Everything You Need To Know About Protein

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding fats and carbohydrates, but almost everybody agrees that protein is good for you.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the early 1900’s so-called diet guru John Harvey Kellogg purported that the intake of dietary protein had “negative effects on digestion and health.”, but then, John Kellogg was trying to sell corn flakes (aka a box of carbs).

It turned out Kellogg was wrong, and in actual fact, protein is important – really important.

Protein is essential to the structure of red blood cells, for the regulation of enzymes and hormones, growth, immune function and the repair of body tissue. It is made up of amino-acids that are the building blocks of muscle. Our bodies can’t make all of these amino acids on its own, and therefore they need to be supplied through the food we eat.

Put simply, protein is absolutely crucial to your health, and even more so if you exercise.

Sources of Protein

Protein

There are two different types of protein; complete and incomplete proteins.

A protein is deemed incomplete where at least one of the essential amino acids are found in too low a quantity to support basic living functions. By contrast, a complete protein is one that contains adequate portions of those nine amino acids.

Typically, vegan and vegetarian sources of protein are incomplete, but the truth is that if you’re eating more protein than the basic RDA (more on this later), and a few different types of protein, you don’t need to worry.

When your overall dietary protein intake is well above the RDA this issue really doesn’t matter at all.

Moving on, here are some sources of both complete and incomplete protein:

  • Red Meat: My personal favourite. In my post on fats I explained why saturated fat isn’t killing you, and why it should be part of your diet. Lean or not lean, meat is a great source of protein and healthy fats packed with important vitamins and minerals.
  • Eggs: Eggs are perhaps the cheapest source of protein out there, and contrary to popular belief you don’t need to worry about cholesterol and heart disease. Again, eggs are packed with vitamins and minerals, but only if you consume the whole egg. I haven’t got any science to back it up, but every time you throw away a yolk a fairy dies.
  • Fish: Personally, I’m not a huge fan of seafood, but fortunately I don’t mind some of the best types of fish out there; salmon, haddock and tuna. These are rich in healthy fats including omega-3.
  • Poultry: Everybody loves poultry because it’s naturally lean and easy to work into your diet. Chicken and turkey are both great options, but I strongly suggest staying away from the really cheap stuff in your supermarket as it’s pumped full of all sorts of crap.
  • Nuts, seeds, beans and legumes: This is the incomplete proteins category. All of these foods contain a good deal of protein, but are generally lacking one or more of the amino acids necessary for your body to rebuild new muscle. Yes, if you only eat one type of nut for the entire day you will be short of one of the amino acids, but if you eat a variety of proteins and above the RDA you will be fine.
  • Milk, cheese and yoghurt: There used to be a mentality in the bodybuilding community, that is still somewhat existent today, that all you needed to build size was squats and milk. Don’t get me wrong, you will build muscle with this approach, but it’s not necessarily the healthiest way to do it and there’s a good chance you will gain excess body fat in the process. As long as you don’t go crazy, dairy is still a great source of protein and contains vitamins and minerals that aren’t easily obtained from other foods (namely calcium and vitamin D).
  • Protein powders: By no means are protein powders compulsory, but they are convenient and relatively cheap. My recommendation is to use ‘whey isolate’. Whey is a complete dairy protein that is a by-product of the cheese making process. In its raw state it contains considerable amounts of fat and lactose (milk sugar). The fat and lactose is removed from the whey to leave you with ‘concentrate’ or ‘isolate’. Isolate is simply purer, containing less lactose (to which lots of people are intolerant) and fat.

You’re probably thinking that all of those foods (with the exception of eggs) are pretty expensive, and you’d be right. That’s why it’s important to have an idea of how much protein you really need so you don’t waste your hard-earned cash.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein

For obvious reasons, protein has long been a favourite amongst bodybuilders, athletes and just about any fitness enthusiast. However, lots of people fall into the trap of thinking more is better.

As Brad Pilon explains in his fantastic book on the subject, How Much Protein, if you eat too much you’ll gain weight. But if you eat too little you won’t make any progress. You need to get it just right.

Over the past decade or so, there has been an abundance of research into the ideal amount of protein that should be consumed each day. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking people are plucking numbers out of thin air, with numbers ranging from 0.4g/lb to 2g/lb.

Traditionally, bodybuilders have suggested 2g of protein per pound of bodyweight. It now looks like that number might be a bit excessive, but nevertheless bodybuilders recognised the benefits of a high protein diet before the rest of the population caught up.

Research now indicates that, if you are healthy and trying build some muscle, 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight (0.7g/lb) is a good target. This is much higher than the minimum RDA of protein (0.5kg/kg of bodyweight).

Here’s a table to show how that works out depending on your bodyweight:

Recommended Protein Intake for Muscle Growth

Bodyweight in LBsBodyweight in KGTarget Protein Intake in Grams
1205583
1406496
16073110
18082123
20091137
220100150
240109164

If, on the other hand, fat loss is your goal (and you are therefore in a calorific deficit), protein becomes even more important. It is a good idea to consume even more protein for the following reasons:

  • Protein is satiating (fancy word for filling): Due to the fact that you are consuming fewer calories, hunger becomes a factor and anything to reduce hunger is valuable.
  • To preserve your hard earned muscle mass: Your body breaks down protein for energy at a higher rate when in a calorific deficit. Unless you want to lose the muscle you worked so hard to build up, you need to increase your protein intake.
  • Protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF): TEF is the amount of calories your body needs to burn to digest food. 1g of protein is 4 calories, but when you factor in TEF it’s closer to 3.2 calories.

Protein intake should therefore be increased to 2.2g per kg of bodyweight (1g/1lb) when trying to lose fat, but don’t fret; I’ve got another super-helpful table for you.

Recommended Protein Intake for Fat Loss

Bodyweight in LBsBodyweight in KGTarget Protein Intake in Grams
12055120
14064140
16073160
18082180
20091200
220100220
240109240

I like to keep things as stress-free as possible. Shoot for these numbers depending on your goals, but if you go over it’s no big deal. Relax.

Before or After a Workout?

This is where the topic of protein gets a bit more controversial.

There’s an abundance of misinformation out there relating to the timing of protein consumption.

The typical recommendation is to consume protein as soon as possible after exercise, which sends some people running for their protein shakes (literally). The logic behind this is that your muscles need protein as soon as possible to start repairing themselves after strenuous exercise, thus giving them more time to grow.

However, the subject has been researched thoroughly (see here and here) and it has been found that the total amount of protein is the determining factor in muscle growth, not the timing of consumption.

As long as you get enough protein as per the tables above and are training after having eaten in the day, protein timing is not important.

It is important to note that this only applies ‘after having eaten in the day’. If you exercise in a fasted state (i.e. not having eaten anything before), consuming protein or a supplement known as BCAAs before strenuous exercise may help with the retention of muscle mass and the reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

It is also likely that consuming protein within 1-3 hours after a fasted workout is beneficial.

Can I Digest More Than 30g of Protein?

This a myth that Brad Pilon does a great job of debunking in How Much Protein (which I highly recommend by the way).

Somewhere down the line somebody came up with the idea that the body can only use 30g of protein at a time – anything beyond 30g of protein is supposedly a waste and is converted to fat.

Time and time again it has been proven that this is simply not true.

The Bottom Line

Protein is incredibly beneficial to your health, and plays an important roll in improving your physique.

But I think it’s something people overcomplicate.

You don’t need to eat crazy amounts of protein, or chug down a protein shake straight after exercise (unless you train fasted).

Simply eat a variety of sources including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts and legumes, and shoot for the guidelines amounts in the tables above. I suggest you use MyFitnessPal to begin with to ensure you’re in the right ball park, but after that just aim to eat some sort of protein with every meal and you’ll be on track.

Have you been getting enough protein (or too much)? Let me know in the comments!

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28 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Will – great post. About training “fasted”… I typically train in the AM before I eat. However, IF I wake up and find myself feeling like I am really hungry, I may eat some fruit or yogurt to suppress the hunger but then eat my full blown breakfast after I come back from the gym. Is this OK?

    • Hey Matthew – That’s a great idea and exactly how I would do it too.

      If you wake up in the morning and find yourself hungry, it is most likely because you didn’t eat enough the night before. In which case, fruit, yogurt and a coffee will prime you for your workout.

      Your ‘full blow breakfast’ after your workout should contain a balance of protein and carbs.

      Keep up the great work!

  • Will, great post.
    Also would like to know, does the person height need to be counted in as well? I am myself 193 cm and weigh now 84 kg.
    Accordig to your table i should be around 190 gram of protein for fat loss, which is what i am aiming for btw.
    I have set my goal on 1900 calorie a day, a deficit of about 500-600 from my maintenance which i have found doing trial and error for over 4 months (on fluctuating weight from 83-86 kg). On this daily caloriegoal i have set my daily goals to:
    Carbs: 174,5 gram

    Protein: 149,3 gram

    Fat: 67,2 gram

    Should i now up my protein goal and lower my carb and perhaps fat intake as well?
    I still do lifting, not progressing (used to do Stronglift 5×5) but just to maintain muscle mass a bit. So i am lifting around 60-70% of my max on 5×5 when i was on building muscles.

    Keep up the good work with posts like this, huge fan of you over here. And really enjoying your Bodyweight Workout Book, helped me create a good circuit HIIT training for at home.

    • Thanks for the kind words! Comments like that make all the hard work worthwhile 🙂

      In answer to your question – height could be a factor in total protein intake, but most of the research out there is based on weight, and so the numbers in those tables are the closest we’re going to get to a good estimate.

      Besides, your protein intake has a marginal impact on fat loss when compared to total calories. It’s awesome that you have found your maintenance from trial and error because that is more accurate than any calculator will ever be, so stick with 1900 calories and you will be on the right track.

      Your macros sound good too, but I will say that you should be carb cycling. It will speed up fat loss and allow you to preserve more muscle mass, and possibly even make gains. You can find out more about it here: http://travelstrong.net/carb-cycling/

      The best thing about carb cycling is that it makes fat loss fun because you don’t have to deprive yourself 🙂

      If you’ve got any more questions let me know. I’d be happy to help!

      • Thanks a lot, will look into that carb cycling. Of what i heard/read before it’s about eating low carb on rest day’s and higher carb on workout day’s. Also because of the enrgy you gonna need working out. No time right now to read entire article, so will check later

          • One more thing. I always tought carb cycling was for the more lean physique people that wanted to get down just a bit further on their bodyfat. I am myself still on a pretty high scale bf%.
            I am right now around 20-22%. I am measuring this with a 3 point caliper, doing this 5 times on each point and take the average of it.
            Wouldn’t it be wise to lower my bf% to about 16-17% at first by just eating at a deficit like i am doing now?

          • I recommend carb cycling to most people because it stops people from getting bummed out that they can’t eat what they want and falling off the band wagon, but yes you can certainly stay in a deficit if that works for you!

            The other thing carb cycling is good for is making sure the quality of your workouts doesn’t suffer. But 174g is a healthy amount so you should be fine 🙂

          • Well sometimes (especially weekends when you are not busy) it’s ahrd to keep myself in the 1900 range. But work day’s it’s not too hard for me. I use the MFP site to keep track of it, and try pre-logging as much as possible. Really helpfull as well on support from others. Last wek i was frustrating on not dropping weight for more then 4 weeks on deficit. Turned out i was just not hydrating myself enough, i tought i was, but was drinking between 1 and 1,5 liter. Now 1 week later of drinking around 2,5 – 3 liter ( 3 is most of time on workout day’s) i dropped 1,5kg on the scale again. I underestimated the importance of hydrating 😀

          • I think that goes to show just how useful tracking your food intake is! If you hadn’t been, you wouldn’t have had any idea whether you were consuming too many calories or whether the issue was something else.

            I think I might have to do a post on hydration given that it’s something a lot of people (myself included) overlook!

          • Just been reading the carb cycle article and i think i will give this a try for a few weeks. Going 175 gram carbs and around 150-160 gram protein on workout day’s and lowering my carbs to around 120 gram on rest day’s and upping my protein to around 190 and bit more on the fats. Wanna get those extra fats out of cheese and almonds/walnuts. See how this will going to workout for me.

          • Will keep you updated, Will just send you mail with stats or something like that, cause don’t wanna post everything here haha

  • Awesome post. I tend to eat around 200g of protein each day (my weight is typically 190). I didn’t realize that it was a bit excessive for building muscle. It’s sort of counterintuitive that more protein is needed when burning fat than building muscle, but it’s also very good to know.

    You mentioned that, for vegetarians (including vegans), getting enough protein from a variety of sources is sufficient – a fact which I can attest to. But will the required QUANTITY of protein need to be increased? Or is it safe for hippies like me to stick to the guidelines you gave?

    Still loving the blog!

    • Hey Paul!

      It is counter-intuitive isn’t it, but I suppose that’s only because we’ve been force-fed the idea that protein builds muscle (I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist ha!)

      Haha, for hippies such as yourself the recommended protein intakes above are perfectly fine as long as it’s coming from a variety of sources.

      Glad you’re still enjoying the blog! 🙂

  • Hi Will, I have 15 year old twin boys that do heaps of sport / training. What would your advice be for them using a protein shake as a top up to their normal food intake?

    • Well, it totally depends on their normal food intake. If they’re eating a source of protein with every meal, that will most likely be ample. But if their diet is devoid of protein, or they are only getting one serving a day (with dinner, for example), then a protein shake after exercise may be beneficial.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  • Really don’t like being coerced into tweeting/FBing to see relative information. If you info is worthy, peope will do this on their own. Shouldn’t have to withold to make people “like” your info!

    • Hey there,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s always good to hear what people think of the website. I appreciate that it’s not for everyone, but most people seem to be happy to do me a small favor by sharing the content that I put a great deal of work into creating.

      It’s not about making or forcing people to like my info, it’s just about them helping me out by sharing it with their friends. But if that’s not for you or you’re not active on social media, you can always use the contact page to get in touch with me and I’ll happily share any ‘hidden’ content with you.

      Will

  • Hi! Thanks for all the information that you shared across this blog and I really appreciate your effort and hard work putting in to let beginners like me wanting to know more details about health and exercise! Really inspired me to take on a healthy journey. Liked and subscribe! Looking forward to all your amazing post 🙂

  • Would you recommend different guidelines for those over 50 years of age? I’ve read a few articles now regarding the need for more than the recommended amount due to muscle loss after the age of 50.

  • Hey Will,

    Thanks to you, I’ve both been trying to hit these protein numbers (I’m about 82kgs, I believe), AND carb cycling.
    Now, I typically can gain both muscle and fat quite easily, but I find carb cycling has helped me cut fat while making some small muscle gains.

    Do you recommend carb cycling for those trying to build lean muscle? If carb cycling is a good idea for hypertrophy, it is best to eat higher amounts of protein on rest days (i.e., 2.2g/kg bodyweight), and lower amounts on resistance training days (i.e., 1.5g/kg bodyweight)?

    Thanks!

    • Hey Paul! So awesome to hear that carb cycling has been working for you so far. In answer to your question:

      Yes, I definitely recommend carb cycling to those trying to build lean muscle. Actually, it’s one of the few ways that building muscle without gaining fat is possible (intermittent fasting can help too).

      Eating more protein on rest days, and less on training days can work really well too, although I would consider it more ‘advanced’. It really depends on whether you think that it’s something that you are realistically going to be able to do! If not, it might be easier to keep your protein intake consistent depending on your primary goal.

  • Hi Will, love your blog posts! I was a bit confused before reading about carb cycling because i cycle to work everyday (1hr 10 in total) and I do pilates 3 times a week and HIIT 3-4 times a week (on the other days). Am I right in thinking that I only eat carbs on HIIT days and not on Pilates days? I am only 48kgs and 155cm, but am just trying to burn some fat and build muscle – have always struggled with this in the lower stomach region! Do you recommend counting calories still whilst carb cycling i.e 1500 on low carb days? If so, can you increase this in respect to how much calories you are also burning i.e on myfitnesspal if i burn an extra 500 cycling does that mean on low carb days i can eat 2000 or do you still stick to 1500?

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