job becomes too difficult for them.  If you have disease or organ failure, do NOT get your nutritional advice from the internet – LISTEN TO YOUR DOCTOR!  The original research that suggested that a high protein intake caused kidney failure was based on patients who were already in renal failure. Not surprisingly, if your kidneys are failing, scarfing massive amounts of protein is a great way to die.

Too much of ANYTHING will kill you, even oxygen and water – same goes for protein. If you were to eat a diet consisting of 100% protein, I have no doubt you would die rather quickly but a bigger question would be, would you die because of what you were eating or what you were NOT eating?  What I mean by this is that if you only eat protein powder, you are not getting essential fats, nor are you getting any vitamins because you are not eating any vegetables nor fruits.  Is the the deficiencies in your diet that would kill you or the excesses?

This article from the Mayo Clinic titled “Are high-protein diets safe for weight loss” backs me up here:

  • Some high-protein diets restrict carbohydrate intake so much that they can result in nutritional deficiencies or insufficient fiber, which can cause problems such as bad breath, headache and constipation.
  • Some high-protein diets include foods such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, which may increase your risk of heart disease.
  • A high-protein diet may worsen kidney function in people with kidney disease because your body may have trouble eliminating all the waste products of protein metabolism.

There ARE some very valid concerns about excessive protein consumption, but the question really is, what constitutes “excessive”??  The risk of osteoporosis and kidney stones seems to increase with protein intake.

To sum it up, if you have certain diseases, too much protein can kill you.  For example:

Bodybuilding Mom dies of too much protein She died of the rare disease “urea cycle disorder”, not “too much protein”.    Just as there are many news reports of people dying from drinking too much water in frat hazing incidents and silly radio station contests, people die from “too much protein”.  Despite all the deaths from “too much water”, I drink more than ever in my endurance cardio.


How much protein do YOU need?

As I am fond of saying, it all comes down to a risk/benefit analysis and only YOU are capable of making this calculation because it depends on your goals and your risk aversion! If you are a teens or bodybuilder whose goal is to maximize muscle gain rate then 1g/lb or even more if you are vegan probably makes sense.  If you are training for the Boston Marathon, 1g/lb probably makes sense.  On the other hand, if you are a 40 year with lots of health problems and you just want to become fit and healthy by lifting now and then and jogging on weekends then 1g/lb is stupid and a third that level of protein intake is more appropriate.

It all comes down to YOUR goals, YOUR current health situation, and YOUR risk aversion.

Why is it that all these non-lifters love to come out of the woodwork and scream at bodybuilders that they “do not need” that much protein???  Seriously, stop projecting YOUR pedestrian strength and physique goals onto others.

Anti-protein Vegans

Its always important to look at people’s motivations about what they are telling you.  It is worth noting that many of the people screaming “you don’t need that much protein” or saying things like “too much protein will damage your kidneys” tend to be political vegans. Next time you encounter somone online who is saying things like this, take a look at their posts and I am willing to be that you will find a vegan.  If their only goal is to stop you from eating meat, I would suggest discounting their opinion on bodybuilding related issues.