It’s time to be honest, we’ve all been lied to about protein. Magazines, blogs and online forums all, knowingly or not, spread misinformation regarding how much of the stuff we should be eating. The truth is that despite what supplement companies and incentivised bloggers would have you believe, we don’t need nearly as much of the stuff as they’re making out. 

Protein 101

Protein, a hot topic of debate within health and fitness circles, has many functions within the body. Ranging from; Enzyme & Hormone production, growth and repair of tissues (muscles, tendons, skin, hair, nails & blood vessels). Dietary protein can be obtained from a wide variety of sources including Meat (muscle & organ) Fish, Eggs and plant sources such as Beans, Legumes and Lentils. But not all dietary protein is created equal.

Complete and incomplete protein

Protein is made up of a collection of Amino Acids. And, when looking at our diet, it’s worth breaking them down into two categories: essential and non-essential Amino Acids. 

Non-essential Amino Acids are ones that we can produce ourselves from other foods that we eat. Our bodies can take other foods we eat and, essentially, turn them into these amino acids, so they aren’t essential to our diet. 

Essential Amino Acids are ones that we must consume from the food we eat, or we’ll become deficient. Our bodies aren’t capable of creating these out of other foods, so these genuinely are dietary building blocks.

The 9 essential Amino Acids are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

All animal sources of protein contain all 9 essential Amino Acids, but this isn’t the case for plant proteins, except for quinoa, hemp & chia seeds, and soy. 

What about the anabolic window?

This is another concept-turned-myth created through, at best, a misunderstanding of the published research. 

The so-called anabolic window has been shown to exist (albeit not to a large extent) for those who exercise in a fasted state [3]. For example, using an intermittent fasting strategy or waking up and exercising right away before any breakfast. But there’s no such evidence for the rest of us who tend to exercise later in the day or who don’t use intermittent fasting.

But the question still remains…

How much protein do we really need?

The answer begins with another question. What are your goals, and how much do you weigh? See, the amount of protein you should consume depends significantly on these two variables. 

While even someone looking to put on muscle mass doesn’t need to eat 2 grams for every pound of body weight as some fitness gurus on popular forums may state, you will need to tailor your protein intake according to your own lifestyle and bodyweight.

As a guide from https://www.acsm.org/ put it;

“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average individual should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for general health. So a person that weighs 75 kg (165 pounds) should consume an average of 60 grams of protein per day. Since there are approximately four calories per gram of protein, 60 grams of protein would result in the intake of 240 calories.”

“Muscle mass is built when the net protein balance is positive: muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown. Research shows muscle protein turnover is the greatest after working out. Additionally, it has been shown that muscle mass increases over time when resistance exercise (i.e. weight lifting, bodyweight exercises, etc.) is combined with nutrient intake.”

“To increase muscle mass in combination with physical activity, it is recommended that a person that lifts weights regularly or is training for a running or cycling event eat a range of 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. Consequently, the same 75-kilogram individual should increase their protein intake to 75 grams (300 calories) to 128 grams (512 calories) in order to gain muscle mass. This level of intake can generally be met through diet alone and without additional protein and amino acid supplementation.” [1]

In plain English, for those looking to build up some muscle or doing a fair bit of exercise, somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 times your body weight in kilograms is recommended. With that upper limit mainly reserved for particularly active people aged over 50 [2]. But regular joes who just want to maintain their current muscle mass can happily consume just 0.8g per kilogram of bodyweight. 

Take an 80kg Male looking to gain muscle mass. Even on the high end of this spectrum, at 1.7 grams per kilo, he’d only need 136g of protein per day to help him bulk up. Compare this to the often referenced ‘minimum of 1g per pound of bodyweight’ (which is often increased to 1.5 or even higher n some message boards and blogs) equating to 176g per day. You can see why so many people think protein powders must be necessary for them to gain even a moderate amount of muscle mass. 

Contrast the myths with the actual science, and you’ll soon see, as we did, that the vast majority of people can achieve their required protein intake without the aid of supplementation quite easily. 

Conclusion

The truth is, we only really need a minimum of 0.8g per kg of body weight to maintain our muscle mass and stay healthy. While eating a bit more protein than the above isn’t likely to harm you, it’s comforting to know that the requirements aren’t nearly as high as is often spouted by so-called experts in the field. It’s a much more promising outlook for those on a budget or omitting certain protein-dense foods from their diet, whether for health (such as an allergy or intolerance) or philosophical reasons. 

References

[1] PROTEIN INTAKE FOR OPTIMAL MUSCLE MAINTENANCE. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf

[2] Morais JA; Chevalier S; Gougeon R (2011). Protein turnover and requirements in the healthy and frail elderly. The journal of nutrition, health & ageing, [online] 10(4). Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16886097/ [Accessed 11 Aug. 2020].

[3] Europe PMC (2019). Europe PMC. [online] Europepmc.org. Available at: http://europepmc.org/article/med/12750588 [Accessed 11 Aug. 2020].

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