For example, a bodybuilder may tell you to eat two or more grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. A fitness enthusiast will argue that one-gram per pound is more than enough. And research has shown that one half of a gram of protein per pound of lean bodyweight is adequate for muscle building.
With all of this conflicting information out there, it’s no wonder that proper protein intake has become one of the most controversial topics in all of sports nutrition.
I, too, was once utterly confused about optimal protein intake. But now, after years of experimenting, I have total clarity on this heavily debated topic. And you will too, in just a few minutes.
Protein Intake Experiment
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my protein experimentation began when I first started training, some 25 years ago. I had just picked up a barbell for the first time, in an attempt to get bigger and stronger for football.
In hindsight, I knew nothing about nutrition and just ate what my mom had on the dinner table.
My mother was a vegetarian, so my protein intake was relatively low. During my attempt to “bulk up”, the only nutritional strategy I was conscious of was simply eating larger portions of mom’s food.
After two months of this simplistic protocol, I had gained 6 pounds. I didn’t take body composition tests back then, but looking back, I’m confident that the majority of this weight was muscle based on the strength gains I had made.
At about the same time, my friend’s older brother, Anthony (who was a competitive bodybuilder), took notice of my passion for building muscle. He decided to take me under his wing.
In addition to bringing me to the gym with him, he also changed my diet. He was adamant that I increase my protein intake. I complied. Looking back, however, I now realize that even though I continued to make gains in the gym, my rate of progress was about the same as it was before I increased my protein intake.
The next phase of my protein experimentation began when Anthony moved away. I had lost my mentor and training partner and was forced to find my own way. Luckily, I was training in a gym full of competitive bodybuilders who were generous with their advice.
Since I had my sights set on my own competition, I emulated the nutritional approaches of the other competitors in my gym. This resulted in my increasing my protein intake once again. But surprisingly, my rate of progress did not improve.
For the next several years, I would continue to increase protein intake more and more. Eventually, I hit the bodybuilding “holy grail” of 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
At the time, I was shocked that I wasn’t getting any bigger, leaner or stronger because of my high protein intake. And quite frankly, I was sick of carrying around and eating so much meat all day long.
I wanted to cut back, but I was nervous to go against the conventional wisdom. I was so brainwashed that I was convinced that my muscles would start shriveling up the moment I decreased my protein intake.
But one day my desire to eat less meat was stronger than my fear of muscle loss and I went for it. I cut back to one and a half grams per pound of bodyweight.
Guess what happened? Nothing! I didn’t lose any muscle or strength. This was pleasantly surprising and gave me the confidence to reduce it further.
Next, I went down to one gram per pound. This was literally half of the protein I was eating six months prior. My results? The same! No loss in muscle and strength and my rate of progress remained exactly the same.
This got me curious about how far I could take this little experiment. I reduced my protein intake to half a gram per pound of bodyweight. Still no difference!
I continued to decrease until I got down to .25 grams per pound of bodyweight. This was the first time where I actually saw a difference. At .25 grams per pound of bodyweight, I wasn’t recovering as well and had lost a little muscle.
In essence, this experiment took me full circle. I started on a low protein diet when I was a kid, increased it to inhumanly high levels, and eventually scaled it back down to relatively low levels again.
Here are the lessons I learned during this journey:
1) ½ gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is all you need to build muscle. Increasing beyond that has little effect on muscle growth.
2) If your carb tolerance is poor, you may need to increase your protein intake in order to reduce carb consumption and still get enough calories. In this case, going up to one gram per pound is advised.
3) The most important factors in muscle building are your total caloric intake and your resistance training routine.
During my protein experiment, every time my training wasn’t dialed in or my total calories dropped too low, muscle building was adversely affected.
But when my training was “spot on” and calories were adequate, gains in muscle and strength were steady and predictable.
4) Protein shakes are just for convenience. I don’t care what the protein manufactures say about biological value and amino acid profile, drinking protein shakes is not superior to eating whole foods.
And since eating protein from natural food sources increases satiety, I can argue that whole food protein is superior to shakes.
5) Extremely high protein intake may be unhealthy. Some of my client’s blood test results showed elevated creatinine and BUN levels when following high protein diets. For those of you who don’t know, these are kidney function tests.
Years later when I had a kidney stone, the urologist told me, “I’ve been testing and working with kidney function for over 25 years. Don’t follow those high protein bodybuilding type diets. They overburden your kidneys.” Maybe there is some truth here.
6) Most of the research done on optimal protein intake for muscle building is funded by protein manufactures or the meat and dairy industries.
These industries have a vested interest in higher consumption of protein. Thus, these studies are biased, and they are not to be totally trusted.
7) Protein timing is not important. I was once guilty of drilling into my clients’ heads that they MUST eat protein every 2 ½ to 3 hours in order to provide a steady supply of amino acids for optimal muscle building and maintenance.
This required my clients to eat five to six protein-based meals per day. I have now discovered that there is no noticeable difference in bottom line results if my clients eat protein twice per day rather than six times per day. As long as they intake their required daily amount, they get good results.
8. Post-workout protein doesn’t have to be whey. The experts tout that following a workout, you must quickly intake a “fast acting protein”.
This seems logical enough, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter if your protein is fast or slow acting during this post-workout window. In over 20 years of varying my post workout shakes, I’ve never seen a bit of difference in actual results.
I know the above points may go against what you’ve read. But I can assure you that I have studiously investigated this issue for decades. I stand by these results. They are the real deal.
My opinion is that the high-protein craze that has been standard operating procedure for the fitness industry for so long now is no more than a strategy for the huge protein industry to make more money.
With billions of dollars of books and powders sold each year, it would make sense that they would do everything they can to boost profits as high as possible.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the high-protein approach is just honest (but misguided) advice that has been handed down from one bodybuilding generation to the next.
Whatever the truth is, I can assert with confidence that extremely high protein diets are no more effective that the approach I have outlined above.
Are you nervous? Do you not believe me? You might be brainwashed just like I was. Hey, how about this: don’t take my word for it, try your own experiment!
Ingest a lot of extra protein for a month. Keep everything else the same. See what happens. Did you build more muscle? Get stronger? Leaner? I doubt it.
Following my moderate protein recommendations will save you cash and force you to focus on what’s most important— training properly, getting adequate recovery, eating the optimal amount of protein and consuming the right amount of quality calories for your goals.
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