Unlike voguish trends, protein’s significance from a fitness and physiological perspective has ample science to back it up with.
But how much protein is enough?
Unfortunately, not enough is spoken or said about this. I mean, there are rules in place for the bare minimum protein intake depending on your activity levels and goals.
But what’s the point of diminishing returns after which more protein equals more calories, with a highly-debated potential health risk?
That’s what we are going to answer today.
If you are tired of rummaging through piles of clinical studies with conflicting conclusions, and are unsure of how many scoops of your favorite Protein powder is going to cut it, you are at the right place.
Stay with us while we debunk some myths and clear some facts about protein and your bicep size.
How does Protein work to build muscle?
Firstly, let’s understand the role that protein plays in turning into the muscle you see in the mirror.
Resistance exercise exposes your muscle tissue to stress, creating micro tears that your body must heal and patch.
Amino acids are the building blocks that are tasked with the mountainous task of repairing your muscle tissue and thus, helping your muscles grow.
Protein is made up of several long chains of amino acids bonded together. When you consume protein, your body breaks these bonds and releases the amino acids, which are then dispatched like an emergency repair crew to the torn muscle tissue.
The aminos create myofibrils, which are used to patch the muscle tissue.
That of course, is a dumbed down explanation of the process. There are several components that play a vital role in this, including growth hormone and stem cells or satellite cells. But the takeaway is that the amino acids that make up protein are primarily responsible for muscle repair and growth.
Nitrogen Balance – An underrated aspect of muscle building
Nitrogen is a critical mineral that your body sources only from dietary protein.
It is used for protein synthesis, the process by which your body utilizes amino acids to build muscle tissue. So it’s imperative that you consume enough protein to meet this requirement.
However, Nitrogen is also lost through natural processes, such as metabolism of protein molecules, production of sweat, sebum and excretion to name a few. This is called ‘obligatory nitrogen losses’ (ONL) and is an unavoidable, natural process.
The state of Nitrogen in an athlete’s body is a key indicator of their ability to build muscle and grow, also called Anabolism.
- Positive nitrogen balance – When your intake of nitrogen is more than what you are losing, it’s a positive nitrogen balance, or an anabolic state where your body is growing. This is ideal for muscle growth.
- Equilibrium – When your intake of nitrogen is equal to what you are losing, you are in a state of nitrogen homeostasis. While this is adequate for the average sedentary adult, it’s not enough if you seek muscle hypertrophy.
- Negative nitrogen balance – When you are losing more nitrogen than what you are consuming, your body is in a state of negative nitrogen balance. If you are working out, this is probably the worst phase to be in. Your body will eventually start to catabolize your hard-earned muscle tissue to survive.
How much protein should you aim for per day?
When it comes to ideal protein intake, there’s so much conflicting (and biased) information floating out there. There are studies that recommend anything from 0.6 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
But bro science tells us that even 2 grams per pound of body weight might not be too much. Ever noticed the biggest guy in the gym who guzzles, chomps and probably even snorts protein all day?
Does that mean that more protein equals bigger muscles? Could protein be the secret sauce that you’ve been missing all this while?
That’s highly unlikely. Most of the studies that recommend a high protein intake are conducted on elite athletes. Trained footballers, Judoists, sprinters and so on.
Are you an elite athlete?
Rookie fitness buffs often have an inflated self-image making them veer towards guidelines that are meant for trained and conditioned sportsmen.
An elite athlete, such as an Olympic sprinter’s body has markedly different adaptations to stress which makes them capable of utilizing the higher protein intake better, towards building muscle tissue.
But if you are a recreational lifter, your protein consumption might be way more than what you really need.
Here’s some clarity on how much protein you might need in reality.
- Sedentary adults – 0.6 to 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 100 kilos, you need about 60-80 grams of protein.
- Active Athletes – 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. So, if you weigh 100 kilos, aim for 100 grams of protein in a day.
- Powerlifters – 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 100 kilos, aim for 160 grams of protein.
- Endurance athletes – 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 100 kilos, aim for 140 grams of protein in a day.
- The adaptation Period – The protein intake can be slightly higher during the adaptation period, where your body is exposed to incremental levels of stress. For instance, a progressive workout program. But these brief periods can stimulate growth and hence, utilize more protein than what you can normally.
There are many other recommendations that you might bump into when you research ideal protein intake.
For instance, the USDA recommends that you should source 10-35% of your calorie intake from protein. If you are weigh 60 kilos and consume 2000 calories a day to maintain your body weight, 35% of the calories is 700.
Each gram of protein is 4 calories which means that if you adhere to the upper range of the USDA recommendation, you end up consuming 175 grams of protein every day. This is way more than what you ideally need, even if you are an active athlete.
So, take those recommendations with a pinch of salt and try to cap your protein intake at 1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight if you lift recreationally.
What happens to the excessive protein you consume?
Muscles are not the sole benefactors of protein and amino acids.
Your body utilizes it for a plethora of physiological functions such as transporting other macro and micro nutrients, maintaining hair, skin, organs and blood.
But none of these processes demand a truckload of protein. In fact, the amount needed for all of these secondary processes combined might be tiny in comparison with what most of us consume already.
After the body breaks down protein into amino acids and ammonia, there are carbon molecules that are left behind. Your body converts these into glucose, which are then transported into your liver for storage as glycogen.
But if your liver already has a surplus of glycogen (you are not on Keto or a low carb diet), the carbon molecules are converted into fat and stored.
So, consuming a surplus of protein might in fact be contributing to the fat that you’re trying to lose in the first place.
This in no way means that you should not consume sufficient protein mind you. A high protein diet increases satiety and can help you adhere to a calorie restricted fitness plan.
But increasing the intake beyond what your body needs to build and repair muscle tissue, will not increase the size of your muscles. At least if you are a natural athlete.
How much protein do you need if you are using Anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are a different ball game altogether. A steroid-enhanced athlete’s body can repair and renew at a much quicker rate.
Their muscle protein synthesis, glycogenesis and Nitrogen retention are amplified, which allows them to utilize more protein than what a normal athlete’s body can. Think of it like an endless supply chain of nutrients into the muscle tissue, which the body can utilize more efficiently.
So, if you are using PEDs, you can probably get away with up to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. There’s no clinical study that’s conducted on steroid-enhanced athletes and optimum protein consumption.
So, this is based on anecdotal references, mind you.
Can increased protein consumption lead to health problems?
You’ve probably read or heard that a high protein diet can potentially lead to health problems in the long run.
Well, that’s not too far off from the truth. But it’s not entirely accurate either.
There have been studies that have shown an increased metabolic load on the liver, kidney and bones when subjects were fed a high protein diet for a prolonged time span. Given that ammonia is a by-product of protein metabolism, which further gets broken down into Urea, it’s obvious that an increase in dietary protein can increase the workload on the kidneys.
But the kidneys and the liver are the workhorses of the human body. These organs have been designed to undergo extreme amounts of stress and yet function like a well-oiled machine for years. More recent studies have debunked the theory that high protein diets can contribute towards kidney or liver disease, unless you have underlying issues with these organs.
The type of protein that you consume however, does warrant a separate discussion. Animal proteins are complete proteins with all essential amino acids. But they have been linked with inflammatory markers, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
To sum it up, excessive protein is not going to bust your kidneys unless you have preexisting kidney disease. But you might want to consider inflammation, particularly from excessive red meat consumption, if that’s your primary protein source.
Other vital nutrients that affect muscle repair and growth
While protein gets more than its fair share of attention in athletic nutrition, it is just one cog in a wheel. There are several other enzymes, hormones and macronutrients that play an equally important role in muscle repair, recovery and growth.
Insulin – Insulin is a highly anabolic peptide hormone. Peptides are proteins. So, Insulin is essentially a protein with 51 amino acids that’s tasked with keeping our blood sugar levels stable. When you consume a source of glucose, such as a simple sugar it gets absorbed into the blood stream. The pancreas immediately release insulin which then absorbs the excess glucose and redistributes it into the liver, the muscles and fat cells. When Insulin reaches muscle tissue, it binds with insulin receptors, and kick starts the recovery process shuttling vital nutrients into the tissue. That’s why it’s recommended that your post workout meal should have some form of fast-absorbing glucose. It will trigger an insulin release and increase the uptake of nutrients into the muscle tissue.
Insulin is a vital hormone that can affect the size of your muscles.
There are various macronutrients that can trigger an insulin release. The most effective one is carbohydrates. Protein can also trigger an insulin release mind you. But it’s not considered to be adequate enough to replenish your glycogen stores.
Glycogen – Glycogen is a branched polymer of glucose that’s stored in the liver and in muscle tissue for use as fuel during intense physical activity. It works closely with Insulin to facilitate nutrient delivery to muscle tissue. When you exercise, your body draws from its stored glycogen reserves and quickly exhausts it. That’s when fatigue sets in.
If you are looking to maintain optimum performance, you have to ensure that your glycogen reserves are adequately stocked. To do this, all that you need to consume your carbohydrates. Each glycogen molecule also attaches 4 grams of water with it. So glycogen can also indirectly help increase your muscle size with intracellular water retention.
Hormones – Last but not the least, we have hormones. There are three primary hormones that play an important part in inducing muscle hypertrophy. These are Testosterone, Growth Hormone and IGF-1. You can increase endogenous levels of these hormones with resistance training, which might have a small impact on muscle growth. But it will not be close to what you can achieve with exogenous, supraphysiological doses of these hormones.
Rather than getting hung up over the number of protein shakes you consume in a day, aim to consume a healthy, wholesome diet. Focus on getting the adequate amount of all 3 macronutrients and essential micronutrients.
Supplement the ones that are hard/impossible to get from natural, dietary sources.
Protein – Mix up your protein sources to include lean meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and green leafy vegetables. 1 gram of protein is 4 calories.
Carbs – Try to source your carbs from vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds and whole grains. It should be a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates. 1 gram of carbs is 4 calories.
Fats – Fats play a vital role in the absorption of several vitamins and hormone production. They are not the villain that they are unfairly made out to be. Get your healthy fats including Monounsaturated fats from Olive and Avocado, flaxseed, fatty fish, soy milk and tofu. 1 gram of fat is 9 calories.
When it comes to muscle growth, you have to eat in a calorie surplus. You cannot eat like a bird and expect to grow like a mule. Calculate your TDEE and add 200-250 calories to this. This is a good starting point. Analyze and tweak this depending on how soon your body adapts to this.
Get at least 8-hours of sleep. Sleep is the repair phase. It is also the time when your levels of GH spikes. A lot of times, inadequate sleep can cause fatigue, lethargy and affect exercise performance leading to poor outcomes.
Lastly, ensure that your muscles are constantly exposed to incremental levels of stress. Stress, nutrition and rest are the only three factors that will help your muscles grow.