Most people don’t think much about protein beyond what kind of burger they like or how they prefer their steak cooked. It’s more important to dive a little deeper into the subject, however, if your goal is muscle-building, and just as important for dieters as well.
But where do you start? There is so much confusion concerning protein out there. From how much of it you should eat per day to what kind is best, the issues surrounding the subject of protein are many.
Is Protein Necessary for Muscle Growth?
Protein is a major player in the muscle-building process. It is also quite useful for those trying to lose fat, while maintaining muscle mass. Protein is made up of many amino acids, both essential and nonessential. Without these important aminos, it would be impossible to effectively build muscle.
Just as amino acids are the building blocks of protein, proteins are the building blocks of muscle mass.
Essential Amino Acids (1)
Essential amino acids are not naturally occurring in the body, so it is vital to eat a variety of proteins to meet daily needs. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lycine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
Leucine is considered a superstar of the bunch. Known for its superior anabolic properties, leucine also increases the production of growth hormone.
In tandem with isoleucine and valine, leucine is also responsible for post-workout muscle repair.
The trio, better known as Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s), are often used intra-workout to keep catabolism at bay during tough bouts of exercise, maintain muscular endurance, and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Leucine is well-known for its weight loss benefits as well. Leucine’s protein-sparing effects ensure that more muscle mass is retained while losing fat, making it a staple of bodybuilders’ supplement stacks. But this little treasure isn’t just for the big boys, everyone benefits from it.
Nonessential Amino Acids (2)
Nonessential amino acids are found naturally in the body. These include alanine, aspartic acid, arginine, citrulline, glutamic acid, glycine, hydroxyglutamic acid, hydroxyproline, norleucine, proline, and serine.
Because the body has the ability to generate these aminos, it is not necessary to be so hyper-vigilant when it comes to making sure they are present in the diet. Eating a wide variety of foods ensures proper intake without much worry.
One of the key players of this group is glysine. Along with its other nonessential cohorts, glysine is responsible for proper digestion, and plays a large role in the biosynthesis of creatine. Glysine is also present in 1/3 of collagen, important for keeping the skin and connective tissues flexible and firm.
Complete Proteins (2)
Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are termed “complete.”
Amino acid concentrations vary within different foods. While meat, dairy and seafood are considered more complete sources of protein, many top quality vegetarian sources are available to those who prefer them. Vegan sources such as quinoa, tofu, and buckwheat all possess complete protein profiles.
How Much Protein is Needed for Building Muscle?
The amount of protein one should take in on a daily basis is a hotly-debated topic among fitness enthusiasts. One gram of protein per pound of body weight daily is the recommended norm for muscle-building.
Some folks even push the idea that 2 grams per pound will really maximize muscle gain. And yet, there is a different group that refutes this 1 gram per pound theory, stating that you can get by on less protein while still building muscle. So who’s right?
The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams per 1 kilogram of body weight.(3) This translates to .36 grams per 1 pound of body weight. Note, this recommendation is based on the dietary needs of a sedentary person.
For those trying to build muscle, it’s going to take a bit more protein than that. But at the same time, the 1 to 2 grams of protein that many assume will build more muscle might actually be overkill.
The only folks able to physically use that much protein to their benefit are those using anabolic steroids. With the help of steroids, the body is able to utilize the extra protein, continuing to produce muscle mass; protein that would usually be wasted otherwise.
How much protein do I need to build muscle?
If the answer is not 1 gram, 1.5, or even 2 grams per pound, then what is it? Weight lifters and dieters alike only need anywhere from .64 – .91 grams per pound of body weight (1.4-2. g/kg).(3)
The lower end of the spectrum is recommended for endurance athletes and the mid-range for the average gym-goer. The upper level is ideal for those lifters and athletes that train harder than most, and those dieting to lose fat while retaining muscle mass.(3,4)
Often, today’s trainees set their protein intake at .8 g/lb per day, myself included (a reasonable midpoint). Anecdotally, I’ve seen no difference between eating 1 g/lb (135 g/day) and .8 g/lb (108 g/day). And I actually only really aim to get 100 g in per day. Whether I’m focused on building muscle or losing fat, the difference in the amount of protein intake has not changed anything for me.
A Case for Less Protein
Now, there will always be diehard advocates of the popular 1 g/lb, and that’s OKAY. I can completely understand the need to make sure you’re doing enough to reach your goals. Totally. Not to mention, it’s mathematically easier to use 1 g/lb and call it a day. But if you’re open to a different perspective, here are some reasons to reduce your intake:
More is not always better
- There is a threshold at which protein no longer produces additional muscle gains. The higher intake provides amino acids in excess of the rate at which they can be integrated into body proteins.(4) More protein does not equal more muscle gains.
Protein is highly satiating
- For someone who is on reduced calories and trying to lose weight, this is great. But if your focus is on gaining muscle (eating excess calories), trying to eat 1 g/lb+ of protein becomes downright difficult and uncomfortable.
Protein can be expensive
- Whether your protein of choice is meat and poultry or powders and bars, this muscle gaining business can get pretty expensive, especially when you’re ingesting more protein than your body needs.
Lifting veterans don’t need more protein
- Just because you’ve been in the game for 20+ years doesn’t mean your body needs more protein. Just as your body adapts to resistance exercise, your body also adapts to the retention of protein, resulting in an improved protein balance.(5) An improved protein balance means a lower intake.
How Much Protein Per Meal?
The amount of protein allotted for each meal is another hot subject. There are claims that eating anything over 20g in a sitting is wasted and others say, the more the better.
I came across a great analogy from an article I’d read before that makes a case for eating more than 20 grams of protein per meal. In this article by Alan Aragon entitled Is There a Limit to How Much Protein the Body Can Use in a Single Meal?, Alan presents a hypothetical situation comparing two, relatively lean 200lb people eating their allotted protein in different amounts throughout the day.
Person A ingests 150 g protein spread over five meals at 30 g each. And Person B ingests the same amount of protein, but in a single meal. Alan goes on to say,
“If we really believed that only 30 g protein can be handled by the body in a single meal, then Person B would eventually run into protein deficiency symptoms because he supposedly is only absorbing a total of 30 g out of the 150 g we’re giving him. At 30 g/day, he’s only getting 0.33 g/kg of body weight, which isn’t even half of the already-low RDA of 0.8 g/kg. If the body worked this way, the human species would have quickly become extinct. The human body is more efficient and effective than we give it credit for.”
He also goes on to point out that those who use IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), do not have any adverse affects in muscle retention or growth due to their small window of feeding.
Anecdotally, I would tend to agree with Alan’s assertions as I’ve done IIFYM with no ill effect. But it is worth noting, this issue is never a closed one. It is always being studied, resulting in different outcomes due to different study factors/controls. The subject of optimal protein intake for a single meal will continue to engage researchers, and certainly continue to spawn new studies.
What Kind of Protein do I Need to Build Muscle?
With several types of proteins available, and in so many different forms, it’s hard to make a wrong choice here.
Having touched on animal and plant proteins in their natural food form, now we will dive into their supplement forms.
- Quite possibly the most-used type of protein supplement
- Derived from the watery part of milk that separates from the curd during the cheese-making process
- Whey Isolate – absorbed quickly in the body with high bioavailability
- Whey Concentrate – absorbed a bit more slowly and harder to digest
- The curds left over after the whey separates from milk
- Slower digesting compared to whey protein, taking 5-7 hours to fully break down
- Often included in the last meal of the day due to the slow digestion rate
Milk Protein Isolate
- Contains both whey and casein proteins
- Often used in supplements containing blended proteins
- Egg whites
- The majority of the protein in a whole egg is in the whites
- Complete protein
- Derived from the soy bean, dehulled and defatted soybean meal
- High digestibility
- Nearly complete protein
- Contains ~5 g more protein per serving compared to whey
- Combine with brown rice protein to get benefits
These are just some of the options out there. When it comes to supplementing, there is something that works for everyone.
Is it Possible to Gain Muscle Without Protein Supplements?
Many folks are under the impression that protein supplements are necessary to build muscle. It could be due to the marketing of such supplements as miracle muscle-builders. They aren’t.
- Made up of the same amino acids found in everyday foods
- Convenient for meal-replacements and snacks
- Aids in meeting daily protein goals
- Liquid calories from protein shakes are easier to ingest when feeling full
No, protein supplements are not magic. But they are useful in your quest for a muscular physique.
There are those that don’t use protein supplements whatsoever (*raises hand*), and still continue to build and maintain muscle mass. It doesn’t matter where you get your protein as long as you meet your daily numbers.
The Last Word on Protein
There really is no last word on protein, and surely will never be. Researchers continue to perform studies in order to more thoroughly understand this macronutrient, without which, we could not survive.
As the studies continue, we as laypersons will benefit, researching for ourselves in an effort to grow and understand more about what makes our bodies the incredible machines they are.
With more research will also come more questions as the subject of protein is an open-ended one. I encourage you to add your knowledge in the comments section. Also feel free to ask any additional questions. I will do my best to answer, and encourage other readers to chime in with answers as well.
- “Leucine.” Vitaminstuff.com. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.
- AminoAcidStudies.org. Web. 9 Mar. 2017. .
- Campbell, et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Protein and Exercise.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2007): Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. BioMed Central, 26 Sept. 2007. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.
- Stuart M. Phillips & Luc J.C. Van Loon (2011): Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:sup1, S29-S38
- Hartman, J. W., Moore, D. R., & Phillips, S. M. “Resistance training reduces whole-body protein turnover and improves net protein retention in untrained young males.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. 2006.