Protein

{Dutch Version of this article on the Bell Coaching website}

Protein is the “cool” macronutrient that bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts like to rave about. Many people enjoy chugging down protein shakes after their workouts, and/or spamming protein powders throughout the day – not knowing whether it actually benefits them or not. They usually just assume it will help them in their quest for gains, without taking total dieting context into equation.

This commercial is awesome, haha!

Protein is pretty awesome – and you should ensure you get an adequate intake of it on a daily basis – especially if your goal is to build muscle and get strong (these two go hand in hand).

But –  there is no reason to consume it in very large amounts regularly for your dieting “baseline” intake. Force-feeding calories (= dirty bulking, a large energy surplus) doesn’t accelerate gains, and neither does force-feeding protein in large quantities. So don’t be that misinformed gymbrah that consumes >3 g/kg protein (or, heaven forbid, 3 g/lb) on a daily basis just because “omg pr0t0nz it’s good for my gains”.

Why not overload on protein? For one, because it can come at the expense of other valuable macronutrients. Remember: we have a certain energy “allowance” or “limit” for our goal – a calorie budget if you will – and we have to distribute the available calories over the 3 macronutrient slots (protein, fats, carbs). In other words: we have to spend our calorie budget wisely. If we spend all of our macros on protein, we have to cut back on fats and carbs. That has some potential drawbacks – which will be discussed further on.

On a sidenote, there is nothing inherently wrong with drinking protein shakes post-workout, nor am I implying that adding protein powders to your meals is a bad thing to do. But, I feel it is a good thing to understand the science behind protein, and to understand how much you really need for your goal. That way you can set up a sustainable, sane and enjoyable diet, and optimize your nutrition for body recomposition purposes.

Excellent sources of teh protons

How much protein do I need for body recomposition purposes?

An intake of 0.8 g/kg of protein is fine for maintaining nitrogen balance (very simply put: maintaining your precious muscle mass) for the non-athletic population. So: if you’re a couch potato that doesn’t do much physical activity, that amount is probably good enough for you

However, seeing as you are probably not a couch potato, but someone who is genuinely interested in recomping their body for the better (pack on muscle mass // lose fat), you’ll need more than that. Athletes can benefit from a generally higher protein intake than sedentary individuals (study 2). Research often finds a “protein range” from somewhere between 1.4 to 2.2 g/kg to be sufficient for athletes involved in strength training, whose main goal  is to build strength and muscle (study 1, 2 and 3). 

Also, the more training experience you have under your belt, the less protein you end up needing. This is because your body’s protein metabolism seems to becomes more efficient (meaning: your body “handles” protein better) as you gain training experience (study 1, 2, 3 and 4). 

So how much protein do you need? You have to decide what protein guidelines you choose to agree with, based on the literature and research available. I personally feel that “evidence based training & nutrition heroes” Mr. Menno Henselmans (1.8 g/kg) and Mr. Borge Fagerli (1.5-2 g/kg) both provide verysolid stances on protein, and I tend to agree with their recommendations. You can read Menno Henselmans’ “The Myth of 1 g/lb: Optimal Protein for Bodybuilders” here // and Borge Fagerli’s “The Final Word on Protein (?)” here if you are interested in their reasonings.

Eric Helms, another well respected guru in the online fitness community, recommends a much higher protein intake for bodybuilders on a cut: 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean mass. You can read Eric Helms’ recommendation here. I personally feel this value is slightly excessive and that there is enough evidence that you don’t need to go that high in protein to preserve muscle mass during a cut. That said, his research is definitely worth mentioning in any article discussing protein intake for athletes/bodybuilders.

If you are more interested in the “so who is right about protein” side of things, be sure to read Menno Henselmans’ interpretation of Eric’s review – and Eric Helms’ response to that interpretation here. This is an awesome, gentleman-level debate between 2 highly intellectual nutrition wizards. Be sure to read this, feast on the excellent knowledge, and form your own thoughts on “optimal protein intake” afterwards.

I personally ate more than 1.8 g/kg protein to get this lean.

… so how much protein do you recommend?

Based on my own interpretation of current literature/research on protein intake and personal experience, I often recommend 1.8-2.2 g/kg for a protein intake range. These are values I use for both myself and the people I work with.

In practice I often end up consuming at least 2 g/kg myself, mainly thanks to the many “tag-along” protein sources I eat. The foods besides the (fairly modest amounts of) animal products I consume, such as a large amount of veggies, usually add up quite a bit to the protein counter.

This does not mean I never go higher than those ranges I mentioned. I recommend using target-ranges or minimums-maximums for your macronutrients  not obsessing about hitting 1 strict number.

Obsessing about hitting one strict number for your macronutrient intake is unnecessary, not very realistic, and often not sustainable in the long run. I’ve seen it make people overly obsessive and paranoid. “I NEED TO HIT MY 163 GRAMS OF PROTEIN, IF I GO OVER I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO”. Don’t be like that! Absolute number fixation is not very healthy when it comes to tracking macros. Just as scale weight is not the sole thing to rely on when tracking body recomposition, hitting one exact number for your macros religiously is unnecessary in the long journey towards making gains. Relax, and have some macro wiggle-room to play around with.

A random example of a range so that you can maintain dieting sanity: 158-193 grams for protein. This could be a recommendation for a 88 kg person, which is recommended to stick in the 1.8-2.2 g/kg range for most of his dieting plan (88 x 1.8 = 158, 88 x2.2 = 193). What one must eventually learn to be truly flexible and successful with his diet, is this: if you “overshoot” on one macro one day, you can still reach your calorie target by manipulating the other macros. So if you go really high on protein one day, you could drop either fats, carbs or a bit of both. If you eat more fat one day, you can drop protein or carbs a bit – you’ll know what your protein minimum to hit is, so in this case you might have to sacrifice more carbs.

Setting target-ranges and minimums-maximums for your macros will be discussed in the “putting all the macros together” article after discussing fats & carbs. For now it will suffice to say: I recommend using more strict or “narrower” ranges during a cut – where you have a tighter total calorie budget. Main reason for this: simply so that you can can’t easily overshoot your total calories, and it usually increases “dietary control” and success. For a bulk, I recommend having some more leeway & “macro wiggle room”  – simply because you have a larger calorie budget to play around with. Bottom line: look at your total calorie intake, and make sure you are coming close to your calorie goals. If one day you end up consuming more protein than you need – because, for example, you felt like eating a huge serving of meat at dinner – then simply scale down your fat or carb intake a bit to still hit your calorie goal. It’s no rocket science: it’s applying good ol’ common sense and putting math + effective dieting strategies to use!

Anecdote: I have enjoyed my “moderate protein diet” the past months far more than my “very high protein” days (I consumed at least >2.5 g/kg and often >3 g/kg of protein for a few years straight) – mostly because I am able to enjoy a more balanced diet (I mainly upped my “healthy fat” intake). Removing the “high protein obsession” has definitely made me feel and perform better.

Higher protein intakes: When are they warranted?

There are a few scenarios where a higher protein intake is acceptable, and these will be discussed next.

  • Cutting phases when already quite lean: Consider the higher end of the recommended protein ranges (>2 g/kg, possibly up to 2.5 g/kg or more if you truly enjoy protein rich foods) during a cutting / fat loss phase – as protein breakdown increases when in a calorie deficit, and ensuring a sufficient protein intake can then possibly become more valuable for preserving lean muscle mass (study 1, 2). The leaner you are, the more protein you tend to oxidize (since there is less bodyfat to burn) – so this recommendation is mostly meant for those who are already quite lean, and plan on getting even leaner.
  • Hard training novices in a bulk can consider upping the protein intake to the higher ranges, seeing as they have the potential to build a lot of muscle in their first few months of strength training. As I stated before: the more advanced you become, the less protein you actually require. So noobs that want to make gains: feel free to eat some more pr0t0nz.
  • Trainees with excellent genetics and those using AAS should probably opt for the higher thresholds as well, seeing as they have the ability to build more muscle.
  • The elderly can benefit from a more concentrated protein intake. The older you become, the more “blunted” your response to protein (an increased “anabolic resistance”). As such, the elderly do not seem to require a higher total protein intake (although they actually might) – they benefit from higher protein intakes per meal (study 1, 2)Thus: a lower meal frequency (3-5 meals per day for example) with a higher amount of protein per meal is probably a good idea for the elderly. And to err on the safe side, I’d probably up my protein intake a bit if I were getting old.
  • When injured and recovering from injury: Ensuring an adequate protein intake during phases of injury can help speed up recovery: so consider aiming for the higher protein ranges when recovering from an injury. Micronutrients are generally more important for helping you heal the hell up – check out Precision Nutritions “Nutrition for Injury” articles if you are interested in this topic.
  • If you simply enjoy protein rich foods, feel free to eat more protein as well. Something I mentioned in the intro but I wish to remind you of yet again: if you overconsume protein and wish to hit a certain amount of calories, you will have a smaller “macro budget” left to “spend” on fats and carbs – other valuable macros that have an impact on health and performance (and they allow for more food variety in your diet). Keep that in mind before you decide to eat >2.5 g/kg protein per day.

Should protein intake be based on lean body mass or total bodyweight?

Keep it simple and base your protein intake it on total bodyweight. Basing protein intake on fat free mass is tricky, seeing as it is hard to get an accurate measurement of lean body mass / body fat.

An exception to this guideline: obese individuals. Example: A 150 kg obese woman does not need 150×1.8 = 270 grams of protein. That’s silly. In that scenario, opt for 0.8 g/kg if sedentary (remember: couch potato advice) – and for 1.2-1.6 g/kg of protein if doing some weight training. If you’re obese, un-obese yourself ASAP.

What about setting protein at % of calories?

Setting protein intake with percentages (…% of total calories) doesn’t make sense in my opinion, because it would mean you need less protein if your calorie requirements go down. That’s not true. So: base protein intake on your bodyweight.

The benefits of a high protein intake

Protein contributes a lot to satiety and can play a role in keeping hunger levels at bay (stud 1, 2 and 3). The satiating effect of protein can be very valuable during phases of energy restriction for weight loss. This “awesome satiety-boosting effect” of protein is most likely due to meal-induced thermogenesis. Furthermore, it’s cool to know that protein is the macronutrient that has the biggest impact on Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) (study 1, 2). Increased TEF is generally a good thing, as your energy expenditure will go up > allowing you to consume more calaories (aka: eat more). Being able to eat more is generally awesome (unless you are a hardgainer that complains about not being able to consume enough calories).

With this information in mind, you would almost easily conclude that “the more protein in your diet, the better!”. As I already hinted at: this is not the case. There are a few reasons you should not go all-out on protein.

The cons of a high protein intake

Let’s deal with satiety first. Yes, ensuring an adequate protein intake is very beneficial for satiety. But that does not mean the more protein = more satiety. In fact, the more protein you eat on your diet, the potentially less satiating it can become. 

The reasoning behind this is not 100% clear, but this is something to keep in mind. As such: always going “mega high protein” is not a guaranteed safeguard against hunger during a fat loss diet. Alternatively, you could invest protein calories in vegetables, or other low-calorie, voluminous foods. These may arguably contribute more to satiety than that “mega high protein intake”.

Next con = protein at the expense of other macros, as I touched upon before in this article. If you overconsume protein at the expense of fats, you could be compromising testosterone production. Fat is an anabolic nutrient, important for health and hormone production. As such, a long-term low(er) fat intake is far from optimal for health and body recomposition purposes. A

Also worth mentioning: the higher the protein:carb ratio in your diet, and the larger your calorie deficit – the less testosterone you produce. Seeing as high testosterone levels are desired for making gains, you don’t want to cut out too many carb s in favor of sky-high protein intake, nor do you want to follow a really harsh and large calorie deficit for your fat loss phase (with a few exceptions, such as wanting to un-obesify yourself).

From a financial standpoint, protein is often an “expensive” macronutrient. Meat, fish, quality omega 3 eggs – these foods usually cost more than carbs. Healthy fats are arguably expensive as well, but still – it is good to know you do not need to spend a large amount of money on huge amounts of meats/fish. You can invest that money in stuff like vegetables as well!

Protein and OH GOD – MY KIDNEYS!

Protein and kidneys: if you don’t mention their association in an article, it is incomplete. Hence, this will be addressed shortly.

High protein intakes will only damage your kidneys if you have chronic, pre-existing kidney problems (study 1, 2, 3). 

That’s it. If you are healthy and have no pre-existing kidney problems, you need not worry about protein intake and your kidneys. It’s lore. Let’s move on!

This is a picture of a pair of kidneys. If yours are healthy (and you have no known pre-existing kidney conditions) – you need not worry about protein harming them. 

The Muscle Full Effect & Refractory Response to Protein

Before diving in on how to distribute your protein intake, I want to discuss these 2 interesting topics related to protein intake.

First, the Muscle Full effect. When you eat a meal, amino acids + insulin + muscle synthesis go UP. The more protein the body has (muscle tissue), the more it needs. But at some point the body has had enough. Once protein synthesis reaches a peak after a meal at a certain dose, it will go back to baseline eventually. The “overconsumed protein” does not contribute to the protein peak, because the muscle is “full” (study 1, 2, 3).

Next, the Refractory Response to protein. Excess protein can be used as energy, or converted to fat (although the body isn’t very efficient at the “amino-acid-to-fat conversion). When the body has had enough protein, amino acid levels will go up, but new bodily proteins will not be build. So: if you consume another meal when amino acid levels have already peaked, nothing additional happens.

These 2 effects will basically determine the body’s protein metabolism. All of this ultimately boils down to the following: absolute meal frequency does NOT really matter. If you eat multiple meals throughout the day with a spread protein intake, you get the refractory response. If you eat fewer, larger meals with a high dose of protein, you get the muscle full effect.

So in context of discussing the “optimal meal frequency” for body recomposition: it honestly doesn’t matter very much. Meal frequency should be based on personal preference, keeping your daily schedule in mind. It is good to have a consistent nutrition protocol and to stick to a certain amount of meals per day however (I recommend 3-6 meals per day, based on lifestyle & preference) – but this I will discuss on the topic of meal frequency.

Tips for Protein distribution through the day & week

With those 2 topics (refractory response & muscle full) discussed and out of the way, let’s discuss protein distribution throughout the day and week.

Tip #1: Eat a quality protein source at every meal you eat

Ideally, each of your meals will have a certain minimum amount of quality protein and a certain amount of leucine (an amino acid) in there. Let’s go bro here: if you don’t eat a source of protein at a meal, it’s not an awesome meal. In order to be awesome, you must eat awesome meals. Hence: consume a quality source of protein at every meal you eat.

How many meals you should eat per day (= meal frequency) will be discussed more in-depth further on in the series. It will basically depend on your preferences + schedule: but I generally suggest sticking to 3-6 meals per day, and having a quite consistent meal pattern (in practice: try sticking to the same meal frequency on a daily basis and eat your meals roughly around the same time – so that your body can adapt to an effective routine).

What are these “quality sources of protein”? Basically, protein rich foods that have a “complete amino acid spectrum”. Animal food products (meat, dairy, eggs) usually fulfill this criteria. Protein-rich plant-based foods (beans, lentils, grains, etc.) in isolation do not. As such, just consuming protein-rich plant-based foods in a meal without any animal product is probably not optimal for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. However, it is interesting to know that combining certain incomplete amino acid foods can result in a “complete” amino acid when you eat them together. There are also valid theories stating that this “the protein source is very important!” aspect doesn’t matter that much: read this “Protein for Vegans” article, for example. The author makes very fair points.

A bunch of delicious & nutritious high protein foods. If you simply love protein-rich foods and you can afford them in large quantities: feel free to eat more protein. Just keep your macro budget in mind.

I’d still recommend the simple solution: including an animal food products with most of your meals. That way you will most likely also cover the “minimum amount of leucine per meal” guideline.

Tip #2: Consume at least >0.3 g/kg (or >20 grams) of protein per meal

~25 grams of protein per meal generally seems to be plenty to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Worth mentioning here is the “leucine threshold”.

This is basically the amount of that amino acid you need per meal to make it “effective” for muscle protein synthesis. No need to overthink this: simply assure a quality source of protein with each meal, eat >20 grams of protein in that meal, and you should be good to go (study 1, 2, 3).

A table from the simplyshredded article “The Truth About Protein” – here it shows the amount of protein you need to cross the leucine threshold. 

A guideline I like to use is to have at least 0.3 g/kg  (or >20 grams) of protein per meal. That is an absolute minimum! Higher amounts of protein per meal may be more beneficial – choose your destiny.

For a 80 kg male, the 0.3 g/kg minimum would mean at least 24 grams per meal. In practice I often go for >0.4 g/kg for my smaller meals on the day. My personal post-workout feasts and pre-bed meals are usually quite a bit higher in protein – so the muscle full effect is my destiny! Again, choose yours.

If you have 3 meals per day, you could divide your total protein intake over those 3 meals – and end up with a fairly large amount of protein per meal.  If you have 6 meals per day, distribute your protein intake over those. You will end up with smaller portions of protein in that scenario.

Tip #3: Have some protein in your system before you lift

Whether pre or post workout protein is “the most imporant” before is debatable. They’re both important in my book.

I generally do not recommend doing strength training in fasted state: unless you have to train quite early in the morning and/or you just prefer training fasted for whatever reason. In this “fasted strength training” scenario: just make sure to get a proper amount of protein (the amount recommended in tip #1!) in relatively soon after your session (preferably within an hour, or sooner). You can consider BCAA supplementation for your fasted training session (as commonly recommended in the Leangains fasted training protocol), but I have become skeptical of the benefits of BCAA’s over the years (read Menno Henselmans’  “Are BCAA’s beneficial for muscle growth?” here). Generally, I deem them not worth the money: I’d rather spend that money on food.

When or how far from your training should you eat your pre-workout meal(s) – featuring adequate protein –  if you train later on the day? That will depend on your schedule and preferences. I wouldn’t worry too much about timing: do what feels best for you. 2 examples:

  • You could have a (light) meal and then train relatively soon after that (within 3o minutes – 2 hours).
  • You could have a (light to moderate sized) meal , then train 3-6 hours after that. Having up to ~6 hours between protein “boluses” (meals) is fine. Having >8 hours between your pre-and post workout meal is probably not a great idea.

Tip #4: Possibly More Protein in the Post-Training Hours

Having protein pre-workout is important – seeing as training is an anabolic activity – but ensuring an adequate intake of protein in the hours following a training session is a good idea as well! The main theory behind this is to support growth and recovery in the hours following a training session, where you have elevated muscle protein synthesis levels.

As such, I often find myself recommending anywhere from 0.3 up to ~1 g/kg of the daily protein recommendation before the training session – and the rest (preferably a big chunk of the recommend protein amount) after the training session. Again: it will depend what time of the day you train and your preferred meal frequency.

Tip #5: More Protein pre-bed

This is to boost overnight anabolism. A guideline I like is shoot for a “double the minimum” of recommended protein per meal: 0.3 g/kg turns into 0.6 g/kg.

Tip #6: On rest days, consider consuming more protein at your first meal 

I still encourage a high-protein pre-bed meal on rest days and thus saving some protein macros for that meal – but having a larger meal as your first meal of the rest day may help in decreasing hunger levels later on the day. So consider upping the volume and/or the amount of protein.

How I personally “handle” protein

Just to give you an idea of how to implicate all of the above: this is a “case study” on how I handle my protein intake.

  • I do an Intermittent Morning Fast (usually up to 1-3 pm).
  • I consume a moderate sized pre-workout meal, with approx 0.5 g/kg protein (usually around 1-3 pm).
  • I train, and then consume 2 big meals after my training (post workout dinner and pre-bed meal). These 2 meals contain the bulk of my daily protein intake, and they are spread apart by 2-4 hours.
  • On a restday, I make my first meal of the day bigger and higher in protein – seeing as I usually get a bit hungry during the time I’d normally lift. I feel that a more voluminous + “protein richer” meal helps combating hunger.

By no means may it be optimal for you and I am not suggesting you copy my template – but this is my personal preferred plan of attack.

Protein sources: Ideas & Examples

Solid lean protein sources (= low in fat) are:

  • Egg whites
  • Low-fat meat (certain steaks and beef)
  • Fish (tuna and most white fish)
  • Low-fat dairy (quark, cottage cheese)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, beef)
  • Protein powders (whey, casein). If you use protein powders, I encourage you to use them for protein pancakes or another nice recipe! Drinking shakes is boring imo (EAT THY CALORIES), but if it’s your thing – go for it! Most whey/casein protein powders will do, but it is a good thing to research your product (some protein powders are “spiked” and do not contain the amount of protein written on the label). Try isolates if you have trouble with concentrates (lactose intolerant folks might not respond well to cheap whey concentrates).

Excellent protein+fat sources are:

  • Whole eggs (the excellent fat and basically all the other cool micronutrients are in the yolk after all). Eat a lot of eggs, because they rule.
  • Fatty meats and fatty fish.
  • Fatty dairy products (full fat yogurts, milk, quarks, etc.)

All of the animal based foods mentioned thus far fit the “quality protein” criteria – which basically means having all necessary amino acids.

Plant-based protein-rich foods, such as beans and lentils, can help boost your total protein intake (so can grains and soy). They are often protein + carb combos. Keep in mind that they are “incomplete” proteins: they do not contain all amino acids. But as mentioned previously: mixing incomplete amino acid profiles can result in a “complete” amino acid profile for the meal. If you want to be “safe”, have an animal based high-protein food with most of your meals.

Bodybuilding.com has a neat list featuring 40 high protein foods – check it out for more ideas!

Conclusion / Summary

  • Protein is a badass macronutrient that contributes a lot to muscle growth and satiety, and it’s generally safe to consume in whatever amounts if you have no pre-existing kidney problems.
  • I recommend to aim for 1.8-2.2 g/kg per day for a range. More than that is most likely not necessary, but it’s not harmful either.
  • Get most of your protein from quality protein sources (mainly animal products) – not just “tag along” sources. Tag along sources definitely do count, though!
  • Distribute your total protein intake over the amount of meals you consume each day (recommended: 3 to 6 meals per day). A solid guideline is consuming at least 0.3 g/kg of quality protein per meal. The fewer meals you consume, the more concentrated your protein servings will be – the more meals you consume, the more you can spread out your protein intake.
  • Ideally you want to have some protein in your system before a training session. In that scenario you do not have to “rush” post workout nutrition. If you train fasted, get your protein/nutrients in relatively soon after your training (<1 hour). Get a good chunk of your protein in in the hours following a training session. Also have a higher protein intake pre-bed to promote nighttime anabolism.
  • You don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to have a protein shake, nor do you need a shake immediately post-workout.
  • Do not overthink or stress too much about protein intake – or any other aspect of nutrition, for that matter. Relax, understand the process, be in control, monitor and track your progress, make adjustments – and you shall make gains.