Protein for Building Strength: How Much is Enough?

How Much Protein Do We Really Need?

Adjusting macronutrients (or “macros” as they are often called, referring to protein, carbohydrates and fat) has been a popular weight loss strategy for many years now. Remember the low fat craze of the 90’s? Now we are seeing shifts to higher fat and higher protein diets in recent years. When it comes to weight training and muscle building specifically, the focus seems to center more on high protein diets. In fact, the average American now consumes over 100 grams of protein per day, which is anywhere from 20 – 50% higher than our actual needs in most cases.

The standard calculation we typically use for assessing protein needs for the general population is this: .8 – 1.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a 150 pound female, for example, this would equate to 55 – 68 grams of protein per day.  For a 210 pound male, this would be about 75 to 95 grams per day.

In general, we know that athletes definitely need higher intakes. For example, football players often need anywhere from 140 – 180g per day. But what about the average person, hoping to exercise more and gain a little muscle mass for weight loss and general health? The common thinking has been that more is always better, but should we be aiming for higher protein intakes in these cases as well, and if so, how much is enough?

These are all great questions. Thankfully new research seems to suggest that protein intake for middle-aged adults need not be as high as originally thought to adequately build muscle and improve exercise performance.

The study, published in the American Journal of Physiology and Endocrinology and Metabolism, found higher protein intakes in middle-aged adults did not provide any extra benefits over moderate protein intake, and, more than anything, timing of protein intake was most important in promoting muscle growth. In fact, the moderate protein groups consumed half as much protein as the high group and achieved the same results!

The best timing strategy, it seems, is to consume some type of protein shortly after exercise and then again 2-3 hours before bed.

While clearly diet quality and balancing of macronutrients is important, protein loading does not seem to provide any additional benefit.

The main take-away here is to keep exercising of course, but in terms of diet, don’t overthink it. Definitely make sure you have a balance of animal and plant proteins in your day and, if possible, strategically time it so that you have protein choices shortly after working out and again with the evening meal.

Good protein choices could include lean meats, dairy products, soy products such as tofu, plant based “meat” products, and even nuts and legumes. Protein powders and shakes can also be great choices and are certainly helpful in terms of convenience.

Whatever your preferences, just make sure to keep up a steady protein intake while making strength training a regular part of your exercise regimen.