Macros and Calories: So, How Much Protein Do You Need?

So, most of us have had a basic biology class on how body composition and nutrition works. Basically, we need to eat a certain amount of food on a daily basis in order for our body to have enough fuel to get us through the day. Cells typically convert carbohydrates into energy — and if you’ve run out of carbohydrates and need to burn more, it converts other parts of your diet into digestible carbohydrates (glucose).

Aside from carbs, we also need fats and protein. These three basic building blocks are what our bodies are made of, and they’re our macronutrients — meaning, the three nutrients we need a lot of on a daily basis. How much we need is based on our daily caloric intake — a calorie being a unit of energy produced by food when it’s broken down and used as fuel. So say you’re an average human being, male or female — typically speaking, we need about 2,000 calories to maintain our weight. Some people need a little more, others need less. It depends on your size, which affects how much your body burns on a second-to-second basis as a consequence of keeping you alive, and how much you do on a daily basis regarding exercise.

When you’re building muscle — or strength — you’ll be using your body a little bit more than the average joe. Because of that, you’ll need more calories in order to keep your body from catabolizing (destroying/breaking down) your existing tissue. For some of us, that’s exactly what we want — fat loss, by restricting calories through healthier, nutrient-dense low-calorie food, and exercise. But if you’re already pretty thin, you want to build muscle — so you need more calories. But, conventional wisdom tells you that you also need much more protein.

But is it actually so? Here’s the thing. Muscles are made of mostly proteins — our muscle strands are composed of cells which are made of very complex protein strands. They’re tough and harder to break down than most other parts of the body, which is why your fat storage (mostly glycogen, or converted sugars) is broken down before your muscles are. Because they’re made of so much protein, we think we need a ton of protein — but as science proves, we don’t need as much as you’d think.

Wait, why do we need protein again?

Protein shares a strong connotation with muscle, but the fact is that amino acids — the building blocks of protein — are important for much more than just that. All of your cells are based on protein. Your nucleic acid is a complex mix of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen (nitrogen only being derived from protein). Your nails, hair, and skin are largely protein. Fats and carbs are easily stored in the body as lipids and glycogen, but protein isn’t saved up except for in your musculature — where it’s put under constant stress, requiring rapid and regular regeneration.

Protein also plays a role in intracellular transportation, cell signaling, and basically every metabolic function. They’re also synthesized by the body out of individual amino acids, built as per your own genetic code to perform certain roles. That’s why we need protein.

But we don’t need much of it. Exercise is what builds muscle, not an excess of protein. You do need protein to build muscles, but you only need a set amount — any more, and no matter how many hours you spend at the gym, your body will simply get rid of the excess. What’s more important is being properly fueled to keep your body going — through a high-calorie, and nutrient dense diet.

So how much protein do I need?

The answer depends on what you’re doing. As per WebMD, there are specific USDA recommendations, but it’s better to take a look at some other studies to get a better idea. As per Philips et al. (2004) in the science journal Nutrition: “A review of studies that have examined the protein requirements of strength-trained athletes, using nitrogen balance methodology, has shown a modest increase in requirements in this group. At the same time, several studies have shown that strength training, consistent with the anabolic stimulus for protein synthesis it provides, actually increases the efficiency of use of protein, which reduces dietary protein requirements. Various studies have shown that strength-trained athletes habitually consume protein intakes higher than required.”

As per an awesome entry on the blog, The Bayesian Bodybuilder, there are several other studies that support these findings — people are consuming too much protein. There’s a prevailing myth that the rule-of-thumb is 1 gram per pound of bodyweight or roughly 2.2 grams per kilogram. This, however, is way too much. You’ll end up urinating or sweating a lot of it out, straining your kidneys. The actual rule? There is no definite rulebut you can identify how much you’ll need depending on what you’re doing. If you’re an athlete or a bodybuilder and you’re trying to attain strength or hypertrophy gains, then a better number to aim for is .75 grams per pound. Novice bodybuilders can get away with as low as .61 grams per pound.

As you get better at building muscle, your body uses less protein to create muscle. It becomes more efficient at the task. And furthermore, the closer you get to your genetic peak musculature, the slower you build and create new muscle, requiring less protein. The body is very good at being efficient with what you put into it — just like how strength training teaches your body to be more efficient in tackling a large amount of resistance.

The takeaway? You don’t need that much protein — as long as you get between .6 and .8 grams of complete protein (from every essential amino acid) per pound per day, you’re good to go. For someone weighing, say, 180 pounds, that’s 135 grams per day.

How much protein have you had today?

Currently listening to: Welcome to You & Me — Hidetake Takayama

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