The Truth About Protein
In our last few posts, we’ve covered a few things. First, we talked about the combination of macronutrients—and in that post I discussed that it’s often helpful to divide meals into either “Protein + Carb” or “Protein + Fat.” As mentioned in that post, that’s a great general rule to use to create meals because it forces you to think about the make up of each meal.
As a follow up to that, the two subsequent posts were all about carbohydrates and fat, and the make up and benefits of each macronutrient. Both of these nutrients have been much maligned over the years, each being blamed in turn and labeled as the primary cause of obesity.
While both carbs and fat have spent the past few years being demonized or lauded by turns, no macronutrient has enjoyed the rise to prominence and popularity as our friend, protein. Although, while protein currently enjoys the spot as the most awesome of macronutrients, that wasn’t always so. In the early 1900’s diet gurus such as John Harvey Kellogg (yeah, the cereal guy) and Horace Fletcher rallied against the intake of dietary protein due to its “negative effects on digestion and health.” Of course, Kellogg was trying to sell a box of carbs, so take that for what it’s worth.
Anyway, moving on.
And now, my friends, it’s time to delve in the truth about Big P.
A favorite among bodybuilders, athletes and just about any fitness enthusiast, protein is used by your body in a number of ways; to repair damaged muscle, bone, skin, teeth and hair, among other things. Let’s get metaphorical: think of it as the mortar between the bricks; without it, the entire structure of your body begins to break down. (Actually, that was a simile, not a metaphor. Just sayin.)
Protein helps to create an anabolic hormonal environment (good for muscle building and fat loss); and, along the lines of the “brick” metaphor: protein provides a lot of the material used to build your muscles.
Before we get into a discussion of protein sources (the tastiest bit), we should go over protein types and their composition.
The first is called complete proteins and other is (obviously) called incomplete proteins. Which group a protein source falls into depends on its make up.
You see, protein is comprised of smaller molecules called amino acids. For the purposes of nutrition discussion, there are 22 amino acids which warrant attention, of which nine belong to a sub-group that can only be obtained through your food. (The remainder can be manufactured by your body).
The nine amino acids that can only be obtained from the food you eat are called essential amino acids. For those interested in such things, the essential amino acids are:
A complete protein (also known as a whole protein) is one that contains adequate portions of those nine amino acids. By contrast, an incomplete protein is one that is lacking in one or more of those amino acids.
These amino acids also help your body create hormones that help regulate things like blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which are directly responsible for your metabolic rate and muscular growth.
In short, protein is extremely important, especially the complete proteins that are found in foods such as fish, poultry, eggs, red meat and cheese.
NOTE – yes, my vegan and vegetarian friends, I am WELL aware that I am really being a bit general here AND spinning this more towards an omnivorous readership. You can absolutely get complete proteins without by from combining grains and beans—that’s just really beyond my experience, because I am, by and large, a meat-eater. I’ve gone through a few veggie or vegan experiments (to be blogged about at a later date), but I don’t feel comfortable designing diets that way.
For those readers who are vegan or vegetarian and would like a comprehensive source on nutrition, check out the Easy Veggie Meal Plans.
Moving on, here’s a short list of (non-vegan) foods that provide a complete protein source.
As mentioned above, nearly all fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds contain a bit of protein; however, these foods are generally lacking one or more of the amino acids necessary for your body to rebuild new muscle. Keep in mind, though; you can combine these foods with any of the foods listed above to make a great tasting meal that will meet all of your body’s protein requirements.
One of the most frequently asked questions about protein is, not surprisingly, “how much?”
The interesting thing about that question is that it really encompasses two completely separate and diametrically opposed viewpoints.
The first is minimalist: how much protein do I need to eat? Or, more succinctly, what is the minimal effective dose?
Then, there is the maximalist: how much program do I get to eat? Which really means, how much protein can I eat before it becomes either ineffective or dangerous?”
I’ll cover both points as best I can, but this is a huge topic to cover in a single blog post. I’ll just mention right now that if you really want to understand the truth about how much protein you do (or don’t!) need, you should pick up the book How Much Protein? by Brad Pilon.
It’s an exceptional resource in general, and more specifically destroys a lot of the myths and misconceptions about both protein and the supplement industry at large. I definitely recommend you grab a copy.
In any event, I’d like to give you a lot of the essential information, so that you can go forward with a pretty strong understanding of protein.
First, we’ll cover the minimalist needs.
When someone asks, “how much protein do I need?” the answer is dependent on what they need it for; which means we have to answer “how much protein do I need for optimal fat loss” and “how much protein do I need to gain muscle?”
In BOTH of these cases, the answer is A LOT lower than you’d expect.
For fat loss, you can really get away with as little as .5g per pound of lean body mass—which for most people will be anywhere between 60 and 90 grams of protein. A remarkably low number, compared to what you’d expect to see on a fitness blog.
Now, as I said, this is a minimalist approach…and so .5g per pound of LBM should be enough to help you hang onto all of your lean mass, drop fat, and keep energy levels up.
Having said that, it’s arguable that slightly higher intake of protein would allow you to lost fat a little faster for a few reasons. For example, the Thermic Effect of Food (or TEF), a measure of how much your metabolism increases simply breaking down the food. Protein has the highest TEF of all of the macronutrients, and so it’s often argued that higher protein intake can lead to faster fat loss based on that alone.
Another thing to consider would be satiety – higher protein consumption leads to greater satiety after feedings, and so you’d be less hungry and that makes it a lot easier to be compliant with your eating plan.
A minimalist approach to protein for muscle gain is really interesting; again, because you actually need a lot less protein than you’d imagine.
In fact, in most cases, you could get away with .5g to 1g per pound of LBM. That’s right – assuming you are consuming adequate calories, there is some research to illustrate that provided you’re getting all essential amino acids, you can gain muscle with as little as .5g per pound of LBM.
If this seems extremely low, it’s because it is. Nevertheless, the research illustrates that it’s accurate, and I’ve seen a few people thrive on this.
That said, I don’t really care for the minimalist approach, mainly because if we take in the minimal amount of protein and still look to have adequate calories…well, those calories have to come from somewhere; and your choices are either carbs or fat. As I keep carbs low, we’re talking about adding in a lot of fat. Which is fine, theoretically; speaking practically I think it creates a situation where it’s hard to create meals and you won’t be as full as you’d like.
I don’t see the need to sacrifice convenience and satiety simply to keep protein as low as possible.
Which brings us to…
(Yes, I am aware that maximalism is not a word).
This is pretty much where I fall, and the perspective from which I approach nutrition programming for the majority of my clients.
Really, this is for those who want to know how much protein we can get away with eating before it becomes either counter-productive relative to our goals or unhealthy.
The reasoning behind this approach is simply that if we know protein is best for both thermic effect and satiety, and is also the tastiest, we should eat more of it—as much as we can without going backwards.
Given that, let’s look at where those numbers fall for each goal.
Determining the maximum amount of protein you can and should take in for optimal fat loss is entirely dependent on the type of diet you’re using. In fact, this is primarily relevant for those who are on low carb diets.
The prevailing theory behind being on a lower carb diet is to keep insulin in check, and in many cases enter into ketosis.
As we’ve established, taking in lower carbohydrates often means taking in higher amounts of protein—but as you can imagine, there is a point of diminishing returns.
You see, if the goal is to keep insulin low and approach ketosis, too much protein can offset this due to a phenomenon called gluconeogenesis.
This is a metabolic pathway that results in the generation of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. Without getting too far off topic, gluconeogenesis is actually a pretty important mechanism, as it allows us to keep blood glucose levels from dropping too low and becoming hypoglycemic when carbohydrates are not available.
In the case of survival, that can be important and beneficial, for obvious reasons.
For the purposes of fat loss, however, it means that if you’re taking in “too much” protein, the glucogenic amino acids will be broken down into glucose or substances that react very much like glucose, which in turn will impact insulin levels and prevent whatever ketogenic effect you’re attempting to achieve.
Put simply: protein becomes carb. (Well, sort of. But you get the idea.)
Which means this: if you are on a diet that depends on insulin control, it is detrimental to over-eat protein.
Some studies have shown that gluconeogenesis can occur with as little as .8g protein per pound of LBM. Using that number, I’d only need 142 grams of protein at 192 pounds and 8% bodyfat.
Now, having said that, I have experimented quite a lot with low carb and high protein diets, and I find that the more intense your weight training is, the more protein you can ingest and utilize before you have to worry much about gluconeogenesis. This is, very probably, due to the fact that intense weight training increases levels of testosterone, which in turn increases the rate of protein synthesis and nitrogen retention.
Therefore, I would argue that even on a low carb diet, if you’re training intensely and as long as calories are still low enough to allow for fat loss, you can do exceedingly well setting protein intake at around 1g per pound of LBM as a jumping off point.
All of that, again, applies primarily to low-carb diets where insulin control is the primary goal. There are numerous other dietary approaches that work exceptionally well, and for which gluconeogenesis is not as great a concern.
As an example, most of my clients use some form of carb-cycling (to be explained in a future post), and in this case protein intake fluctuates along carbohydrate intake. In cases such as those I’ll often go as high as 1.25g grams of protein per pound of LBM, which I find allows for satiety without any detrimental effect on the rate of fat loss.
As a general rule, start at 1g per pound of LBM and play around from there.
Even the idea of determining the “maximum” amount of protein for muscle gain sits ill with a lot of folks. They seem to assume that, as the supplement companies would suggest, more protein will always equal more muscle. This, of course, is not true.
Having said that, the goal of this section is simply to tell you how much you can eat before you’re going in the wrong direction.
Thankfully, the answer is “a metric shit ton.” I know, that’s very technical. Try not to get confused by the industry jargon.
Which is to that I haven’t seen any compelling evidence to show that eating too much protein slows down muscle gain. And, of course, high protein intake can, theoretically, help with muscle; after all, isn’t it true that eating more protein can lead to a more anabolic environment in your body?
Well, that’s certainly what the muscle magazines would have you believe. And, to be fair, it true—to a point.
HOWEVER – it is very important to note that once again, we’re dealing with diminishing returns. Which means that you WILL NOT gain more muscle eating 400g of protein per day than you will eating 300g of protein per day.
For someone like me, that’s nice to know, but it’s not a deterrent. When I’m trying to gain muscle, I usually eat well in excess of 300g, simply because I’d rather eat protein than just about anything else, and if I am looking to hit my caloric requirements I’ll have an extra steak, thankyouverymuch.
For those looking to gain muscle, and eat tons of protein, set your intake at about 1.5g per pound of desired LBM—which means that if you currently have 160 pounds of lean mass and you’d like to gain 10 pounds of muscle, just multiply 170 by 1.5 and arrive at 255g of protein per pound of LBM. Move up from there as needed or desired.
Some studies have shown that very high protein in combination with very high fat intake can lead to some issues, ranging from kidney stones and gall stones to extra arms growing out of your face.
I don’t want to dismiss this, but neither do I want to spend too much time on it.
For most people, this is not a concern—or rather, is a moot point. I say this simply because I don’t think most people are capable of eating enough protein and fat together to do this type of damage.
Put bluntly, if you’re on a diet of any kind, that diet is going to have caloric restrictions or limitations. Which means that if you’re coloring inside the lines, you aren’t going to be taking in enough to do damage—especially for fat loss.
For muscle gain, most of the time people are dropping fat intake and increasing carbohydrate intake, as increased insulin levels will lead to greater muscle gains.
Basically, as long as you’re not eating 500g per day alongside a stupidly high fat intake you don’t have to worry too much.
Any diet that I’d recommend to you will obviously have health taken into account (or I wouldn’t recommend it) so you’re probably in the clear, anyway.
Again, I’m not trying to trivialize any health concerns that could arise from “mega-dosing” protein; I just feel that it’s the kind of thing that auto-regulates while you’re on a structured and healthy diet.
There is fair pit of confusion about what protein really does and does not do, and a lot of controversy about how much you need. Hopefully, this article has given you some insight as to both.
Make sure you grab your copy of Metabolic Cooking today.
NOTE: Here is a quick link jump to the entire series: