Protein: How much, what kind, and when?
Updated: Mar 22, 2018
Protein. It’s a bodybuilders best friend and every muscle enthusiast’s favorite macronutrient. Everyone knows that eating lots of protein is important for building muscle. However, very few people recognize the potential benefits of protein intake elsewhere when it comes to alternative goals such as fat loss, weight management, sport performance, and overall health and wellness. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder or a muscle head to reap the benefits of protein. To understand the importance of protein consumption, you have to understand its specific role within the body. Once you’ve grasped its physiological function, you’ll be able to see how it fits into general health and whatever performance and physique goals that you have.
Protein’s Role in the Body
Protein, along with that of carbohydrates and fat, make up the three primary macronutrients, which are the calorie containing molecules that our food consists of. The macronutrients not only supply the body with energy but they serve a multitude of additional roles in proper health and body function.
Contributing relatively little to overall energy production, protein’s primary role within the body is building, maintaining, and repairing body tissues. It can be thought of as the body’s building bloc, the Lego pieces of biology if you will. Proteins are found within every cell and tissue type of body, from muscle, to bone, to skin, organs, and blood. There are approximately 100,000 different proteins found within the human body, each serving a distinct function. They serve structural as well as functional roles, comprising the body’s enzymes, many of its hormones, and play a central role in cellular signaling and molecular transport.
Bodybuilders and fitness people alike aren’t out there slamming protein shakes for the health benefits. These folks are attracted to protein for a different reason, its powerful influence on body composition. Protein is the most critical macronutrient in determining the relative amounts of fat mass and fat-free mass found in the body. Fat-free mass includes organs, bones, skin, hair, connective tissue, body water, and muscle. Fat mass, as the name implies, refers to body fat. Higher levels of fat-free mass and lower levels of fat mass not only help to promote a more ascetically pleasing physique but also have a large influence on general health. A more favorable body composition, particularly one with higher relative amounts of fat-free mass, are usually associated with better overall heath, lower risk of skeletal and muscle injury, lower occurrences of cardiovascular disease, longer life span, better quality of life, reduced risk for metabolic disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and all-cause mortality. Protein exerts its effects on body composition primary through its strong influence on muscle tissue when consumed, especially in combination with resistance training. Dietary protein literally provides the building blocks that make up muscle tissue, making it critical in not only building new muscle tissue but also maintaining existing muscle mass.
Outside of its direct effects on muscle tissue and fat-free mass, protein provides a multitude of additional benefits in health and weight maintenance. Of the three macronutrients, protein ins the most satiating and filling, meaning that is most effective in suppressing hunger. This can be highly beneficial when dieting for weight loss as it can help to support a lower caloric intake through improved hunger management. Of the macronutrients, protein has the highest thermic effect of food, meaning that it takes the most energy to digest and process. What does this mean? In simple terms, it increases your metabolism and elevates your energy expenditure. Individuals consuming higher relative amounts of protein are usually able to maintain a lower level of body fat and regulate their energy balance more efficiently, probably due to both the higher thermic effect as well as its influence on appetite. The last noteworthy benefit of higher protein intakes is the amount of nutritional value that tends to accompany high protein food sources, particularly that of animal based sources including fish, meat, and dairy. These foods contain unique and advantageous vitamin and mineral profiles that may not be found in other foods or simply might not be as bioavailable and easy to absorb and utilize in the body. These nutrients include vitamins B12, D, and K, and minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc.
As you can see, the importance of protein, and its possible nutritional benefits, extend beyond that of just building muscle and getting as jacked as possible. Protein isn't just for the bodybuilders and muscle heads. Protein intake is a necessary part of proper day-to-day bodily function and can play a large role in maintaining a healthy body composition and higher amounts of fat-free mass. It's effect on skeletal muscle, particularly in combination with weight training, has large benefits in aging, helping to fight sarcopenia and age related muscle atrophy. So whether your interested in general health, physique enhancement, fat loss, or quality of life, it may help to pay at little more attention to your protein intake.
There are four different variables of protein consumption, each of which should be considered in order to maximize the effectiveness of your protein intake. They include;
Total daily intake
Type of protein sources
Distribution of protein throughout the day, and
Timing around exercise
These principals can be ranked into a hierarchy of their relative importance, with total daily protein intake being the most critical. Each subsequent variable moving down the list has proportionally less overall importance. Knowing the order of importance of these variables helps you to prioritize them appropriately within your diet, paying closest attention to the ones that matter the most and exhibit the greatest effect. This keeps you from prioritizing a lesser important variable and sacrificing efficiency, for example, worrying about protein timing without first ensuring that you are reaching an appropriate total daily intake. Below, we will cover each individual variable in a little more depth and discuss its optimal application within your diet.
As a huge side note, protein consumption alone will not, and I repeat, WILL NOT, make you ‘bulky’ or ‘too muscular’. I know I’m probably speaking more to the female population, but men included as well, you will not wake up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger by simply optimizing your protein intake. There are a number of variables that go into building abnormally large muscles and protein consumption is only one piece of that puzzle. Caloric intake, training, sleep, recovery, and drug use all have a far more profound effect on muscle growth than protein consumption alone and they must be implemented in a specific manner to yield a "bulky" bodybuilding physique. No one accidently ends up looking like Arnold. In fact, I’ve been trying to get as muscular as possible for almost 5 years now and I have the physique of an overdeveloped teenager. Muscle growth is an extremely long and hard process. If maximizing muscle development is your goal, then these protein recommendations should definitely be followed. However, to yield the results that you're seeking, they must be supplemented with proper training, caloric intake, and time. Lots of time. Do not blame me if you follow my protein consumption advice provided here religiously for the next year and don’t end up winning the 2019 Mr. Olympia title.
1. Total Daily Intake
In order to prevent negative health consequences there is a minimum amount of protein that must be consumed. However, with that said, protein deficiencies are quite rare in the western diet and Americans in particular don’t seem to have a problem consuming enough protein.The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein at about 0.36 grams per pound of your bodyweight per day. This means that a 160-pound individual should consume roughly 60g per day, an amount of protein intake that would make any bodybuilder a little uneasy. While this number is indeed a relatively low one, we have to consider what the RDA value represents. The RDA values corresponds to the average daily level of intake that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%-98%) healthy people. In other words, this is the bare minimum that should be consumed in order to prevent a deficiency and avoid adverse health effects in the normal population. These values by no means represents an 'optimal' intake, let alone one that is sufficient for physique and performance goals. However, for health purposes, it will certainly do the trick and you don't NEED any more than this amount.
It’s important to realize the specific population to which the RDA recommendations are directed; the average healthy sedentary individual. In other words, it represents a minimum intake for those who are already in good health, not physically active, re anot interested in sport performance, and those who do not wish to change their body composition (ie. Losing fat and gaining muscle) or improve their physique. Chances are, if you're reading this, you probably don’t fit that description. With protein being such an important and beneficial nutrient, we shouldn’t look at its intake within our diet and ask ‘what is the minimum that we need to consume?’, rather, we should ask ‘what is most that we can benefit from?’. Optimal protein intake is therefore the most that you can positively benefit from for your particular situation and goal.
Total Daily Intake Recommendations
Optimal daily protein intakes vary depending on age, activity level, caloric intake, overall energy balance, and individual performance and physique goals. Below is a list of recommended protein intakes for a few specific populations and goals. The recommendations provided below are based on total daily protein intakes that have been demonstrated in research to provide additional benefit above the RDA minimum for the respective populations listed. Intakes greater those proposed below don’t likely afford any further merit and may even have diminishing returns. Just because some protein is good does not mean that more is always better. However, you should notice that all the recommendations listed are almost double that of the RDA values.
General health (RDA): 0.36 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day
Muscle Building : 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day
Fat Loss: 1.0-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day
Strength/Power Athletes: 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day
Endurance Athletes: 0.5-0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day
Elderly (General health): 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day (elderly will most likely require about 0.2 g/lbs extra for each goal mentioned above)
*Vegetarians and vegans may also require extra protein due to the lower digestibility and availability of plant based protein sources. As a general recommendation, shoot for about 10-15% above the specific recommendations provided above.
2. Protein Type
Not all protein is created equal.
Protein is made up of individual building blocks called amino acids. There are there 20 different amino acids used in the human body and they combine in various arrangements to form all of the different proteins found within our cells and body tissues. Nine of the 20 amino acids are termed essential, meaning that the body cannot synthesize them on its own and they must be obtained through the diet. The remaining eleven are termed non-essential and the body has the ability to synthesize them if they are not obtained via food, making them less critical dietary nutrients.
Protein sources vary from each other in four different ways; 1) their amino acid profile, 2) their digestibility, 3) their overall effect on muscle tissue when consumed, and 4) their micronutrient (vitamins and mineral) content. Based on these three criteria you can rate a protein source as being relatively higher or lower in quality.
Amino Acid Profile
Complete protein sources include high amounts of all nine of the essential amino acids and mainly consist of animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. While most plant proteins are incomplete, there do exist a few complete plant sources such as soy, quinoa, and amaranth. Those who consume diets low in animal protein need to be sure to pair plant based protein sources that are compatible in terms of providing all the essential amino acids.
An import aspect of a protein's amino acid profile is its branch chain amino acid (BCAA) content, particularly that of leucine. The BCAAs are comprised of three different amino acids, leucine, valine, and isoleucine, which are critical in signaling to muscle tissue. Once consumed, protein is broken down into amino acids which enter the blood, make their way to muscle tissue, and signal to the muscle that protein is available. This signaling is carried out primarily by the amino acid leucine. Enough leucine in the blood and thus in the muscle will initiate a process within skeletal muscle called muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis, as the name implies, is the process of taking individual amino acids and using them to synthesize proteins, thus adding new proteins to muscle tissue. Dietary protein sources with higher amounts of the BCAAs, and particularly leucine, are better at initiating this process and therefore are more advantageous for muscle building and promoting muscle retention. Most animal protein sources are fairly high in the BCAAs and leucine, but dairy, eggs, and particularly that of whey protein, which is isolated from milk, have the highest concentration.
The digestibility of protein deals with how quickly it can be broken down in the digestive system and moved into the blood. Generally speaking, higher quality sources are those that can be digested quickest, and as a result, seem to have the greatest effect on initiating protein synthesis in skeletal muscle because it allows large concentrations of leucine to reach the blood at once.
Digestibility also refers to the amount of protein contained within a food source that will actually be absorbed into the body. Digestion is not 100% efficient and everything we eat doesn’t always make it into the blood. Plant based protein on average is only about 80% digestible when coming from whole sources, meaning that you will only absorb 80% of the protein contained in it. Animal protein on the other hand is between 90-98% digestible. Because the lower percent yield in plant sources, those who consume mainly plant based diets need to consume higher amounts of protein per day to reach their daily totals and also need to consume higher amounts per meal to stimulate muscle protein synthesis effectively. It may even be advantageous for vegans or vegetarians to supplement their meals with free-form leucine to ensure that they are able to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis at each meal.
e Lastly, you have to look at the micronutrient content of a protein source and consider what vitamins and minerals come packaged with it. A higher quality protein in this respect comes with a greater quantity and diversity of nutrients. Protein powder for example is relatively void of nutrients compared to whole sources such as red meat, diary, or even whole plant based sources. For overall health and ensuring that you are reaching your micronutrient needs, its a good idea to include mostly nutrient dense animal protein sources but also include some plant based as well.
You should also consider the fat content of your protein sources. If you are trying to keep caloric intake lower and are dieting for fat loss, then leaner protein sources may be a better option for you. The leaner the protein, the higher the ratio of protein to calories you will get, helping you to reach your protein needs while keeping calories lower. Animal protein sources tend to come with high amounts of saturated fat and it may be a good idea to monitor your saturated fat intake and try to keep it below 10% of your total calorie intake. This is another reason to stick to stick with relatively leaner protein sources. While saturated fat is correlated to cardiovascular disease and presents a possible risk factor to health, it is but a small piece to a rather large puzzle. Those who are physically active, have a relatively healthy bodyweight, and aren't at a genetic risk for heart disease, probably don't need to be overly concerned with saturated fat intake.
Protein Type Recommendation
As a recommendation, most of your daily protein intake should come from the consumption of primarily complete animal sources that are easily digestible and micronutrient dense. This ensures that you are getting all the essential amino acids in your diet, having the best possible response in muscle tissue, and achieving a good overall micronutrient intake as well. Be sure to watch your fat and calorie intake and choose leaner protein sources such as chicken breasts, fish, lean beef, protein powders, and fat-free dairy if they get high. Below is a list of complete protein sources that your diet should consist of:
Fish and seafood
Egg Sources (not raw)
Low-fat Greek Yogurt
Low-fat Cottage Cheese
Whey Protein Powder
Casein Protein Powder
Your protein distribution deals with how you allocate your intake across the day as far as number of meals and dose of protein per meal. While overall total daily intake and type are more important variables of protein consumption, if you are looking to optimize the effect of protein on muscle tissue, then you must consider your distribution.
There is a certain dose of protein that must be reached within a meal in order to maximally turn on muscle protein synthesis and yield the greatest anabolic benefit of feeding. This dose appears to be about 10g of essential amino acids, or about 20-30g of a high quality complete protein source. However, as mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of a meal seems to be dependent upon the dose of leucine that is present, in which 2.5-3.5g appears to maximize muscle protein synthesis. This is why the leucine content of a protein source is so important. Protein sources with higher concentrations of leucine and that digest fairly easily are able initiate protein synthesis at lower doses and in smaller quantities. Doses above 2.5-3.5g of leucine do not lead to greater rates of muscle protein synthesis. This equates to a meal of about 20-40g of high quality protein for the average individual. Additional protein intake above this threshold is either utilized for other bodily processes or is oxidized for fuel. The best recommendation for dose per meal would be to shoot for about 0.18 g/lbs of your bodyweight in high quality protein per meal. For example, a 200lbs individual should aim for about 36g of protein minimum per meal.
Once a sufficient protein dose is reached and protein synthesis is successfully turned on, it may not be able to be effectively activated again for about 4-6 hours, a phenomenon known as the 'muscle full effect'. Therefore, it is best to space protein feedings apart by about 4-5 hours in duration. This feeding frequency will help to ensure that the body is kept in the most anabolic state over the course of the day and that protein synthetic rates are maximized. This allows you to optimize the overall effectiveness of your total daily intake.
Protein Distribution Recommendations
It is probably best to consume 3-4 protein meals per day, each separated by about 5 hours. Aim to consume at least 0.18 g/lbs of bodyweight of a high-quality protein source each meal. A good way to figure out your protein goal on a meal-by-meal basis is to divide your total daily requirement by three or four, however many meals you wish to eat. If your total daily need is 180g, for example, and you wish to eat four meals per day, then you would want to aim for 45g of protein each meal, spreading your meals evenly throughout the day. Just make sure that your meal-by-meal goals at least fulfills your dose minimum. Setting a meal-by-meal protein goal can help you not only optimize your daily distribution but help you to stay on track with reaching your total daily goal by breaking it down into smaller and more manageable goals.
Timing refers to the consumption of protein in temporal relationship to exercise. Nailing down your protein timing is like the cherry on top of the cake. The whole cake is finished up and it already looks delicious, but the cherry adds that extra level of detail and perfection. In the grand scheme of things, the cherry doesn’t make or break the cake, especially if the cake is complete garbage to begin with. In that case, don’t even bother with the cherry. The same is true for protein timing. Timing won’t change much in the grand scheme if the other variables of protein consumption aren’t already in place. But it can help to ensure that your maximally benefiting from your workouts and your protein consumption.
We all know the gym bro who finishes his workout and frantically rushes to grab his shaker bottle filled with protein powder. I say that primarily because I’ve been that guy. The so called “anabolic window” is a theoretical period of time following the workout where muscles are primed to take up protein and grow. This is why bodybuilders, fitness junkies, and muscle heads slam protein shakes after exercising, and why the company Blender Bottles does such a booming business. Chances are, if you’re into fitness you own at least five or six shaker bottles and at one of those bottles is in the back seat of your car right now and hasn’t been washed for a month.
While the bros didn’t completely get this one wrong, rushing protein in after your workout probably isn’t as vital as its made out to be. The “anabolic window” of opportunity is more like an “anabolic barn door” in the words of muscle hypertrophy master Brad Shoenfeld. Yes, it is important to have protein in your body and amino acids in your blood during the post exercise period. However, people fail to realize how long a meal can effectively remain in the blood after consumption. When we eat protein, it doesn’t instantly jump into circulation and hit the muscle. Digestion takes time and protein it doesn't get into the body right away. Likewise, once it reaches the blood, it doesn’t disappear in a matter of minutes. Protein can take anywhere from a half-hour to an hour to be digested and absorbed and it can remain in the blood for 3-5 hours after that, depending on the meal composition. Moral of the story, if you ate a decent dose of protein within 4-6 hours before your workout, you already have amino acids in your blood. So why rush more in? In fact, some research suggest that a quality pre-workout meal of protein is actually more effective than a post-workout one.
Protein Timing Recommendations
Try to consume an adequate dose of high quality protein within 1-2 hours either before or after your exercise bout. The dose should equate to about 0.2-0.25g per pound of your bodyweight of high quality protein, a little higher than the usual meal recommendation. There is no need to rush protein consumption after the workout unless you happen to be exercising in a fasted state in which you have not consumed and adequate protein dose for about 4-6 hours prior to finishing the workout. If you do exercise fasted, it is best to consume a dose of quick digesting high quality protein, such as whey, within 45 minutes of the exercise bout.