How Much Protein Do I Need?
and why I think that is
an irrelevant question
From Dr Jordan Lam MBBS, read a maybe polarising opinion about diet, and some thoughts about how we see anecdotal evidence.
Bro One: "Hey bro, how much protein do you eat?"
Bro Two (me): "Probably not as much as you."
Some of you may have experienced a similar conversation, working out in a commercial gym and being interrogated about your lifestyle. Yet as if any question was more pressing than what night moisturiser the Kardashian use, experience tells me that there is no greater thirst for knowledge than the number of grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight that is necessary for maximal strength and/or size gains. In this article I attempt to answer this, but also explain why I myself think this is an irrelevant question.
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I may consider that encouraging high protein intakes is a conspiracy by the US government attempting to control the minds of the youth via protein supplements acting through prion-like mechanisms in neural pathways. However, let’s not go there as this would be plain silly. Or would it?
Why protein is idolised
Among the earliest evidence for the protein hype dates back to the days of the Dothraki, who consumed a staple of horse meat and fermented mare’s milk. The implication of historical attitudes towards diet are twofold. First, mimicking a diet of humans would eat in the wild is logical and beneficial; second, meat consumption has often been associated with masculinity and strength.
In keeping with the mantra of you are what you eat, it is assumed that in order to build muscle, one must eat muscle. Some take it a step further – to build MORE muscle, one must eat MORE muscle. I have even heard this taken to the extreme – to build ALL the muscle, one must eat ALL the muscle, which seems quite the endeavour.
Next is the science. Almost as a TKO to my whole argument, an abundance of scientific evidence exists demonstrating the benefits of higher protein intakes. I am by no means an expert in exercise physiology, but a quick search yielded plenty of studies showing that increased protein consumption leads to higher strength and size gains.
Almost a TKO, but not quite.
Although I am not a sports & exercise medicine physician, nor dietician, nor even a qualified personal trainer, I am an active researcher and doctor faced with making my own mind up about different treatments for medical conditions, using the evidence we have. One of the latest developments in my field is deep brain stimulation to treat obesity. Of course, the risks of eating more protein do not compare to brain surgery, but the problem is the same – what evidence we have, and do the benefits outweigh the health and economic costs?
Detailed discussion of the scientific literature is out of the scope of this article, but I do want to mention that merely because a research paper shows a result, this does not automatically mean that the result is real, meaningful, or even applies to you. In particular, studies on diet and exercise are incredibly difficult, not particularly well funded, and fraught with intrinsic limitations. Even more confusing is when other studies show the complete opposite results. On the other hand, research is not the only way to decide how to live your life, and here I would like to explain the logic that led me to stop tracking protein and became a breadivore.
1. Most consumed protein ends up in your (or someone else’s) toilet
Protein in your body is constantly being broken down and rebuilt. After being broken down, amino acids are released into the blood stream. Some amino acids are taken up by cells to serve a huge variety of functions, one of which is rebuilding muscle. However, too many amino acids make the blood too alkaline and any excess are burned for calories or excreted in the urine through the kidneys.
Scenario 1. You are 50kg, desiring to put on a an extra 10kg of lean muscle in a year, with the help of the best personal trainer in the BP community and some green tea extract pills from Amazon. On top of the standard 0.75g/kg/day as recommended by the British Nutrition Foundation, this equates to 69g of protein per day needed to build this amount.
Scenario 2. You are 90kg, aiming to put on an extra 10kg of lean muscle in a year. This equates to 99g/day.
This is certainly not the 3 or even 4g/kg/day you hear about or read in research papers. If a 100kg person is not gaining 146kg of lean muscle per year, where is this extra protein going? Moreover, this would equate to 1.3kg of lean chicken breast per day. That’s like six 200g chicken breasts. OK, I get it, you’re tired of the math. But seriously, I could make Thai green chicken curry for 18 people with that.
Bottom line: any extra protein consumed is NOT helping to build muscle.
2. The cows don't need it, and neither do I
Ten days after competing at the 2015 Raw Worlds at 58.3kg, I weighed 69.5kg without a noticeable difference in body fat. At the English only weeks after, I lifted PBs across the board (S:162.5->177.5; B: 100->120; D:200->227.5). As a student living in London, my diet at the time consisted of mainly bread, pasta, and unfresh fruit and vegetables. Although they did not test for strength gains, the cows that I have spoken to all share a similar story, experiencing vast gains in muscle mass on a grass-fed diet since birth. I would normally advocate caution when using anecdotal experience as evidence, but in this case, my example clearly refutes claims that suggest that high protein intakes are necessary for rapid gains in strength or lean muscle.
Bottom line: high protein intakes are NOT necessary.
3. Protein is in everything
Protein is in more than you think, for example constituting 8.4g per two slices of 59p Tesco wholemeal bread. For comparison, a large egg contains 6g, 200mL milk 6.6g and a 200g chicken breast 64g.
Bottom line: protein is NOT only in animal products.
4. Nana's advice and concluding remarks
Science and math aside, take a step back. Does a freight container’s worth of chicken breast seem right? My Nana always says “everything in moderation”. It makes sense – we do need protein, only in the context of a balanced diet.
You know what I say? I say get your micros in and the macros will follow.