One macronutrient has taken centre stage in people's quest to grow muscle, and that is protein. This is for a good reason too, as protein contains essential amino acids that our body uses to build muscle tissue. So you can see why this is handy in our line of work.
In the health and fitness world, you hear many different things when it comes to how much protein you should be consuming. The big guy in the gym might tell you that you need to eat as much as possible, and he'll have you downing whey protein shakes with ungodly amounts of chicken breasts. Then you might have the flip side, with a nutritionist suggesting a much lower amount. Why is this?
There are multiple reasons why there is much conflicting advice out there on how much protein you need. Firstly, everyone's protein needs are different. It depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to gain as much muscle as possible, your protein needs will differ greatly from someone who just wants to stay healthy. If you are an endurance athlete, then protein needs will be different again. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for example, is set as a guide to keep the average person healthy, not as a guide for people who want to gain as much muscle as possible. That's why what the nutritionist said is so much different from the big guy in the gym.
Secondly, in the bodybuilding world, people don't rely on research as much as they do anecdotal reports from other people in the gym. When people realised that protein was the macronutrient that played the largest role in building muscle, they went to town on it thinking: eating more = more muscle growth.This is not the case though. If eating more and more protein every day lead to more muscle growth, then people would be eating a cow's worth every day. But like everything in life, at a certain point, things cap out.
Since I am going to assume that most people reading this have the goal of building and maintaining muscle, that is what I am going to look at. Basically: how much protein do you need to consume daily, to create an optimal environment to build muscle or maintain it.
Based on a review of the research it would be recommended to consume somewhere between 1.8-2.9g of protein a day, per kilogram of body weight. For someone weighing 90kg for example, this would be between 162 - 261g of protein per day. As long as you are somewhere in that range, you will be creating an optimal environment for your body to build muscle. As this is is a pretty broad range, let us take a look at some considerations for consuming towards the higher end vs. the lower end of the range and vice versa.
There may be some advantages of a protein intake that is at the higher end of the range, for example, 2.2-2.9g's of protein per kilogram of body weight when dieting. This is because when you are dieting, there is a greater chance of losing muscle. The extra protein helps maintain this muscle when you are dieting. On top of this, protein has a satiating effect (makes you feel fuller), which helps keep hunger down when dieting. The leaner you get, the closer to the higher end of the range you should go (closer to 2.9g's/kg).
If you aren't dieting, there may be some other benefits to a higher protein intake. Protein is the most thermogenic macronutrient, meaning you burn around 20% of its calories simply digesting it. This, coupled with the satiating effect mentioned above can help keep body fat levels lower when bulking.
So, we have looked at what some of the potential benefits are of having a protein intake that is at the higher end of the range. Now let us take a look at some benefits of going towards the lower end of the range.
When bulking (or in a caloric surplus) your body has an abundance of energy. As a result of this, you have less of a risk of losing muscle, and therefore you can get away with a lower protein intake. If you struggle to gain weight, the thermic effect of protein we mention previously may compromise your ability to gain weight. So keeping things towards the lower end when bulking may be in your best interest and you can put those calories towards consuming more carbohydrates, for example. The bottom end of the range would be somewhere between 1.8-2.2g's of protein per kilo of bodyweight.
People get extremely scared of lowering protein intake. The truth is that the protein intake required to build muscle optimally is much lower than most people think.