24 Feb Literally Everything You Need to Know About Protein and Muscle Growth
Let’s imagine this is you eating some protein.
And let’s pretend you ACTUALLY care about the physiology for a second: As soon as you start chewing, the digestion process initiates. Once swallowed, the food will plop down into your stomach and undergo chemical digestion from gastric juices and enzymes.
Next up is the small intestine, where the protein is broken down with help from your pancreas into amino acids, dipeptides, and tripeptides (think about a “protein” as a pearl necklace and the individual pearls represent individual amino acids: di- and tripeptides are just two and three “pearls” held together, respectively).
Then, these nifty little transport proteins in your small intestine cells will allow the individual amino acids to pass into your blood stream to travel to the liver. The di- and tripeptides travel into the blood too, except they have to chill in the small intestine cells for a second to be broken down into individual amino acids so they can pass out of the cell and join the party in the blood.
After cruising through the blood they reach the liver—imagine the liver like an airport and you’re an amino acid traveler trying to get to your final destination. But first, you gotta go through the liver TSA. You’ve gotta be checked and filtered to make sure everything is safe to travel. Then once you’re (sometimes inappropriately) patted down and cleared, it’s time to take off.
The amino acids are then flown out to different destinations in the body to serve their function: energy production, synthesis of glucose or fatty acids, synthesis of nonprotein molecules that contain nitrogen, and—the main one we care about—synthesis of body proteins (collagen, muscle protein, etc.).
The Tao of Muscle Building: Protein Synthesis and Degradation
Throughout your entire day, your body will fluctuate between a “fed-state” (protein synthesis) and “fasted-state” (protein degradation). It looks something like this:
To keep it simple, you’re gaining muscle and fat during the “fed” period (green), and breaking down muscle and fat (and other stuff) in the “fasted” period (red).
If you want to make sure the fed period is more involved with muscle building, you need to consume sufficient protein (remember, your body uses those broken down amino acids to build your muscles) with a NET calorie surplus for the day.
And if you want to make sure the fasted state is more involved with fat burning (and not muscle burning), you need to consume enough protein to retain the muscle mass you already have combined with a NET calorie deficit for the day.
This is why you hear people preach about total calories for the day being more important than the timing of those calories. Your body is constantly in flux of synthesis and degradation, so HOW MANY calories your body has available is more important than WHEN you eat them. Analogous to cars, you can fill up your empty gas tank three times a day with a gallon of gas, but it still won’t be full at the end of the day unless you put more in.
So, now that we know about the physiology, let’s make this more pragmatic by focusing on the shit you care about: how much protein you need to eat each day.
How much protein should you eat on a daily basis?
Traditional bodybuilding gurus tell you more is better when it comes to protein intake.
Lucky for you, we have the Internet now and we can fact-check these bozos.
Protein intake is going to vary depending on age, health status, training experience, goals, yada, yada, yada. But for the sake of your time, we’re gonna keep the focus on the optimal daily protein intake for healthy individuals under the age of ~60 looking to build muscle and lose fat.
For this trained population, current research is advising the optimal protein intake ranges from 0.7-1.2g/lb of bodyweight (or 1.6-2.6g/kg/bw).
For those who are just trying to be generally “healthy”, for obese individuals, and for those who are bulking and in a calorie surplus, you can get away with the lower end of this range. For those dieting and in a calorie deficit, you’ll want to aim towards the higher end of the range to preserve your muscle mass and stay satiated (protein is the most satiating macronutrient).
To make things easy when setting protein intakes for myself and my clients, I tend to commonly use 1g/lb of bodyweight for cutting or bulking. (e.g., 175 lb person = 175g of protein per day).
It’s also important to note how much protein you’re currently eating—someone who weighs 175 lbs and is only eating 60g of protein per day doesn’t need to immediately jump to 175g+ per day. Start with hitting ~100-120g of protein per day for a month and then gradually work your way up.
As you read through this article, I want you to take the word “optimal” with a grain of salt and on a sliding scale. An “optimal” protein intake for the example above is going to be in that 100-120g/day range because that’s what they can more likely stick to in the short-term.
Bluntly put: recommendations don’t mean dick if you can’t adhere to them.
How much protein is too much? And are high protein diets safe?
High protein consumption is safe for individuals who don’t have kidney disease or other conditions requiring protein restriction. Up to 2g/lb of bodyweight (e.g., 200 lb = 400g protein per day) has been shown safe (also here and here) long-term via blood markers.
While 2g/lb may be safe, it does NOT mean it’s optimal for health and performance.
Let’s say you have a 2,000 calorie budget. If you’re eating the majority of your calories from protein, you’re stealing calories from your carb and fat intakes. Which is suboptimal, because they’re crucial to performance in the gym (especially carbs) and, of course, other health benefits.
So there’s a point of diminishing returns⏤along with a risk of not consuming sufficient carbs and fats⏤when it comes to an upper intake of protein consumption. My recommendations would be to stay below 1.3g/lb of bodyweight and you’ll be fine.
What are the best sources of protein to eat regularly?
Quick quiz for you: if you ate 20g of protein from wheat bread and 20g of protein from whey protein, which is going to be better for building muscle?
It’s the same quantity of protein, right? 20 grams of protein is 20 grams of protein, so shouldn’t it build muscle all the same?
You would think so because the quantities are equal, but the protein QUALITY is where the plant protein (wheat) falls short, so the answer is the whey.
Animal proteins are generally recognized as higher quality protein sources because they have a complete composition of essential amino acids, with high digestibility (>90%) and bioavailability. One of the main reasons plants are awesome⏤their high fiber content⏤is also why their proteins aren’t digested as easily and as bioavailable for absorption as animal protein. Apart from protein, animal-based foods provide heme-iron, cholecalciferol (Vitamin D), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA – aka an omega-3 fatty acid), vitamin B12, creatine, taurine, carnosine, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA); all compounds not present in plant-based foods.
Plant foods are super-healthy in their own way, but for muscle building purposes animal proteins remain unmatched in the protein department.
Animal proteins also have a high amount of an amino acid that “triggers” muscle growth, called leucine. And it takes a certain amount of leucine in the foods we eat to maximize this triggered response, known as “muscle protein synthesis”, to build muscle mass.
Here’s a nifty little chart explaining the various leucine content in different protein sources:
As you can see, taking in 20 grams of whey protein is going to give you a greater anabolic response than taking in 20 grams of wheat protein.
The same thing goes for nuts—I’m sure you’ve heard that peanut butter is a “great source of protein.” Well, sorry to tell you, it’s really not when you compare it by weight to chicken. You would have to eat more than THREE servings (6 tbsp = 570 calories) of peanut butter to match the protein content in ONE serving (4 oz = 130 calories) of chicken breast.
Plant sources are lower in protein and in leucine content, which is why vegetarians and vegans need to consume MORE protein than someone who consumes meat for the majority of their protein intake if they wanna maximize their gains.
If you’re one of these peeps, great, you can 100% take this route if you desire (because plants dominate in other areas), just know it will make things slightly more difficult.
To help you out, here’s a complete list of high protein foods for vegetarians and non-vegetarians:
Protein meal timing: best times to eat it, how much, and can you absorb more than 30g per meal?
I’m not sure where this idea of only being able to absorb 30g (or some other arbitrary number) of protein per meal got started, but I have two ideas.
1. Muscle protein synthesis is maximized around 0.4g/kg/meal, so people claim that anything above this amount is going to be “wasted.”
2. Research has shown that when protein is increased, oxidation of amino acids are also increased, leading people to believe the extra protein ingested is simply not absorbed by the body.
Let’s first address this from an evolutionary standpoint.
Think about the hunter and gatherers who would be lucky to kill some meat for the day—this would likely be their main helping of protein all day long. Let’s say they eat 6-8 oz of meat at a meal, which would be 30-50g of protein.
Wouldn’t it be pretty inefficient of our bodies to only absorb 30g of protein from this one meal and excrete the rest?
30 grams of protein wouldn’t even cover the minimum requirements for what our bodies needed, and would leave the hunter and gatherers at high risk for deficiencies.
Nonetheless, it’s still important to see what the research says on this topic.
Via Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon (2018),
“The preponderance of data indicate that while consumption of higher protein doses (> 20 g) results in greater AA oxidation, this is not the fate for all the additional ingested AAs as some are utilized for tissue-building purposes. Based on the current evidence, we conclude that to maximize anabolism one should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/day. Using the upper daily intake of 2.2 g/kg/day reported in the literature spread out over the same four meals would necessitate a maximum of 0.55 g/kg/meal.”
In dummy’s terms, this just means the excess protein is utilized by the body to support other bodily functions.
To refer back to the hunter and gatherers, this makes more sense. Their body is going to use every gram of protein they consume, especially when they’re not guaranteed a high quality protein source (like meat) every day.
For some reason, people don’t give our bodies the credit they deserve. For 95% of healthy people, absorbing protein will not be an issue.
So instead of worrying about how many grams of protein your body is gonna absorb, you should just focus on actually eating enough protein at the right times.
Drawbacks of Protein Intake While Intermittent Fasting
And since we’re on the subject of the right timing, I’d be failing many people (at least two) if I didn’t address my thoughts on protein timing while using an intermittent fasting protocol.
I’ll keep it short and succinct: intermittent fasting is amazing for many when it comes to adhering to a diet when you have a busy life. It absolutely works. But it falls short in this category of meal timing due to having too few protein feedings throughout the day.
Based on the study above, we want to aim for at least four meals (or four protein boluses) a day, spaced 3-5 hours apart, for optimal growth. This is gonna be hard to do when you’re only eating two or three meals a day while intermittent fasting.
People of IF are screaming at me right now saying, “Total daily protein is all that matters!” And to that, I would agree that total daily protein is MOST important, but to say the timing of that protein doesn’t matter would be dismissing available research. Eating 2000 calories and spacing it out between two meals instead of four meals would produce the same amount of fat loss, but the four meals would allow for better muscle retention due to continuous input of amino acids.
You’ve also got to think of it, practically, based on everything we’ve already discussed. If you’re 175 lbs and trying to get 175g of protein in two meals, that’s gonna be some intense protein sweats after woofing down ~90g at each of them.It’s going to be more convenient for the majority to break that 175g up into 3-5 meals.
So, can intermittent fasting work? Yes, of course. But would I say it’s optimal for muscle growth or retention? No, not at all. The data simply doesn’t support that.
Protein Supplements 101: A Crash Course
- Whey Protein: Isolate vs Concentrate
Whey protein, both concentrate and isolate, is the highest quality source of protein you can consume (yes, even over whole food sources). The differences between whey protein isolate and whey protein concentrate lie within how much protein you’re receiving per scoop. Generally speaking, isolates tend to contain 90% or more protein by scoop, whereas concentrates can contain anywhere between 25-89% protein by scoop. Because concentrates contain less protein per scoop, the other macronutrients (fat and carbohydrates) will make up the remaining calories. (source)
One is not inherently better than the other, because if you’re bulking and want the extra carbs and fats, concentrate will be the best choice. But if you want JUST protein, an isolate (or whey hydrolysate) will be a better, yet more expensive, choice.
Casein is the other main protein (along with whey) that makes up milk protein. Casein is the exact opposite of whey protein in terms of digestion time. Even without any added foods, casein can take up to seven hours to fully digest and absorb. This means that delivery of amino acids to the blood is gradual and steady across many hours after consuming casein, making it a perfect bedtime protein option and a good protein source before any long period without a meal. (source)
Safety and Purity
Unfortunately, the supplement industry is amuck with low quality products due to almost laughable regulations. “Amino spiking” has been an issue over the years with whey proteins, but has been cracked down on due to the scammers and red flags being exposed. That being said, there are still some good companies out there.
If possible, I’d HIGHLY recommend companies who support their formulas with third-party lab analysis. This just means the product is sent to an independent lab for verification of the ingredients claimed to be inside; these reports are typically found on the product label or on the company website (and rarely, in the package sent to your house).
More commonly, you can find statements like “Certified Drug Free” on the label or a stamp of approval from the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), and NSF International (NSF). To name a few off the top of my head, I know companies like EAS, De Novo Supps (my choice), and Alani Nu are all quality tested.
And finally, protein hacks—5 easy to ways to consume more protein
Let’s not waste any more time and finish this up by busting these out.
1. Eat your protein first (in the day and in your meal).
This one seems obvious when we hear it, but we don’t realize how much protein we’re wasting simply by not eating all of it on our plate. So if you’re someone who doesn’t always finish their meat, start with eating your protein first while hunger is high. Due to proteins satiating effects, you’re also less likely to overeat with this strategy. And on a daily scale, this same tactic can work by front loading protein at breakfast when your hunger is high, allowing you less angst to consume more throughout the day.
2. Add a protein shake before the meal when cutting, but after the meal when bulking.
This is similar to number one, but you can adjust it based on your goals. When cutting, you can blunt some of your hunger going into a meal by having a half to full serving of whey protein before diving into your food. When bulking, you want to add the shake at the end of the meal since it’s much easier to down a shake when full than trying to eat more food when you’re looking for a protein boost.
3. Eat protein more frequently.
Going back to the Intermittent Fasting example, it’s hard to consume large amounts of protein in one to two sittings. So breaking up your total daily protein goal into more meals and snacks will make the goal easier to achieve. I advise my clients to aim for at least three full meals per day plus one protein shake to get in four protein feedings per day.
4. Have a protein shake after training and/or before bed.
Many already consume a protein shake after training, but if you’re not doing so this can be a good place to start. I’m also a big advocate of pre-bed protein shakes (casein would be the optimal choice, but whey is also fine) to my clients so they can have that protein readily available while sleeping.
5. Never eat a meal or snack again without it containing a high dose of protein.
There have been VERY few meals or snacks that I’ve eaten in the past six years that haven’t contained at least 20g of protein. Essentially, every time you’re about to eat you need to be thinking, “what is my protein source going to be?” Then base the rest of your meal/snack around that decision.
Conclusion: an “optimal” day of protein consumption
Let’s tie a bow on this thing with a quick example based on the recommendations from above:
175 lb (79.5 kg) person
- MINIMUM protein requirements per day
- 1.6g/kg/day X 79.5 kg = ~127g protein per day
- 0.4g/kg/meal X 79.5 kg = ~32g protein per meal @ four meals per day
- To maximize anabolism per day
- 2.2g/kg/day X 79.5 kg = ~175g protein per day
- 0.55g/kg/meal X 79.5 kg = ~48g protein per meal @ four meals per day
- 5 meals per day (one meal, or protein feeding, every 4-6 hours)
- Goal: 3g/leucine per meal
- Meal protein sources:
- 1 meal: eggs (34g protein)
- 1 meal: whey (27g protein)
- 2 meals: chicken (40g protein each)
- 1 meal: beef (38g protein)
- Total protein intake: 179g/day
And there you have it, my friend. Basically everything you need to know about protein if your goal is to look better naked.
And if you’d like for me to figure out all of this stuff for you, including the handling of the rest of your diet—consider applying for coaching.
Now … what am I gonna eat for lunch?