This is one of the most common questions I hear from clients. It’s common mostly because there are so many people in the fitness industry who have a different take on the optimal protein intake. Some say two grams per pound of bodyweight, others say one gram per pound of bodyweight. Who’s right? How much protein should you eat?
Your protein intake will depend on your goals.
If you are a professional bodybuilder with fifteen years of experience under your belt, your intake is going to look different from a novice crossfit athlete. Different muscle stimuli require different amounts of protein to help repair muscle tissue. Runners will need less of it, and more carbohydrates. Powerlifters will need more of it to grow their muscles. Therefore, in order to figure out how much protein you should eat, you need to first figure out your goals.
Is there such a thing as too much protein?
Like everything else, too much protein can take a toll on the body. Excess protein that your body does not use to repair tissues is broken down for energy, a process called gluconeogenesis. Excess energy you do not use stores as fat. Another consideration is that the byproducts of protein metabolism, compounds like creatinine, put significant stress on the kidneys when there is an excess. Over time, excessive intake can lead to renal disease. How much protein is that? Don’t worry too much, you have to eat A LOT for a LONG time to make that happen. For example, Ronnie Coleman, a famous bodybuilder who peaked in the early 2000’s, ate 600 grams of protein per day for decades. His kidneys are toast.
How much protein should you eat?
The best way to estimate your optimal intake is to take a look at you goals. Different goals require different types of exercise. There are two major types of exercise out there: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise is endurance training, like running, swimming, and cycling. Anaerobic exercise consists of short bursts of exertion, like lifting weights. Each type of exercise has a different effect on your body and will require different amounts of protein to reach your goals and improve.
As a general rule of thumb, aerobic exercise requires no more than half of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This means that a cyclist preparing for the Tour de France who weights 150lbs will not want to consume much more than 75-100 grams per day. The rest of their caloric intake should come from carbohydrates to fuel their muscles, and some fats.
Amateur bodybuilders, on the other hand, aren’t interested in just fueling their muscles. They want to grow their muscles (hypertrophy), and to do so, they need to increase their intake. For this purpose, eating between one and one and a half grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is about right. For example, a 200lbs weight lifter will want to eat around 200 grams per day to grow his muscles.
There is a limit to how much protein you can eat.
There is a limit, however, to how much protein the body can actually absorb. A 250lbs bodybuilder will not get much more growth out of 250 grams than he would with 200 grams. Unless you are Ronnie Coleman (who took gobs of steroids) or Thor “The Mountain” Bjornsson, 200 grams is a fairly consistent upper limit for most people that allows for good muscle growth and minimal storage as fat.
Everyone is different. Plan accordingly.
Everyone is different in how they metabolize various macronutrients. Therefore, you need to feel out what works best for you and your goals. You can always seek out help. Ask a trainer at your gym for advice, perhaps even do a fitness test and a nutrition audit. You don’t have to go it alone.