May 6, 2022
Each of the three energy-yielding macronutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, gets its fair share of air time on the internet. With the rise in popularity of Keto, I feel that I hear about carbs now more than ever. But if you are counting your macros, and it has come from a desire to build muscle, then it’s likely that you will hear a lot more about protein than any other macronutrient.
If you’ve done some googling, you probably already have heard a few rule-of-thumb type recommendations for protein intake. Perhaps the most popular rule of thumb is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Wait… I didn’t say that it is the most correct. Claiming that any rule of thumb is the “most correct” goes against the entire meaning of a rule of thumb since it implies a general lack of specificity. From what I have seen, the internet has become more diverse in its recommendations for protein intake. This is probably partly due to the sheer amount of available content. But it can be hard to wade through fact and fiction to land on a protein goal that you can believe in.
When people learn how to set their macros, they will usually develop a personal formula that makes them comfortable and that they believe suits their goals. This often involves developing some rule of thumb relating protein to pounds or kilograms of body weight. The exact number used can change based on the person’s consumption of various media and informational sources that align with their aspirations. The quality of these sources can vary, and as people develop their opinions, they are happy to shout them from the rooftops. Ensure that you believe in the sources from which you get your information. It’s your health, after all!
So, how much protein is enough? The first question has to be “enough for what?”. Protein is necessary for many things, but above all else, it is essential for life. The minimum amount of protein is probably not why you are reading this article, but it is good to know. We will deal with that later in the article and discuss what you are most likely wondering about, which is:
0.63-0.91 grams per pound of body weight (1.4-2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight) is the amount of protein that the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends most exercising individuals should eat in order to gain muscle.
Now that is too simple of an answer, but it’s concise, and if you are just looking for a number answer, then that one is easy to get behind. Right out of the gates, it is important to say that the correct amount is different for everyone. This recommendation is a wide range, and it will usually fall within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges, which means it can’t be too crazy. It’s a very complex question, though, I won’t lie. There are many things for you to consider before coming to a conclusion.
First of all, it depends on your priorities and what you want to do with your diet overall. Suppose you are someone who just wants to ensure that you have enough protein in your diet to support building muscle during your resistance training. In that case, your opinion on how much protein you will need may be vastly different from someone willing to sacrifice all other parts of their diet for the possibility of gaining every last bit of muscle that they can from their training. It is also likely going to be different for a person trying to lose fat and ensure that they lose the absolute minimum amount of muscle during their diet. It can be easy to lose sight of some of the bigger picture of nutrition when hyper-focused on muscle growth or retention.
While I won’t be able to tell you an amount of protein that is certain to be the most optimal for you, I can point you to some resources to start you off toward making your own decision. A common persona is someone engaging in resistance training and looking to put on a bit of muscle. We will start by looking at some of the published opinions about protein requirements for most exercising people, who typically fall into this category.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition has an article that details its stance on protein and exercise. This article is the one that notes that 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight should be enough to promote muscle growth or maintenance among most exercising individuals. They distinguish between people who are dieting and those who are not, though, as they mention that this recommendation applies to those “maintaining a positive muscle protein balance.” Your body needs protein to handle regular repairs, but a positive muscle protein balance implies that you have consumed above and beyond the base level of protein, and there is some available to promote the growth of new muscle tissue.
If you are not in a positive muscle protein balance, you are probably in a “hypocaloric” period. This is another way to say caloric deficit and indicates that you are trying to lose weight by reducing your calories below what is required to maintain your current weight. If you don’t know a lot about energy balance, you needn’t worry. You can catch up by reading our blog about why counting macros can help you lose weight. For this recommendation, the ISSN has gone as far as to say a person may need 2.3-3.2 grams per kilogram of body weight or 1.05-1.45 grams per pound of body weight to maximize muscle retention.
These ranges are probably broader than you would have hoped, and I understand that you may not want to choose incorrectly within the range. After all, most people tend to want to select a specific number as their protein target. This leads some people to try to eat as much protein as possible. However, it is important to note that the ISSN is not indicating a preference toward the high or low end of the range. They are simply presenting you with the knowledge they have. Some individuals look at the range and identify that there is a minute chance that they could be gaining more muscle if they top out the range, as it seems beneficial to some people based on the research. They feel it is better to overshoot by a little rather than to leave some hard-earned gains on the table.
Beyond the theoretical potential of protein requirements, something to consider is how much is reasonable such that you are getting enough protein and still enjoying your food? How much protein represents an amount that allows you to continue to eat a variety of foods and leaves you enough room to eat the fruits and vegetables that are so important to your health? Perhaps when looking at these ranges, you can consider your willingness to eat protein at the expense of other essential components. Maybe you can put the entire range into practice and simply shoot to fall within the ranges given by the ISSN. At the end of the day, it will be up to you!
So, back to that minimum amount of protein that we referenced earlier. Of course, we can’t go too long without any essential nutrients, but we actually need quite a bit of protein compared to other nutrients regarding the minimum requirement for survival. The minimum amount corresponds to about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or about 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. Yes, there is an absolute bare minimum amount of protein that you need to consume in order to stay alive. Even if you have a sufficient energy intake, meaning that you have enough calories for your body to function, you can suffer serious health problems if you do not have an adequate protein intake. This type of diet can lead to a condition called kwashiorkor. While the word may not seem familiar, I am sure you’ve seen symptoms on TV. It is the cause of the characteristic distended bellies of malnourished children often seen in the advertisements for humanitarian aid groups.
If you are lucky enough to have high food security and eat a reasonably varied diet, it's very unlikely that you will struggle to meet the minimum protein requirement. Contrary to what some people believe, even if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, meeting your minimum protein goal should be very easy with a diet that includes basic protein foods and is generally well-rounded. However, that only applies to people who are eating enough food. Sometimes, people following highly restrictive diets can put themselves in danger of not eating the minimum amount of protein.