8 min read
Macronutrients play a major role in how your body works and each one has a primary function. Dumbing it down, carbs are your primary source of energy, fats are your secondary source of energy while also playing a role in hormonal balance, and lastly, proteins are what build muscles – the one every exercise enthusiast is laser-focused on and wonders how much of it must be consumed to maximize one’s fitness goals.
Protein is special because unlike the other two macronutrients our bodies do not store it, therefore we must regularly digest it every day to get access to it. Where overeating carbs or fats has your body store those, overeating on protein is slightly different as your body turns it into an energy source (as either fats or carbs) and stores it for later use. This goes to show that protein is rather complicated and before wondering how much of it you need to build muscles, there are a few things to understand first to fully appreciate its role and how to use it.
Things to Be Aware of When Dealing with Protein
In as much as it is necessary to increase your protein intake to build muscles, the solution isn’t simply to just eat more meat, or more vegetables (for those who don’t eat meat). It’s necessary to eat a variety of protein sources while not overeating for overall health and function.
Proteins are made up of amino acids and there are two types: essential and non-essential amino acids. Our bodies can produce non-essential amino acids by interacting with other amino acids, while essential amino acids can only come from food. To some capacity all foods contain protein, however, the protein among them is not made equally.
We have “complete” and “incomplete” protein sources; complete protein sources contain all the essential amino acids that our bodies need and animal-based foods like meat, eggs, and dairy are complete protein sources. On the other hand, foods like fruits, vegetables, oats, grains, legumes, and so on are made up of incomplete proteins (they lack one or more essential amino acids in their makeup).
This is why vegetarians and vegans have a harder time with protein; since they don’t consume animal-based products, which have all the essential amino acids and a higher protein count, they must eat a variety of other foods to get those essential amino acids and the same amount of protein that could be achieved from eating less animal products.
However, it should be understood that even though animal products contain all the essential amino acids and more protein in general, it doesn’t mean they’re all you need to get by. Amino acids have a variety of functions in the body and other food sources can help with those functions that animal products alone cannot. If you’re only getting the majority of your proteins from (say) meat, you are depriving your body of other amino acids, impeding bodily functions, and eating too much cholesterol.
Calculating Protein Intake
There is a nuance to calculating protein intake because it’s not as readily obvious if you want to be accurate in your calculations. There seem to be three ways to approach this; the first is to think in terms of calories, the second is in terms of body weight, and the third is in terms of lean body mass.
Beginning with calories, it’s widely considered that on average a person should acquire between 10-35% of their daily calories from protein. Therefore, a person who requires 2,500 calories per day needs between 250-875 calories to come from protein; this equates to 63-219 grams of protein per day and already there’s a problem with this.
The problem with measuring protein intake on a percentage based on calories is that this number will heavily fluctuate depending on an individual’s day-to-day caloric needs. Consider three people who are underweight, overweight, and at a healthy weight. Basing protein consumption on caloric intake means the underweight person may not be getting enough protein; the overweight person is eating vastly too much protein; and the one at a healthy weight is more likely the only one getting that happy medium.
Next is judging protein intake in terms of body weight. This is a much better way to go about things and is the method typically used across the board; you eat a certain number of grams of proteins per kilogram (or per pound). If we take 1g of protein per kg that means a person weighing 80kg will eat 80 grams of protein. This is in range of the 10-35% caloric range and because we’re relying on weight instead of caloric intake, it won’t fluctuate heavily but remain more consistent. However, unfortunately, this method also has its shortcomings.
Let’s take that 80kg person and introduce another 80kg individual; according to their weights both of them should eat 80g of protein but that’s misleading. Factors like height and activity levels can alter the recommended protein intake, and using our overall weight includes fat tissues, which not only isn’t affected by protein, but it also can overexaggerate weight if a person is overweight. So how do we circumvent this? This is where lean body mass comes in.
Lean body mass is your weight excluding your fat tissues, and it can be calculated by simply knowing your body fat percentage. If you weigh 100kg and have a body fat percentage of 30% then your lean mass is 70kg, which means instead of eating 100g of protein you’ll be eating 70g (if we stick to the 1g of protein per kg); and 80kg with a body fat percentage of 15% is 68kg which means 68g of protein.
The only challenge with this method is that not all of us know our body fat percentage nor do all of us have access to equipment that can provide answers. If you do have access to such, also be aware that none of the devices available that measure fat are pinpoint accurate, they each have a margin of error and depending on what method you have available to you, you’ll need to keep in mind its error margin. Therefore, people typically fall back to figuring their protein needs on overall bodyweight since it’s much easier to use, even though doing it by lean body mass would be a lot more accurate (if you’re at a healthy weight you can get away with calculating your required protein intake from simply your overall body weight).
It should be noted that if you are consulting a dietitian on your nutrition, they are typically aware of these factors surrounding protein intake and can guide you through pitfalls and solutions when formulating an applicable diet.
So, How Much Protein Should You Eat?
For those who exercise, it’s widely recommended to consume between 1 and 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight ([X grams of protein] x [your body weight] = daily protein intake / 1.2g x 70kg = 84g of protein required), and in terms of pounds that is 0.45-0.9g per pound of body weight (0.54g x 154lbs = 84g of protein required) (1kg = 2.2lbs). Anything less than 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight may be insufficient while anything more than 2 grams may be excessive; falling under either situation may impact your health negatively.
All over the Internet there are a lot of numbers thrown out there as to what is the best protein intake, but the problem with these sources is a lot of these recommendations are being thrown around by fitness influencers, magazines, or companies. The problem I have with these individuals is that they may be pushing certain numbers because they are affiliated to products or bodies that have invested interest in the topic. For example, an influencer may say you’re not eating enough protein from just your daily meals and you need to invest in a protein supplement, and lo and behold they have just the supplement to take care of that very problem you just discovered.
Therefore, it’s best to get your information from individuals who either have no affiliation to such things, or trustworthy bodies that have put (and continue to put) research into the topic. On this note, here are numbers given by some recognized scientific, medical, athletic, or nutritional bodies:
|Mayo Clinic||1.1-1.7g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.7g/(lb·day)|
|National Library of Medicine||1.2-1.6g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.7g/(lb·day)|
|International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA)||1.2-1.7g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.7g/(lb·day)|
|British Nutrition Foundation||1.2-2.0g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.9g/(lb·day)|
|American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)||1.2-2.0g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.9g/(lb·day)|
|Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics||1.2-2.0g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.9g/(lb·day)|
|Dietitians of Canada||1.2-2.0g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.9g/(lb·day)|
|International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN)||1.2-2.0g/(kg·day) — 0.5-0.9g/(lb·day)|
|Canadian Academy of Sports Nutrition (CAASN)||1.4-2.0g/(kg·day) — 0.6-0.9g/(lb·day)|
|National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)||1.6-2.2g/(kg·day) — 0.7-1g/(lb·day)|
To achieve this without overthinking, the best practice is to spread your protein consumption across the length of a day. Eating 4-5 times a day and ensuring each meal (or snack) contains a form of protein in it can ensure you meet your daily protein goals. Add a protein supplement on top of this, and it becomes even easier as most protein supps contain anywhere between 20 to 35g of protein per scoop.
Lastly, keep in mind that we’ve established that protein is present in all food, therefore you likely consume more protein than you realize, however your protein needs may vary according to your age, sex, weight, height, and level of activity.
From the research I have done on protein intake, the Youtube channel, Shredded Sports Science, provides a good breakdown of different recommended protein intake for optimal muscle development which goes to show the problem with influencer recommendations over established scientific bodies and why there is so much confusion over something that should really be simple. Whereas the channel, Vitruvian Physique, has a thorough video breaking down the best and worst protein sources to build muscle and how much each one can cost you (both videos are provided below).