PROTEIN - How much and what kind do we really need?Sep 22, 2021
My friend Michelle submitted questions about protein for my live Q&A on my Coach Tracy Roth Facebook page. She said “I know we need protein for health and to build muscle, but I’m wondering how much protein we really need, and what is the best way to do that? People at my gym said you can’t get enough protein or a complete protein with plant products, only with animal. I also heard a BCAA supplement is required after working out if I don’t want to lose muscle. So, what is the best approach?”
Honestly, how much we need, what type, and what the best approach with supplements is…it depends on several factors! We all have very different physiology and genetics, different behaviors and activity levels, and have different goals. What might work for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But that being said, there are some unbiased, scientifically-backed truths I can share with you about what and how much protein we need.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein for a healthy adult with minimal physical activity is currently 0.8 g protein per kg body weight per day. This is the minimum amount needed to maintain physical energy and avoid negative health impacts like anemia, edema, vascular dysfunction, and an impaired immune system (Wu 2016). Using myself as an example, I weigh about 140 lbs so that is:
140 lb / 2.2 kg/lb * 0.8 = ~ 50 grams
However, I am a very active person, so I need much more than 50 grams of protein per day.
Many sources reveal that to meet the needs of more active people, intakes of 1 – 1.6 g/kg are optimal. Those are amounts necessary to repair muscle damage from the stress of workouts, and to build muscle. The 1.0 g/kg applies to minimally active people, and the 1.6 g/kg applies to those engaging in intense physical activity or who desire hypertrophy. Notice the amount required for this is actually two times the amount of the RDA.
So, if I were doing intense exercise, which to me means regular progressive overload of weights, and really high intensity workouts for extended periods of time then 1.6 g/kg per day makes sense. For me that is just over 100 grams of protein per day.
I definitely do not get that amount of protein and I’m not usually working out like that so I think it is ok. I’m 50 years old and have had the same amount of muscle mass for the past 15 years or so.
I am more of an intuitive eater, but I do make sure I am getting enough protein in my diet because I am getting older by the minute and I want to ensure I maintain my muscle mass as I continue to age. I would put myself into a more moderate activity range, and from just paying attention to what I eat, which includes mostly plant-based veggies, whole grain carbs, and only some animal protein, I get around 80 grams of protein per day, which equates to an intake of 1.25 g/kg.
When it comes to the question about the best way to get adequate protein, a very recent and robust study done by the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil by the Nutrition and Sports Medicine Department shows there is no significant difference between plant and animal protein with respect to muscle protein synthesis, or success with weight training, or for health in general (Hevia-Larrain et al 2021). This is a HUGE finding for the warring camps of plant vs animal protein; however, the researchers make note of some very important differences, including, but not limited to the following:
- When eating vegan diets, it is important to know what you are doing so that you do vary your intake of protein types and get all the amino acids you need.
- Also, for vegan diets, the sources of protein do contain less protein than an equivalent amount of animal protein, so you do need to eat more plant sources to get an adequate intake of total protein. Therefore, it is helpful to supplement because that is going to actually be A LOT of food.
- When it comes to supplements – be wary of the source of information. Supplements are not regulated in the U.S. and in general, dosages and claims can be untrue. For BCAAs, and EAAs, the evidence is showing that taking them before, during, or after exercise is not that important. If anything, leucine, which is one of the amino acids in BCAAs, is an important amino acid to supplement with.
- Also, with respect to supplements, they are just that – meant to supplement a good diet if you have a deficiency. When it comes to working out, research actually shows there is no need to rush to gulp down a protein drink or recovery drink, you can just get a good, balanced meal or a smoothie afterwards (within an hour is great). Many people claim to feel better and more recovered after taking certain supplements and whether that is placebo or real, then that is good, keep doing it! But it’s probably not necessary.
- Other studies show that ingesting protein at regular intervals throughout the day is optimal, so every 3-4 hours.
Lastly, I want to share some recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine, where their reporting of specific studies indicates that for athletes, to maximize the adaptations to training, even if hypertrophy or muscle growth isn’t the goal, 1.2 – 2 g/kg of protein per day is optimal (ACSM 2016). Studies do show no adverse side effects with going as high at 2 g/kg but anything above that has been associated with adverse effects like digestive abnormalities and issues with your vascular system.
ACSM 2016: 0195-9131/16/4803-0543/0 MEDICINE & SCIENCE IN SPORTS & EXERCISE_
Copyright _ 2016 by the American College of Sports Medicine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietitians of Canada DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
Hevia-Larrain et. Al. 2021: Hevia-Larraín V, Gualano B, Longobardi I, Gil S, Fernandes AL, Costa LAR, Pereira RMR, Artioli GG, Phillips SM, Roschel H. High-Protein Plant-Based Diet Versus a Protein-Matched Omnivorous Diet to Support Resistance Training Adaptations: A Comparison Between Habitual Vegans and Omnivores. Sports Med. 2021 Jun;51(6):1317-1330. doi: 10.1007/s40279-021-01434-9. Epub 2021 Feb 18. PMID: 33599941.
Wu 2016: Wu G. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food Funct. 2016 Mar;7(3):1251-65. doi: 10.1039/c5fo01530h. PMID: 26797090.