If you’re a physique athlete or have particular aesthetic goals, you’ve probably got some questions about nutrition. When it comes to building muscle and losing fat, few queries can be as confusing as that of how much protein you should consume. How much protein is too much? How much is too little? And once you figure that out, you’ll probably want to know what kinds of protein work best for your goals.
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) suggestions for avoiding a protein deficiency are a lot lower than what the average, visibly muscular person will tell you they eat. Avoiding a deficiency is a lot different than growing muscle mass. To sort through all these murky waters, we talked to multiple experts and look at a ton of research to land on the formulas used in our protein intake calculator.
- How Does Protein Help Muscles Grow?
- Benefits of Protein
- What’s a High Quality Protein?
- How to Track Your Protein Intake
- How Much Protein Should I Eat at Once?
- Protein Intake Calculator
- How We Calculated Your Protein Intake
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
To best understand why you even need all that tofu to begin with, let’s start off with some science. First things first: proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks your muscle fibers need to grow.
When you digest protein, they break down into the amino acids that they’re made of. Those can then be used by your muscles to repair exercise-induced damage. It’s a complicated process, but the basic gist is that well-exercised muscles grow when enough protein is available to provide the amino acids needed for hypertrophy.
The more intense your workouts, the more protein you’ll need to maintain your muscles. Amino acids from proteins are used to stitch your muscle fibers back together on a cellular level from the positive damage done by lifting. Combine enough protein with a strong enough training stimulus, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for bigger, stronger muscles.
What Types of Amino Acids are Most Useful?
The amino acids most closely linked to muscle protein synthesis (MPS) — a process that switches on genes responsible for muscle gain — are the branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Now, MPS is just one piece of the muscle gain puzzle: total daily calories is hugely important, as is total protein intake, one’s exercise regimen, sleep, and many other factors. While these are far more important than worrying about leucine, it seems that about three grams of leucine per serving is ideal for keeping MPS maintained. (1)(2)
If you’re a strength athlete or just like lifting heavy things, you’re probably already on board the protein train. But if you need some reminders about why protein is so good for athletes, here they are.
Not all strength athletes are looking to pack on a ton of extra muscle. But if you’re interested in continuing to put up strong numbers on the platform, you probably want to at least maintain your muscle mass. Protein is essential for keeping your muscles healthy and whole.
This is particularly important if you’re looking to boost your recovery after tough training sessions. Consuming an adequate amount of protein is key to making sure your muscles can keep you coming back to the gym safely and effectively.
Whether you’re a physique athlete or just really want to make your shirt sleeves pop, hypertrophy might just be your favorite word. The art of gaining muscle mass is at once very complicated and very simple.
The simple part? Train hard and eat your protein. The building blocks of protein (amino acids) are also the building blocks of muscle, so eating enough protein will help you grow those boulder shoulders and teardrop quads.
Feel Fuller, Longer
This one might be especially helpful if you’re on the go and you’re anticipating missing a meal as a result. To prep your body (and help stave off getting hangry), try filling up on some high-quality protein. Because of protein’s impact on your hunger-related hormone levels, this macronutrient can help you feel fuller for a longer period of time.
One often hears of proteins being separated into categories of “high” or “low” quality. This refers to the source’s content of amino acids, the “building blocks” of protein: animal sources (including eggs and dairy) contain all nine essential amino acids, meaning the ones the body can’t make on its own. Vegan sources of protein often don’t on their own, but very popular vegan protein choices like soy, quinoa, and buckwheat do.
Generally, people worry about this more than they should. Research suggests that if you’re eating a varied diet, you’ll effortlessly get all your amino acids throughout the day, which is more important than getting them all at every meal. (3) (4) It’s also easy to combine plant-based proteins — like legumes and rice, an extremely popular combination throughout the world — and this forms a complete protein on its own.
When building muscle is your task, or if you’re trying to lose body fat, you might be interested in tracking how much protein you’re taking in. This doesn’t mean you have to count calories or even necessarily measure your food. For athletes who are prone to or have a history of disordered eating habits, there are some intuitive ways to check out what’s on your plate to make sure you’re getting enough protein.
If you’re new to measuring your food intake, don’t be discouraged: it’s easy for it to seem overwhelming at first, but there are a few tips you can keep in mind.
Protein Tracking Apps
For athletes who feel most comfortable laying things out and seeing numbers and trends over time, you can track your daily intake in an app like MyFitnessPal or a similar platform. Many of these apps offer libraries that include estimations of how much protein a given food many have. Apps also give you an automatic journal space to record your protein intake over time, which can help you spot trends alongside your workout logs.
A Food Scale
If weighing out your food feels like an affirming and accessible option to you, it might be a good idea to purchase an inexpensive food scale. Many out there can fit into your pocket.
This doesn’t mean you have to weigh everything you eat for the rest of your life. However, it may pay to weigh your foods for a few weeks (and ideally enter into an app or food journal) so that you can develop the skill of getting a rough idea of the amount of protein you’re consuming at once.
Think of it as training your protein knowledge muscle.
The Hand Method
Another popular method is to eat “a palm” or two worth of protein at each serving. Estimate how much that is, weigh it, and use it as a default serving. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to eyeball pieces of meat (or other sources) and have a firm idea of a meal’s protein content, no scales required.
If you’re eating 150 grams of protein a day, this might sound like you should eat five meals with 30 grams of protein each, so a meal every three hours. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s worth remembering that some research has found MPS to be about the same after six hours whether you ate two small meals with 30 grams apiece or if you ate a big meal with 60 grams of protein and then nothing else for six hours. (5)
There’s not a massive amount of research here, but as long as your meals are big enough that you’re getting in all your calories and protein by the day’s end, it appears you’ll have sufficient MPS throughout the day whether you eat three or six meals. Don’t lose too much sleep over timing, but it seems worth it to eat 20 or 30 grams of protein per serving.
Managing all that math and considering your activity level can be overwhelming, to say the least. You’d probably rather worry more about the number of weight plates you’re using in the gym instead of the number of protein grams you’re putting on your dinner plate.
If you want to make sure you’re getting the right amount of protein for your goals without worrying that you’re doing it wrong, BarBend has got the protein intake calculator for you. Check it out here:
Protein Intake Calculator
Come back to this protein intake calculator whenever you’ve got a change in goals or activity level to make sure you’re giving your body what it needs.
There’s a difference between avoiding a nutrient deficiency and eating the optimal amount of a nutrient. (Think how much vitamin C will keep you from getting scurvy versus the amount you might supplement with during flu season.)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s daily value for protein is 50 grams, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which is 10 percent of your total calories. A protein deficiency can cause muscle wasting and a greater risk of bone fractures, among other issues.(8)(9)
But if you want to maximize the amount of muscle you can build and minimize the amount of fat you’ll gain, then just about every expert and non-expert (like that super jacked person at your gym) will recommend anywhere from 0.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Here’s what the data says on setting your own intake.
Avoiding a Protein Deficiency
We’re not talking about the minimum amount to avoid a deficiency here. We’re talking about the amount, in the words of the The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF),
to train as hard as possible with optimal adaptation and recovery, to remain healthy and injury free, to achieve a physique that is suited to their event, and to perform at their best on the day(s) of peak competitions.(10)
The IAAF’s position paper falls right in line with the position paper of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: the minimum intake “active individuals” should shoot for is 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.54 to 0.77 grams per pound. (11)
Minimum Protein Intake for Performance
Sports dietitians and nutritionists we’ve spoken to, like Precision Nutrition’s Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, Stronger By Science’s Dr. Eric Trexler, and Dr. Mike T. Nelson, simplify that by saying the “floor” you should hit every day is 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight. That’s your minimum. A lot of research, like a meta-analysis of 49 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, supports that number as well. (12)
“If your goal is muscle gain, the evidence doesn’t really suggest that eating more protein than that helps you gain more muscle,” says St. Pierre.
Average Protein Intake
When we say “average” protein intake, we’re talking about the standard amount that’s most often recommended by bodybuilders and athletes, which is one gram per pound of bodyweight.
“I mean, I’ve told people that,’ says Dr. Nelson. “Especially if you’re cutting and you’re hypocaloric, yeah you can go to a gram per pound of bodyweight. That’s probably going to be fine, if you want to err on being conservative and make sure you’re covering the widest possible population? I think that’s fine.”
A gram per pound of bodyweight can also be a good goal to aim for not just because it won’t be any worse for your physique, but also because if you aim for this goal and you fall short, even by 30 percent, you’re still hitting the minimum advised. It’s not a big deal if you miss this goal, whereas those who keep their macros at the minimum may find themselves needing to be stricter with their diet.
High Protein Intake for Fat Loss
To be clear: the majority of research and the most prominent sports nutrition bodies agree that there’s probably no need to exceed the daily 0.7 grams per pound, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
That said, there are a couple of studies that have suggested more protein might be useful if you have a good amount of muscle mass and are trying to lose fat quickly. One, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, , found that athletes in a big calorie deficit (40 percent below maintenance) maintained more muscle and lost more fat eating 1.1 grams of protein per pound than a group taking 0.54 grams, the absolute minimum recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. (13)
Another study published in 2014 that looked specifically at bodybuilders found that they would “respond best to consuming 2.3-3.1 g/kg (1.05-1.4g/lb) of lean body mass per day of protein.”(14) This is among folks with under 10 percent body fat, so they were eating an upper level of about 1.3 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Another big reason why extra protein might be useful for fat loss? It’s filling. Protein is very satiating, especially if you’re eating takes-a-while-to-chew meat instead of shakes, plus protein takes more calories to digest: about 25 percent of the calories from protein are burned just in digesting it, versus around seven for carbs and around two for fat. (15) Remember, though, if you’re looking to suppress your appetite, fiber is another option that’s extremely satiating if you’d rather not crank your protein up so high.
Pay attention to when you’re full and when you’re hungry. This might give you some clues as to which kinds of protein your body takes well to and therefore, which might be most suitable to your current goals.
Balance Your Macros
Remember, there really isn’t a lot of research on exceeding a gram per pound, and one study found it to confer no extra benefits to consume two grams per pound when compared to one. (16)
The main thing to keep in mind here is to not eat so much protein that you’re running low in your other two macronutrients — fat and carbohydrate — which are also fundamental for performance and aesthetics. To get some recommendations for your total macronutrients, check out our macros calculator.
Take In the Protein
Here, we’ve given you all the tools you need to make sure you’re getting enough protein from the right places at the right time to help you achieve your goals for athletic performance and body composition. Just make sure to speak with a doctor before making any changes to your diet and workout regimen.
Still have questions about your protein intake? That’s cool. We still have answers.
How much protein should I eat to gain muscle and lose fat?
Multiple sporting bodies have said that a minimum intake for those looking to gain muscle, lose fat, and improve athletic performance is 0.54 to 0.77 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
Many default to one gram per pound of bodyweight because it appears to be just as effective, it’s easier to remember, and it’s less of a problem if you happen to fall short of your goal.
How much protein should I eat at every meal?
Research suggests that 30 grams of protein per meal is a good goal to shoot for in order to maintain muscle protein synthesis, though 20 grams may be sufficient if the protein is very high quality and high in the amino acid leucine, like whey protein.
Do I need more protein as I age?
The body becomes more “anabolic resistant” as you age, so it may be more important to eat larger portions of protein at a time to boost muscle protein synthesis. For folks over 50, forty grams of protein per serving is a good bet.
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