Protein intake is one of the most hotly debated topics on lifting forums. Ask exactly how much protein is required to build muscle and strength and you will receive one of the following responses:
- 150 grams. You never need more than 150 grams.
- 1 gram/pound. You need one gram per pound of bodyweight.
- 1.5 gram/pound. You need 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
- 30/50/20. Your protein intake should always comprise 30% of your daily calories.
Which method is right? Let’s take a closer look.
No More Than 150 Grams Of Protein Per Day
Proponents of this system will often site studies or information revealing that the body can only digest and properly utilize so many grams of protein per feeding. It is also common for those who believe in this mantra to also make claims that the supplement industry is behind the push for more protein.
This is partially true, of course, but is bad logic. Every company wants you to use their product(s), and every company markets. You shouldn’t limit your protein intake because supplement companies want you to use their products. The point here is to gain or maintain muscle and strength.
The major problem with this approach is that it bottles everyone, including hardgainers with fast metabolisms, into eating a disproportionately huge amount of carbohydrates. For example, if you have a fast metabolism and need 4000 calories per day just to gain weight, you would be required to eat somewhere in the neighborhood of:
600 grams of carbs per day.
6oo daily grams of carbs is the equivalent of eating the following:
- 4 servings of oatmeal – 100 grams of carbs
- 6 cups of cooked brown rice – 275 grams of carbs
- 2 whole wheat tortillas (wraps) – 60 grams of carbs
- 2 cups of black beans – 80 grams of carbs
- 4 cups of steamed broccoli – 45 grams of carbs
- 2 bananas, medium small – 45 grams of carbs
In addition to this gut-stuffing requirement, there is quite a bit of research and data to indicate that the over-consumption of carbs isn’t the healthiest nutritional approach. High carb consumption may contribute to any number of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
So in essence, this “no more than 150 grams of protein” belief is telling you to never consume 151 grams of protein, even if you have to eat 600 or more daily grams of carbs.
It goes without saying that this approach can be unbalanced and somewhat reckless. “Can be reckless” doesn’t mean this approach is “always” reckless.
One Gram Of Protein Per Pound Of Bodyweight
This recommendation is extremely popular, but is highly flawed. I will explain why by looking at 3 different individuals:
- Lifter A – Weighs 135 pounds at a height of 5’10″.
- Lifter B – Weighs 165 pounds at a height of 5’10″.
- Lifter C – Weighs 260 pounds at a height of 5’10″.
Using this recommendation Lifter A, the skinniest member of the bunch, is advised to eat the smallest amount of protein – only 135 grams per day. In reality, this lifters needs the most protein because his body is underweight and has the potential to grow more rapidly as his weight normalizes.
Lifter B is advised to eat about 165 grams of protein per day, which is fairly reasonable. One caveat – if he is a beginner, Lifter B has the potential to gain muscle at an acceleratred pace and it may be beneficial to eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+ grams of protein per day as an insurance policy.
Lastly, Lifter C is advised to eat 260 grams of protein per day. It goes without saying that Lifter C is overweight. He should be eating no more protein than Lifter B, yet we are asking him to over-consume protein. This makes no sense.
1.5 Gram Of Protein Per Pound Of Bodyweight
This recommendation actually presents a more reasonable protein intake for Lifter A. Lifter A would be advised to consume 202.5 grams of protein per day.
Lifter B and Lifter C would be advice to eat much more protein than needed. Using this guideline Lifter C would be required to consume nearly 400 grams of protein per day!
30/50/20 Protein, Carb And Fat Ratio
The use of protein, carb and fat ratios can fail in the same way that the gram per pound of bodyweight recommendations did. But before we explore why, let’s explain what this ratio means.
- 30 – 30% of your daily calories from protein. Each gram of protein contains 4 calories.
- 50 – 50% of your daily calories from carbs. Each gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories.
- 20 – 20% of your daily calories from fat. Each gram of at contains 9 calories.
The 30/50/20 ratio recommendation breaks down at the low and high end of the calorie spectrum. Here are 2 examples:
- 1800 calories. In this example, our lifter either has a slow metabolism, or is on a cutting diet. Using the 30% rule, he would be limited to 135 grams of protein per day. This is an extremely minimal amount of protein, especially for someone who is trying to hold on to muscle mass during a calorie deficit.
- 4000 calories. This is a bulking scenario, most likely for a very young lifter with a fast metabolism. Using the suggested ratios he would be required to eat 300 grams of protein per day (not to mention 500 grams of carbs). This is a gut-stuffing amount of food. Our lifter would be better off relying more heavily on fats, which are calorie dense but tend not to fill the stomach.
How Much Protein To Eat
There are many other protein recommendations and formulas used in the muscle and strength building realm. Instead of relying on ratios or on grams per pound of bodyweight, is is easier to use this simple guideline:
Eat 35 to 40 grams of protein every 2.5 to 3 hours.
Using this method, the least amount of protein you would eat on a daily basis would be 175 grams, and the most 240 grams. In general, 180 to 200 grams is sufficient for most natural lifters – unless you are 6’6″ and pencil thin.
Please don’t panic at the site of 240 grams of protein. It is at the high end of the spectrum, and may be required by hardgainers with a fast metabolism. But it is surely not needed for most of us.
This recommendation is meant to provide a general guideline, and is not a carved in stone rule. Following it loosely will yield an average intake of somewhere around 200 grams of protein per day.
Much of muscle building culture is obsessive compulsive (OCD), and trains you to believe that you must micromanage everything you eat down to the last gram. While being aware of your overall calorie intake is an essential requirement for cutting fat and bulking (adding muscle), you can feel safe using this general guideline when structuring protein intake for either.
Here are some caveats:
- Underweight. If you are underweight, eat at least 200 grams of protein per day.
- Fast metabolism. If you have a fast metabolism, eat approximately 200 to 240 grams of protein per day, and don’t be afraid to eat more fats.
- Cutting. If you are on a cutting diet, it is generally better to eat a little bit more protein than a little less.