High Protein Diets: What you need to know
Updated: Jul 13, 2019
High protein diets have become very popular lately. In an effort to lose weight, people are cutting out the carbs and increasing consumption of animal protein (chicken, red meat, fish and pork), and supplements such as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), and whey protein. While it is true that our bodies do not prefer to store protein as fat, when you consume excess calories from any macronutrient, you will gain weight.
So how much protein do we really need? Are supplements helpful to accelerate muscle gains? Let's start with the basics.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is .8g/kg of body weight per day. The DRI is the established value that will meet the needs of the majority (approximately 98%) of the population. For a 150 pound person, this equals about 54 grams of protein per day.
Let's see how this breaks down
2 Eggs: 12 g
1 cup cooked oats: 6 g
2 tbsp chia seeds: 6 g
Total = 24g
4 oz extra firm tofu: 12 g
1/2 cup chickpeas: 6 g
3/4 cup quinoa: 6 g
2 cups raw spinach: 2 g
Total = 26 g
(Note: by this point, we have already accumulated 50 grams of protein, and would only need 4 more to meet minimum requirements)
4 oz chicken: 35 g
3/4 cups white rice: 3 g
2 cups broccoli: 5 g
Total = 43 g
Total for the day = 93 grams
This comes out to approximately .6 g/lb, which would be appropriate for a recreational athlete and some endurance athletes.
As you can see, the RDA can easily be met entirely through food sources. But what if your goals are to put on more muscle mass or you are a more serious athlete?
Protein Requirements for Athletes
While it's true that athletes require higher protein intake, the exact amount will vary depending on the type of training. Recreational athletes (those who work out 4-5 times/week for about 30 minutes) will require a bit more than the average sedentary person. If you workout 4-5 days/week for 45 minutes or more, your needs will be even higher. If your training is more endurance focused, aim to consume 1.3-2.0 g/kg depending on how intense your training is (unless you are an elite athlete, 1.3-1.6 g/kg should be sufficient). Endurance athletes tend to focus on carbohydrates, but don't realize that protein is necessary for recovery and to prevent muscle wasting.
For athletes focused on strength training and muscle growth, 1.6-1.8 g/kg is appropriate. If calories are being restricted, up to 2.0 g/kg may be necessary. That is because in the absence of sufficient calories, your body will start to break down protein from food and muscles for energy. Additionally, those who are new to exercising, teenagers, and elite endurance athletes will have higher protein requirements than the average person.
Can I get those numbers in pounds please?
Sedentary adult: 0.4 g/lb
Recreational adult athlete: 0.5-0.7 g/lb
Endurance athlete: 0.6-0.9 g/lb
Strength athlete: 0.7-0.8 g/lb
Athlete restricting calories: 0.8-0.9 g/lb
As you can see, 0.9 g/lb is the upper limit for protein requirements (remember, this would be for athletes training hard for an hour or more most days of the week). For a 150 lb person, this equals 135 grams of protein.
In our above example, we would need an additional 42 grams of protein to meet this threshold. This can easily be met by increasing portion sizes, adding in a protein powder shake, and/or consuming an energy bar or other high protein snack.
The most important point to keep in mind is that a consistent strength training routine utilizing the principle of progressive overload is the only way to build muscle. Increasing protein intake by itself will not lead to muscle gains.
Your body can only utilize 20-25 grams at a time. That is why it is important to space your protein throughout the day. Whatever your body doesn't need will either be burned off or stored as fat.
Remember, your food choices have an environmental impact. Try to decrease your weekly servings of animal protein and increase servings of beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, whole grains, fruit and vegetables to meet your protein needs. Many of these foods also contain carbohydrates which are necessary to replace muscle glycogen after workouts.
Let's Talk Supplements
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAS)
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The branched chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Leucine is important for muscle formation and isoleucine helps cells to uptake glucose.
BCAA supplements can be useful for people with low protein intake, and may help to stave off fatigue and muscle damage during exercise.
However, BCAAs are also found in whole foods, especially meat and dairy products, and whey protein. Plant foods contain them in smaller amounts, so you'll need to eat more to get the same amount. Many pea protein powders are also enriched with BCAAs.
There is not compelling evidence to suggest that BCAA supplementation offers significant benefit over consuming whole foods.
Whey comprises 20% of the protein found in milk (the other 80% is casein). It used to be discarded by cheese makers, but today it is sold as a supplement.
Whey is a high quality protein source, rich in BCAAs. It is considered a fast acting protein because BCAAs are taken up directly by the muscles instead of having to be metabolized by the liver.
Whey is a great option for a pre or post workout snack when getting a meal in doesn't make sense. However, whey protein powders tend to be low in carbohydrate, which is necessary before and after your workout. One disadvantage of relying too heavily on whey or other protein supplements is that they do not contain the variety of nutrients that are necessary to support athletic performance, muscle growth, and overall function.
Take Home Tips
As long as you are eating a balanced diet that consists of 20-30 grams of protein at each meal, it is unlikely that supplementation is going to add any benefit. Companies advertise that their products offer more bioavailable protein that is easier to digest. The truth is, as long as you have a healthy, functioning digestive tract, your body can use protein from both plant and animal sources just fine.
If you still have questions about how to eat to improve athletic performance, gain muscle, or lose those last few pounds, request your free nutrition consultation today!
Clark, N. (2014). Nancy Clark's sports nutrition guidebook. Fifth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.