Go through any fitness blog or channel and you would come across a wide spectrum of recommendations for protein consumption. From Jay Cutler’s famous, “I would eat three to four hundred grams of protein a day” to fitness influencers advising up to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and then there are those who advocate 1 gram of protein for every 1 pound of body weight.
It’s pretty much obvious that there’s a lot of conflicting information about protein out there so, in this article, I am going to condense all the best science-based information down to give you a final answer to every protein-related question you’ve ever asked.
Protein Requirements As Per WHO
Let me begin by telling you that when it comes to general health, the World Health Organization recommends just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound, so an 80 kilo or roughly 180-pound person would only need about 65 grams of protein per day. Needless to say that it is pretty hard to miss on a typical western diet – A bowl of ground turkey and rice with a glass of milk has 65 grams of protein which should have you covered for the day, however, this recommendation doesn’t consider weight training.
Many protein experts have called for an increase given the abundance of evidence showing health benefits with higher protein intakes and
sports nutrition research is perfectly clear and shows that this amount of protein simply won’t be enough to support, much less maximize muscle growth.
Protein Requirements Based On Individual Fitness Goals
When it comes to putting on muscles, or simply holding on to them during a cutting phase, you would need a higher quantity of protein – now, just how much you need depends on if you’re bulking, cutting, or undergoing a recomposition phase and these ranges apply to both men and women.
Protein requirements when bulking
If you’re bulking, your body is well fed, meaning it’s much less likely to break down muscle tissue as a fuel source there are plenty of carbs and fats to burn first, for this reason, you generally need less protein when bulking.
The best research recommends 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilo or 0.7 to 1 gram per pound per day and here we can see the trusty old 1 gram per pound rule holding up pretty well as a high-end figure. If you weigh 180 pounds or 80 kilos, you’d want something between 125 and 180 grams of protein per day when bulking.
Protein requirements when cutting
On the other hand, if you’re cutting your body’s not only getting fewer calories from food you also have less body fat and less glycogen as fuel reserves therefore your body is much more likely to break down muscle tissue as a source of calories to offset this. The best data suggests increasing protein intake while cutting to 1.8 to 2.7 grams per kilo or 0.8 to 1.2 grams per pound this time we can see that the classic one gram per pound rule sits in the middle of the range if you’re already very lean and training very hard you’ll want to aim toward the upper end and if you have more body fat and are training more recreationally the lower end will be plenty
Protein requirements when undergoing body recomposition
Thirdly, when on a recomposition phase you’re trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time while setting your calories around maintenance intake, most people can simply use the same protein figures as when bulking because at maintenance you’re also at low risk of muscle loss as long as your training is on point. However, there may be some advantages to going a bit higher on a recomposition phase especially if you’re in a slight deficit or more advanced in the past.
I’ve used this sliding model as a guide for recomp because it uses lean body mass instead of total body weight making it more individualized especially for those who hold more body fat, however, the extra step of subtracting your body fat did confuse some people.
These days I’ve come up with a simpler solution – if you’re overweight or obese you can simply aim for one gram of protein per centimeter in height so if you’re six foot or 183 centimeters tall you’d want around 183 grams of protein this works shockingly well especially if you’re at a higher body fat.
How Much Protein Per Meal
The answer to the question of how much protein can you absorb in a single meal is, ‘all of it’. Your body can absorb an enormous amount of protein in a single meal more than you could even comfortably eat but absorption simply refers to the passage of nutrients from the small intestine into the bloodstream. Just because protein is being absorbed doesn’t mean it’s being used to build muscle.
In continuation to the above discussion, the real question is, how much protein can you use in a single meal and this is where there’s some controversy. One of the earlier research suggested that 20 to 25 grams of protein in a single meal was all you needed to max out the anabolic response and going above that didn’t do anything extra for muscle growth, however, I’m skeptical of this figure. First, on the anecdotal side, there’s a huge intermittent fasting community who seem to be getting plenty jacked from just eating one or two meals per day with upwards of 50 to 100 grams of protein per meal. So it does seem unlikely to me, given their muscularity that most of that protein is going to waste for these folks. Second more recent search has challenged the idea of a 20 to 25 gram upper limit, this 2016 study showed higher muscle protein synthesis with 40 grams of whey versus 20 grams of whey after a full body workout.
In this 2016 study, researchers noted a greater muscle protein synthesis from a meal of beef containing 70 grams of protein versus 35 grams of protein so the amount of protein we can use per meal isn’t clear as of now but it’s likely higher than we used to think.
It should stand to reason that your protein intake per meal is clearly much less important than your protein intake per day. Nevertheless, most experts do still suggest that spreading your protein out across three to five meals is likely best from both a digestion standpoint and for keeping muscle protein synthesis high throughout the day. Still, if you were to eat two meals or six meals instead you will still build muscle as long as you’re hitting your daily protein target, I just suspect it might not be quite as optimal.
Protein Quality – How Important Is It?
And then there’s the concept of protein quality – which is partly based on the amount of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is very important because it is the so-called trigger for stimulating mtor which then triggers new muscle growth so let’s take a look at how much of different protein sources you need to eat to hit 3 grams of leucine which is a decent ballpark figure for maximizing the anabolic response to a meal.
In the table here you can see that whey protein comes out on top and with just 29 grams of whey protein you’ll be getting three grams of leucine. For just 145 calories you can also get 3 grams of leucine and 40 grams of protein from chicken breast and that would only cost you about 200 calories. Moving down the list, you can see that you need to eat over 2000 calories worth of whole wheat bread to hit 3 grams of leucine so it would take this much bread to give you the same anabolic punch as one scoop of whey protein powder.
As a general trend, animal sources of protein are higher in leucine than their plant-based counterparts especially per calorie however this issue nearly goes away once we introduce vegan protein powders like soy, pea and brown rice isolates which also offer 3 grams of leucine for less than 200 calories.
Keep in mind that leucine isn’t the only factor that matters for protein quality because even though leucine will always spark the new muscle growth you still need the other eight essential amino acids or EAAs to actually build the new muscle for EAAs we use something called the DIAA score where the higher the number the more EAAs that are in that protein source.
Once again you will observe that dairy and animal proteins come out on top but a very important caveat is that these tables all refer to proteins being eaten in isolation in the real world people combine various different foods and are almost guaranteed to get enough leucine and enough EAAs by simply getting enough total daily protein so this isn’t something I personally nitpick over and it’s why I think protein quality is actually much less important than many people realize.
It’s also why leucine, bcaa and eaa supplementation usually isn’t necessary as long as total daily protein is sufficient. However, vegan lifters should be a bit more strategic by either aiming toward the higher end of protein ranges, and or supplementing a high-quality high leucine protein supplements such as so-called vegan whey which combines pea and brown rice protein to give it a similar amino acid profile to whey protein.
When To Consume Protein – Before Or After Workout
Many people still believe that if you don’t eat protein within 30 minutes after training your entire session was wasted but this idea was debunked years ago. In reality, as long as your pre-workout and post-workout meals are within roughly four to six hours of
each other you’ll be maximizing the anabolic response to training. A possible exception to this would be if you train fasted in which case you should try to consume some protein as soon as you can after your workout.
Perhaps a more important but less discussed timing variable is consuming protein before bed. A study done by Jorn Trommelen and his colleague Luc Van Loon described pre-sleep protein consumption as an important protein feeding opportunity. They suggest consuming roughly 40 grams of protein before an overnight fast to improve overnight muscle protein synthesis.
There also have been two other longitudinal studies that directly tested consuming a slow digesting casein protein either before bed or in the morning found no significant difference after eight to ten weeks. However, both of these studies had subjects consuming a very high protein intake overall in the range of two grams per kilo or about 1 gram per pound once again highlighting that as long as total daily protein intake is sufficient these specific timing factors are much less important.
Are High Protein Diets Bad For You?
There are also no legitimate safety concerns around a high protein diet in healthy individuals according to this gigantic position stand from the International Society Of Sports Nutrition there is no controlled scientific evidence indicating that increased intakes of protein pose any health risks in healthy exercising individuals.
The amount of protein recommended in this article has been shown over decades to not only be safe but actually have health benefits even when going way above the recommendations. Protein consumption as high as 4.4 grams per kilo or 2 grams per pound has consistently been reported to have no harmful effects.
By far, the most important factor is total daily protein intake. If you’re looking to optimize further you can pay attention to how you distribute your protein throughout the day with three to five meals most likely being the anabolic sweet spot.
These two factors alone will yield more than ninety percent of your potential results however protein quality can be worth keeping in mind and protein timing may have some benefit from an optimization standpoint especially if you train fasted or if you have had a really long overnight fast.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.