If you’ve spent any time at all inside the doors of a gym, chances are great that you’ve heard a wide array of commentary, anecdotes, and opinions on this question. Do any of these snippets ring a bell?
”I would eat 300 to 400 grams of protein a day”
”Up to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight”
”I may even go closer to 1.3 grams”
”Right now 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight”
”0.82 grams per pound of body weight”
”0.4 grams times your body weight”
”1 gram of protein for every 1 pound of body weight” “a lot of people say that it’s actually not true”
Obviously, there’s a lot of conflicting information about protein out there. To clarify the confusion, in this blog, I want to condense the science-based information down to a succinct final answer on every protein-related question you’ve ever asked.
Maybe a good starting point is to look at the standard recommendation from the World Health Organization. As it pertains to general health, the WHO recommends just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of bodyweight. Following this guidance, an 80-kilogram (roughly 180-pound) person would only need about 65 grams of protein per day.
On a typical western diet, it’s difficult to not achieve this recommendation. For example, consider that a ground turkey and rice bowl with a glass of milk has 65 grams of protein and thereby would have you covered for the day. However, this recommendation doesn’t consider the extra needs from a weight training lifestyle, nor that many ‘protein experts’ have called for an increase, given the abundance of evidence showing health benefits with higher protein intakes.
The Sports Nutrition Research is perfectly clear in showing that this amount of protein simply won’t be enough to support, much less maximize, muscle growth. For that goal, we’ll need more.
How much more protein you precisely need depends on whether or not you’re bulking, cutting, or doing a recomp phase. Keep in mind that this variable applies to both men and women.
If you’re BULKING, your body is well-fed, meaning it’s much less likely to break down muscle tissue as a fuel source. There are plenty of carbs and fats to burn first. For this reason, you generally need less protein when bulking. Here, the best research recommends 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.7 to 1 gram per pound of body weight, per day.
We can see the trusty old “one gram per pound rule” holding up pretty well as a high-end figure.
If you’re CUTTING, your body’s not only getting fewer calories from food, but you also have less body fat and less glycogen as fuel reserves. It stands then, that your body is much more likely to break down muscle tissue as a source of calories. To offset this, the best data suggests increasing protein intake while cutting to 1.8 to 2.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight or 0.8 to 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight.
This time, we can see that the classic “one gram per pound rule” sits in the middle of the range.
If you’re already very lean and training very hard, you’ll want to aim toward the upper end, but if you have more body fat and are training more recreationally, the lower end will be plenty.
When on a RECOMP phase, you’re trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, while setting your calories around maintenance intake. I think most people can simply use the same protein figures as when bulking because at maintenance, you’re also at a low risk of muscle loss, assuming your training is on point.
However, it’s worth considering that there may be some advantages to going a bit higher on a recomp phase, especially if you’re in a light deficit or more advanced.
In the past, I’ve used this sliding model as a guide for recomp because it uses lean body mass instead of total body weight, making it more individualized, especially for those who hold more body fat.
Unfortunately, the extra step of subtracting body fat has confused some people. To remedy this, via researcher Eric Helms, I’ve come up with a simpler solution. If you’re overweight or obese, you can simply aim for one gram of protein per centimeter in height.
Following this formula, if you’re six feet or 183 cm tall, you’d aim for 183 grams of protein. This works shockingly well, especially if you’re at a higher body fat.
This brings us to a second question: “How much protein can you absorb in a single meal?” The simple answer is... ALL OF IT.
Your body can absorb an enormous amount of protein in a single meal, likely more than you could even comfortably eat. Although absorption simply refers to the passage of nutrients from the small intestine into the bloodstream, it’s important to understand that just because protein is being absorbed, doesn’t mean it’s being used to build muscle.
The real question is “How much protein can you USE in a single meal?”
This is where there’s some controversy. The earliest research suggested that 20 to 25 grams of protein in a single meal was all you needed to max out the anabolic response. It went on to proclaim that going above that amount didn’t do anything extra for muscle growth.
Although often cited, let’s not be too quick to jump on board with this. For a couple of reasons, I’m skeptical of this figure.
First, on the anecdotal side, there’s a huge intermittent fasting community who seem to be getting plenty jacked from just eating one or two meals per day, with upwards of 50 to 100 grams of protein per meal. Given their muscularity and gains, it’s highly unlikely that most of that protein is going to waste.
Second, more recent research has challenged the idea of a 20 to 25-gram upper limit. The 2016 study referenced below showed higher muscle protein synthesis with 40 grams of whey, versus 20 grams of whey, taken after a full-body workout.
In another 2016 study, greater muscle protein synthesis was noted from a meal of beef containing 70 grams of protein versus 35 grams of protein.
As you can see, although the amount of protein we can use per meal isn’t clear as of now, it’s likely higher than we used to think. Regardless, I think that your protein intake per meal is less important than your protein intake per day.
Despite this realization, most experts still suggest that, from both a digestion standpoint and for keeping muscle protein synthesis high throughout the day, spreading your protein out across three to five meals is likely best. Still, whether you eat two meals or six meals, as long as you’re hitting your daily protein target, you will build muscle. I just suspect it might not be quite as optimal.
Next, let’s move from the quantity of protein required to build muscle and look at the quality factor of the protein you’re ingesting.
Protein Quality is partly based on the amount of the amino acid, leucine.
Leucine is very important because it’s the “trigger” for stimulating mTOR, which then triggers new muscle growth.
Since three grams of leucine is a decent ballpark figure for maximizing the anabolic response to a meal, let’s take a look at how much of different protein sources you need to eat to hit that three grams benchmark.
In the table below, you can see that whey protein comes out on top. Note that with just 29 grams of whey protein, you’ll be getting three grams of leucine for just 145 calories. You can also get three grams of leucine and 40 grams of protein from chicken breast, and that would only cost you about 200 calories.
Moving down the list, you can see that you need to eat over 2,000 calories worth of whole wheat bread to hit three grams of leucine. Compare how it would take this much bread to give you the same anabolic punch as this scoop of whey protein powder.
As a general trend, animal sources of protein are higher in leucine than their plant-based counterparts, especially per calorie. However, this issue nearly goes away once we introduce vegan protein powders like soy, pea, and brown rice isolates which also offer three grams of leucine for less than 200 calories.
Despite the importance of leucine in checking for protein quality, you still need the other eight essential amino acids (EAAs) to actually build the new muscle. For EAAs, we use something called the DIAA Score, where the higher the number, the more EAAs that are in that protein source.
Once again you can see that dairy and animal proteins come out on top. A very important caveat to note in our analysis is that these tables all refer to proteins being eaten in isolation. In the real world, people combine various different foods and are almost guaranteed to get enough leucine and enough EAAs by simply getting enough total daily protein.
Although interesting and significant, this isn’t something I personally nitpick over, and it’s why I think PROTEIN QUALITY is much less important than many people realize. It’s also why leucine, BCAAs, and EAAs supplementation usually isn’t necessary, as long as total daily protein is sufficient.
However, vegan lifters should be a bit more strategic by either:
- Aiming toward the higher end of protein ranges,or
- Supplementing a high-quality protein powder (Such as vegan whey, which combines pea and brown rice protein to give it a similar amino acid profile to whey protein.)
Despite the idea that “Your entire training session is wasted unless you eat protein within 30 minutes after training” was debunked years ago, many people still believe and adhere to it.
In reality, as long as your pre-workout and post-workout meals are within roughly four- six hours of each other, you’ll be maximizing the anabolic response to training. A possible exception to this would be if you train fasted in which case you should try to consume some protein as soon as you can after your workout.
Perhaps a more important, but less discussed, timing variable is consuming protein before bed. The study referenced below from my friend, Jorn Trommelen and his colleague Luc Van Loon described pre-sleep protein as an important protein-feeding opportunity. They suggest consuming roughly 40 grams of protein before an overnight fast to improve overnight muscle protein synthesis.
This is personally what I aim for, even though other longitudinal studies that directly tested consuming a slow-digesting casein protein either before bed or in the morning found no significant difference after 8-10 weeks. However, both studies had subjects consuming a very high protein intake overall in the range of 2 grams per kilo or about 1 gram per pound.
Once again, I highlight that as long as total daily protein intake is sufficient, these specific timing factors are much less important.
In case you are wondering, there are also no legitimate safety concerns around a high-protein diet in healthy individuals. According to this gigantic position stand from the International Society of Sports Nutrition, “No controlled scientific evidence indicates that increased intakes of protein pose any health risks in healthy exercising individuals” and the amount of protein recommended in this blog has been shown over decades to not only be safe, but actually have health benefits. Even going way above the recommendations here, as high as 4.4 grams per kilo or 2 grams per pound, has consistently resulted in no harmful effects.
Once more, I emphasize that by far, the most important factor in protein utilization towards muscle growth is your total daily protein intake. If you’re looking to optimize further, you can pay attention to how you distribute your protein throughout the day, with three - five meals most likely being the anabolic sweet spot. These two factors alone will yield more than 90 percent of your potential results. However, from an optimization standpoint, especially if you train fasted or if you’ve had a really long overnight fast, protein quality can be worth keeping in mind and protein timing may have some benefit.
Before we end, I want to quickly shout out my Ultimate Guide to Body Recomposition. This is a 267-page book that covers everything on nutrition for muscle gain, fat loss, and specific strategies for how to do both at the same time. It includes sample meal plans and tons of examples for both male and female lifters when it comes to setting up your macros, cardio, supplementation, sleep, and plenty more.
If you’re looking to take your nutrition to the next level, you can check it out at jeffnippard.com.
A summed-up video of this blog is also available on my YouTube channel below.
That’s it for this one, guys. Thank you so much! I’ll see you guys all here for the next blog.
Daily Protein Intake:
How Much Protein Can You Absorb in a Single Meal?
How Much Protein Can You Use in a Single Meal?