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The Authoritative Guide to Protein Intake

Regardless of whether you’re into conventional athletic sports or you’re into bodybuilding, protein in many respects is the name of the game. Building brute muscle means more strength and power on the field, while on stage competitive bodybuilders need to stack lean mass with a chiseled look to make the grade. Regardless, everyone needs to come to grips with what proteins work best for their bodies and their particular tastes. That’s what this guide is all about. The issue is that there’s so much data flying around the modern fitness world and tons of it conflicts. It’s no different online. What works best? What’s the safest form? What’s the appropriate intake requirements for specific fitness goals? What makes for optimal hypertrophy/performance? One issue is that it’s been widely claimed that huge intakes of certain proteins can lead to soft tissue (organs like the kidney or liver) or bone damage. What gives? Some claim it can lead to dangerous levels of molecular dehydration. Many people get confused when confronting this mountain of data. Where’s the evidence? Why does so much of it conflict? In this guide we’re going to tackle the RESEARCH and come to terms with findings. Let’s begin.

Safety Research

Forget about ebooks and Google search results, things can get really complicated quick when people sit down and talk to classically trained/amateur dietitians and nutritionists. They’re opinions seem to vary as much if not more…great. Recommendations vary from expert to expert. Then if you look at bodybuilder magazines or websites, you’ll get different answers. Who’s right? Well, as is typically the case you need to read between the lines and pay attention to the common ground that exists between them all. Here’s the truth: most amateur lifters in the gym under consume while the professionals tend to over consume protein. The question becomes, how much is too much/little for me? Good question because in reality your body is unique in many ways. Let’s talk research.

What Are the Health Risks?

This should be the first question on everyone’s mind when they consider consuming large amounts of supplemental protein that they do not get from food intake alone. Now, it just so happens that there have been more than 100 studies done that examine possible adverse effects of high protein intake for athletes and here are some of the findings:
  • Intakes of 2.8g/kg didn’t impair kidney function in the SHORT TERM (Manninen2004).
  • Habitual consumption of 2.0g/kg showed no adverse effects to renal function (Martin at al, 2005). One study actually showed an improvement in kidney function.
  • Athletes showed no link between high intake and heart disease. In fact it caused a decrease in heart disease risk, or risk of ischemic heart attacks. Keep in mind this was with proteins where the excess fat content was tightly controlled.
  • Intakes of 150g showed the same effect on blood calcium balance as much less (50g). These findings threw proverbial dirt in the face of “experts” that claimed it would cause calcium leaching. The same rang true for bodybuilders who consumed more than athletes/non-athletes. There was no dramatic increase in calcium excretion.
For more in-depth findings that pretty much mirror these results you should check out these two reviews:
  1. “Protein and amino acids for athletes” (Tipton et al, 2004).
  2. “A Critical Examination of Dietary Protein Requirements, Benefits, and Excesses in Athletes” (Phillips et al, 2007).
So, what does this translate into? It means that those who choose to consume roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (pretty standard today) for bodybuilding or general lean mass increase don’t need to fear the somewhat “mainstream” health risks that are meant to scare people out there. Oftentimes this fear is meant to direct people towards specific products. Or, in other words it’s more fear-based advertising.

Further Relevant Findings

It should be noted that similar studies conducted on non-athletic types found similar results across the board pretty much. This ruled out implications that athletic lifestyles created unique results that aren’t applicable to the rest of us. Here are two studies to that prove the point along with their basic findings:
  • No adverse effects on kidneys when non-athletic people consumed 2.2g/kg per pound of lean body mass over the span of 1 year (Li et al, 2010).
  • Diets composed of 25% pure protein with 50g of supplemental protein showed no adverse effects on overall health. In fact, it proved that this approach helps people maintain ideal body weights AFTER dieting as well! (Claessens et al, 2009).
Meaning if you’re not a basketball or football player the same rings true for you and there’s plenty of research to help you feel comfortable. But you may be wondering why this fear-based dogma continues to show its ugly face all over the place. In most cases the cause can be traced, again, back to pure advertising and marketing that because of complex legalese can say almost anything they want to make a sale.

So, How Much Protein Should You Eat Daily?

Finally, we arrive at the gravy question everyone really wants to have answered. How much should we eat per day to achieve solid muscle growth? As per usual there is no universal answer…sigh! Here’s what IS known: optimal protein intake is typically going to be higher than the popular conservative recommendations. And, there’s nothing much to fear from these higher amounts (3.0g/kg or 40% of total caloric intake – Tipton et al, 2004). Ready for more research?
  • 2.1g/kg vs. 1.2g/kg provides enough for hardcore hypertrophy (not necessarily strength) for weightlifters (Tipton et al, 2004).
  • When combined with small caloric deficits of -100cals heavy activity (athletes) and recommended (conservative) protein intake isn’t always going to maintain adequate nitrogen balance (Manninen 2004).
  • The upper level recommendations of protein intake while on a strict diet with caloric deficits makes it hard to really maintain tons of lean mass. It’s mild at best.
What this all translates into is that if you’re a serious weight lifter, or just someone going for huge lean mass gains and you’re really active outside the gym as well and maintaining a caloric deficit to try and cut-up, you need higher amounts of protein which will not endanger your organs or overall health according to research from the last decade.

How About Protein Amounts Per Meal Including Frequency?

Recent research into Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) indicates that when it comes to protein you use more of it when you give it to yourself in certain doses per meal throughout the day vs. big huge intakes. So you’ll get better results looking at it from a dose by dose basis rather than on a per day basis.
  • MPS is stimulated most when you consume 3-4g of Leucine (branch chain amino acid) every 4 to 6 hours. That’s completely different than the idea of eating 6 meals a day, 2 hours apart, all day every day to lose excess body fat through increased metabolism.
  • Depending on which protein source you’re using, this means you’ll need to consume roughly 30-50 grams of the stuff to get this specific amount of Leucine.
RESULT: The best protein intake for hypertrophy then would be approximately 2.5-3.0g/kg according to the Norton study from 2009. Right, so if you’re athletic and looking to build mass at the same time while dieting for low body fat you’re going to need 1.1-1.4g per lb. vs. the recommended 1g per pound of body weight. The Math: Let’s say you’re a 200 pound male body builder looking to stack on mass. That means you should shoot for 220-280g of daily protein intake divided between meals that happen every 4-6 hours during your gain phase. If you’re maintaining a caloric deficit increase it a bit. When maintaining, cut it down. Excess protein is broken down into glucose and stored as excess calories.

Is More Always Better?

At The End of the Day Balance is Key One of the basic statements being made in this guide is that more protein leads to better hypertrophy results and it’s been demonstrated by numerous studies over the last decade to be safe. With that said, there are some legitimate concerns that need to be taken into account. Carbs: For those that try to consume mountains of protein but cut down on carbs too much, they will inevitably see less results and a weaker performance. There must be an appropriate balance because carbs save protein for MPS and are supposed to be (along with fat) the primary source of energy during activity, which includes bodybuilding. To be blunt, once you lower carb intake past a certain point it literally doesn’t matter how much protein you consume. Muscle mass/tissue will dissolve. In some respect this should make it obvious that carbs are MORE important than protein. They play a critical and integral role in building mass and maintaining it. This means you simply CANNOT substitute protein for clean dietary carbs and get good results. Fat: Dietary fat is another essential micronutrient that plays an integral role in just about everything. It should be kept at a lower amount of course than protein and carbs, but should NEVER be cut out completely. There’s a long list of reasons that can be saved for another guide. Hydration: Dehydration wasn’t taken into account in this guide, nor in any of the studies mentioned because of course these athletes consumed sufficient amounts of water/sports drinks (the proper kind). However, high protein intakes do have a direct diuretic effect on human beings, and this should be taken seriously. There’s no serious body builder who fails to drink at least 8-10 cups of water a day, if not more. Ideally, you should drink half your body weight in ounces of water on a daily basis, especially when training. Urine must be clear as water!

Supportive Research Findings

Let’s briefly return to MPS again. As mentioned earlier, when you consume higher amounts of protein that provide sufficient Leucine you need less at each meal. The sources are important though: dairy, eggs and animal protein sources. This means that you can fit a) more clean carbs (fruits, veggies, berries) and b) more healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats (olive, coconut, peanuts, avocado, etc.) into your meals! Good stuff. Therefore shoot for the highest quality of proteins possible so you can eat balanced meals rather than just tons of protein day in and day out. Sometimes, for some people that prefer animal proteins and whey, it’s better to up the carb intake and shoot for the low end of the recommended protein levels.

In Summary

While the attempt here was to streamline everything, even still this is a ton of information that could easily sound a bit overwhelming to newcomers to weight lifting and specific protein intake requirements. But in conclusion, to summarize, athletes and body builders who want better performance should increase protein intake to double the status quo recommendations (1g per lb. of body weight) to 2.0/kg. Then, focus on spreading the intake out between meals that are 4-6 hours apart for optimal uptake and synthesis. Make sense? And, it’s safe! However, make sure that before you decide to pile on the protein you check with your physician to see if you have any underlying health conditions that could be exacerbated or complicated by it. Finally, as balance is perhaps the most important thing, make sure each meal has stuffiest amounts of vitamins, minerals, liquids, carbohydrates and fat to unsure your body is getting everything it needs, not just our muscles.

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