How Much Protein Should You Really Eat?
By James Fell
Oh, I can just feel the muscle-heads tensing with rage over that title.
Question: Do you think the 300 Spartans who fought at the Battle of Thermopylae gave a single rodent posterior about meeting their minimum daily protein requirements?
Probably not. What they cared about was killin’, and lots of it.
They were the super soldiers of their day, and this came from a focus on kicking their own asses on a daily basis. Life was all about improving their performance at dealing death.
Feeling like kicking some ass right now? I mean, there’s a new 300 movie coming out, right? Sure to get you all revved up. Hopefully it doesn’t cause you to clobber someone in the parking lot after the show while yelling, “SPARTA!”
I do have a point. Let’s work on getting to it. But first, I’ll break down some basic numbers.
How much is enough?
It’s not at all out of line to say that if building muscle is your goal, the RDA of 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight is way low.
The conventional “broscience” wisdom is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. So if you weigh 170 pounds, that translates to 170 grams. But the actual science science (screw you, spellcheck -– I meant to write “science” twice) says it’s a little lower. Here’s a great post by Dr. Bryan Chung (check out his amazing credentials here), who, after much analysis, states that 0.7 grams per pound of body weight is just fine. This is in line with what Alan Aragon (who provides nutrition counseling to elite athletes and physique competitors) told me in an interview for the L.A. Times a few years ago, although if you’re trying to lose weight and build muscle at the same time, going up to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight is probably better.
You can go higher than this. The whole thing about high protein intakes leading to kidney damage is a myth that’s been busted by so many people even the New York Times wrote about it.
I dabbled with high protein, and the only change I noticed was a negative effect on my sex life. (It made me fart a lot.)
What about other benefits of protein?
Well, if you’re looking to lose some fat, and judging by the body weight statistics in the developed world, that’s a fair assumption, could a higher protein intake help?
First off, there is its “thermic effect of food,” or TEF. Protein is the best macronutrient for burning its own calories via digestion (and fat sucks at it, just FYI), with approximately 20% of the calories from that big-ass steak you just ate getting burned off because your body needs to work hard to process that delicious slab of cow.
Sounds awesome, but run the numbers and it becomes less awesome.
If you go high protein, it means less of something else, and that “something else” is most likely going to be carbohydrates. But carbs also have a TEF of about 10%, so the TEF gain is only 10%. Even if you make a really big change where you remove 500 calories worth of carbs and replace it with 500 calories of protein, the net TEF gain is only 50 measly calories. That’s, like, one-third of a beer.
But protein is super satiating, right? Well, maybe. A bit.
“Macronutrient mixture (protein, carbohydrates, fat) is not predictive of weight loss or gain,” Richard Mattes, a registered dietitian and distinguished professor of nutrition at Purdue University told me. “Total calories are the common denominator.” He explained that while protein can be good for satiety, he thought its effects at satisfying appetite have been overblown.
So what is this “problem” with protein?
OCD. That’s the friggin’ problem.
Before I elaborate, let’s examine just how easy it is to hit the “want to build muscle” protein numbers with just food, using me as an example. I’m a lean and muscular 170, so at 0.7 grams per pound body weight, that puts my daily needs at around 130 grams of protein. Here is what an average calorie-restricted (i.e. I want to burn off that weekend beer) day of food looks like for me in terms of protein intake:
-3 eggs = 18 grams protein
-2 pieces whole wheat/whole grain toast = 8 grams protein
-16 oz skim milk = 18 grams protein
-1/2 cup of pistachios = 12 grams protein
-70ml (dry measure) brown rice = 4 grams protein
-30 grams of cheddar cheese = 7 grams protein
-Mixed green salad with bell pepper and berries = 2 grams protein
-7 oz sockeye salmon = 60 grams protein
Total = 129 grams of protein. Oh, so close! Wait, I forgot about the sauce I make for the salmon. That would easily push me over the top.
I need to reiterate that this day I showed is an example of when I’m restricting calories back to what I consider a bare minimum, and I still hit my number without ever once thinking I needed to make sure I got enough protein. What’s more, you may notice I was practicing what renowned sport nutritionist Nancy Clark refers to as “two-thirds vegetarian” (not to be confused with Mark Bittman’s approach). I didn’t have any meat until dinner.
And yet it seems to be what so many lose sleep over. Debates rage in locker rooms, gym floors, supplement stores, message boards and the backseats of Fords (sorry, got carried away).
And this is one reason why I never worry about taking a protein supplement. If you’re vegan, vegetarian or an anabolic-steroid-using bodybuilder, then I can see the merit, but for a meat-eating guy who just wants to be muscular, the numbers don’t seem to justify it.
I’m not against protein supplements as a concept, but one thing I try hard to keep out of my body is processed food. I prefer my calories come from fields and streams, oceans and orchards, rather than some hyper-processed (and not federally regulated) powder that’s been manufactured and likely jammed full of artificial flavors and sweeteners.
I mentioned OCD -- obsessive-compulsive disorder -- so let’s finish with that.
I was being hyperbolic, but I think a lot of guys miss out on the Zen of fitness by dwelling on the micro issues and missing the big picture. In this piece I wrote for AskMen about harmonious vs. obsessive passion in sport, I showed how those who “do what they feel like” are more successful long term than those who are rigid and controlled in their athletic pursuits.
Using my N1 experiment, I was a fat guy 20 years ago, and when I started my fitness journey, I knew one critical thing: motivation rules all. I wanted to focus on what was most important, and that was being motivated to transform my body and sustain my new physique.
And I’ve learned during that process the Zen of fitness. Most of the time, I just do what I feel like, and it works. And “what I feel like” can be captured in two short sentences:
Eat healthy. Go hard.
Read more: http://www.askmen.com/sports/bodybui...#ixzz2Zs4RzDfk