Strolling down the aisles of our local grocery store looks a little different to us than a few years ago. More and more packaged foods are highlighting their protein content or even creating higher protein versions of their products. Protein is having a moment. While we are not huge fans of most of these overly processed products, it is nice to know that people are paying attention.
If you’ve checked out some of our Devour Nutrition recipes, it’s easy to see that we are fans of protein. In our bodies, proteins control and operate many of our daily functions and movements without us being aware. Our muscles are made up of protein, and the process of building them up and breaking them down is intimately tied with our consumption of it. Plus protein tastes good and can be very satiating. So how much should we eat? Should we be chasing every meal with Greek yogurt or eating a pound of chicken a few times a day? People eating a typical Western diet are probably consuming enough protein to avoid deficiency, and for those who don’t want to think any more about it, that works. However, avoiding deficiency related issues and reaping the benefits of optimum intake are two different animals. These benefits are substantial enough that it’s worth the extra effort of analyzing and adjusting your protein intake.
Athletes, older populations, pregnant women, and those trying to lose weight all benefit from higher protein intake. Read on to see why and how much.
Let’s start with athletes. When you think of high protein diets, this may be the most obvious group that comes to mind. This absolutely matches reality. The recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8g/kg body weight per day, which is meant to maintain protein balance in our bodies. But balance doesn’t cut it for athletes; at least those who want to perform optimally. In general, athletes perform better with higher muscle mass and less body fat, and dietary protein helps build the foundation for that muscle. This seems obvious in sports where performance is clearly tied to body composition, but some evidence even shows higher protein diets improving performance in endurance athletes. Current research suggests that protein intakes as high as 1.8g/kg are optimal for performance. Total protein here is 100% the most important part, but there is also a good amount of research showing that spreading this intake out is a good idea. No, this isn’t eating 6 meals a day to stoke the metabolic fire—that is a myth. Rather, it seems like consuming protein at each of your 3-5 meals a day (about 0.4g/kg body weight protein per meal) spread out by 3-4 hours gives your muscle building machinery a kick into high gear.
Now, don’t sell yourself short on the athlete part. This recommendation is not just for elite, professional athletes who are slamming back steak and raw eggs between events. If your motivation for getting after it in the gym includes any level of athletic or competitive goals, you would absolutely benefit from this advice. Bottom line: for everyone training with athletic goals in mind, bump your protein up to 1.8g/kg a day. Have that all dialed in? Go a step further and distribute it out during the day.
The next group of people who may want to consider a higher protein diet are older populations. I know that there are many of you out there kicking ass at 40, 50, 60, and beyond, but there are still a few things to consider that occur as we age. As one reaches their 4th and 5th decades, a slow, age-related decline in muscle mass begins, which is known as sarcopenia. This happens to everyone, and the slow rate of sarcopenia in those who still maintain activity levels isn’t too much to worry about. However, when coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, this can amount to a fairly serious loss of muscle mass that can lead to declines in strength, impaired mobility, and greater incidence of falls as we age. Not surprisingly, sarcopenia is also a predictor of disability in the elderly. Why does this happen? There’s lots of research regarding the mechanisms of sarcopenia, but put simply, as we age we don’t respond as well to the stimuli that turn-up the muscle building process. Eating protein-rich foods turns this process up normally, but the response is blunted in the elderly. So while you may have been able to put on muscle in your teens eating nothing but junk food, you’ll find this diet won’t support muscle gains or even muscle maintenance as you age.
There is good news, though! Research has shown that the elderly do appear to maintain the capacity to stimulate muscle growth from eating protein. It just takes a larger amount. How much larger? Increases up to 1.0-1.2g/kg of body weight have shown positive effects, and is the published recommendation from an international study group looking into protein needs in older populations. This number is bumped to 1.2g/kg minimum if resistance training is added.
An interesting side note is the importance of resistance training in these populations (but really, every population). To quote the study, “with exercise, frail older people can gain muscle strength and function into their 9th and 10th decades of life, as shown in resistance-training studies.”
How much is 1.2g/kg of protein? Well, if we take a 180lb male or a 130lb female, this would come out to about 89 and 65 grams of protein, respectively. A single 3.5 oz cooked chicken breast has about 27g of protein, so you can put to rest the image you have of slamming down protein shakes every hour on the hour in your 70’s. While the research is less clear on protein distribution, some do recommend trying to consume around 20-30g of protein at every meal, with about 3-4 meals a day. The nice thing about this recommendation is that if you are shooting for about a palm-size worth of lean protein at every meal, you should have no problem hitting your total mark for the day.
The last population of people who stand to benefit from higher protein diets are those with weight loss goals. There are a million different weight loss diets and gurus out there, so why should the advice to increase protein stand out? The success of just about any diet comes down to its ability to control calories, first and foremost. This is the topic of another article altogether, but is important to mention here. Beyond calories, diets that end up increasing protein are also quite successful.
Between protein, carbohydrates, and fat, protein has the highest satiety effect, meaning it fills you up more, calorie for calorie, than carbs or fat. That is a great tool on your side when trying to drop some pounds. That friend you have that swears their new low carb diet lets them eat as much as they want and they still loose weight? They’re taking advantage of this helpful property of protein without even knowing it. By not eating carbs, they fill up on protein and are satisfied with fewer calories – hence the weight loss. Another interesting aspect of protein that we can leverage is that it has the highest thermic effect of feeding. This just refers to how many calories our bodies use to process the food we eat. And our bodies use about a quarter of the protein calories we consume just to process it. So, if you eat 400 calories of protein, you’re really only netting about 300.
Something else to consider is what type of weight we lose. While not everyone is aiming to be the next great Arnold Schwarzenegger, folks looking to shed a few pounds should be looking to lose body fat, not muscle. Losing body fat as opposed to just weight on the scale is considered “quality” weight loss, and there are a few reasons for this. We have discussed the negative effects that muscle loss can have earlier in the article, and maintaining muscle, or at least losing the minimal amount possible during a weight loss period, should be heavily prioritized. Furthermore, muscle mass is a large contributor to your resting metabolic rate, so the more you can keep as you drop the pounds, the better. This is where our friend, protein, comes in handy again. High protein diets are muscle sparing when compared to lower protein diets during weight loss. Our bodies are going to use the energy made available to it, but resistance training and higher protein diets are a great way to make sure it’s fat coming off, not your hard earned muscle. As a quick note, while this is not a training article, the enormous effects of resistance training on maintaining muscle mass in a calorie deficit can’t be overstated, and is highly recommended. The two have quite the synergistic effect, and for those who are interested in reading the literature, the Longland article cited at the end of this article is a great example of this.
It’s worth making clear again that diets higher in protein aren’t working any type of magic compared to other diets. Take two diets with a high and low protein intake, but the same calories. In the long haul you are not going to see meaningful differences in body weight. Adherence is high in this situation. However, diets that promote increased protein are often successful due to all the reasons discussed earlier. As opposed to carefully monitoring caloric intake, studies where people are only instructed to consume more protein during weight loss, without monitoring, show that they spontaneously lower their caloric intake and often report more satisfaction and reduced hunger. And of course, they lose more weight. Another way of saying this is that just focusing on increased protein intake (or lower carbohydrate intake, leading to a higher percentage of calories coming from protein) during a weight loss diet often produces a natural calorie deficit, maintenance of muscle mass, and higher levels of satisfaction compared to other weight loss diet compositions.
Check out this infographic showing the differences between losing weight on a calorie restricted diet that includes protein compared with trying to drop weight using a more extreme diet like juice cleanses:
So how much protein for those on the weight loss track? Similar to athletes, actually. We would recommend about 1.2-1.8g/kg bodyweight based on current research. Now, while competitive athletes looking for every possible advantage have the incentive to track this closely, this level of detail isn’t always necessary for those consuming higher protein for a little help losing weight. We love Precision Nutrition’s use of your own palm as a protein portion estimator. Women, start with one palm of dense protein, men with about two, at every meal. Adjust according to results and preference. This includes sources such as lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and beans/legumes.
Pregnant women also benefit from increased protein consumption. You’ve already read how protein helps with building and preserving muscle mass. Well, when you’re pregnant your body is working hard to build a whole person, and protein is definitely a required building block. Assuming your protein intake was adequate before pregnancy, you should try and add at least one additional serving of protein per day, especially after your first trimester. It’s worth noting that while fish is an excellent source of protein and other nutrients, pregnant women should be cautious of their consumption of larger predatory fish (fish who are higher on the food chain) due to mercury concerns. This FDA site is a nice resource for guidelines on eating fish while pregnant and includes the mercury content (and healthy omega-3 content!) of common fish.
If you fall into any of the above categories, more protein may be the answer, and we hope that these recommendations and strategies help. If not, and you are happy with the food you eat and are meeting the RDA, keep enjoying what you’re doing. If you have gotten this far and are thinking, “this sounds great, but I’ve heard high protein diets are dangerous”. That is totally false. To quote the PROT AGE study, “reviews of research studies reveal little to no evidence that high-protein diets cause kidney damage to healthy individuals, including those who are older.” Feel free to consume your protein worry-free.
So there you have it. Keep in mind that all of our recommendations are just starting points, and there is no catch-all intake for one person. Try bumping up according to what we’ve layed out for a few weeks, assessing your progress, and adjusting accordingly. And if you need help figuring out recipes to accomplish this, check out any of our entrees or side dishes on the blog. The infographic below provides a quick reference to how much protein each population should be eating and a guide to the protein content in some common foods.
- Bauer, J. et al. Evidence-Based Recommendations for Optimal Dietary Protein Intake in Older People: A Position Paper From the PROT-AGE Study Group. J. Am. Med. Dir. Assoc. 14, 542–559 (2013).
- Breen, L. & Phillips, S. M. Skeletal muscle protein metabolism in the elderly: Interventions to counteract the ‘anabolic resistance’ of ageing. Nutr. Metab. 8, 68 (2011).
- Churchward-Venne, T. A., Breen, L. & Phillips, S. M. Alterations in human muscle protein metabolism with aging: Protein and exercise as countermeasures to offset sarcopenia. BioFactors 40, 199–205 (2014).
- Clark, J. E. Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the effectiveness of treatment options for weight-loss and changes in fitness for adults (18–65 years old) who are overfat, or obese; systematic review and meta-analysis. J. Diabetes Metab. Disord. 14, (2015).
- Clifton, P. M., Condo, D. & Keogh, J. B. Long term weight maintenance after advice to consume low carbohydrate, higher protein diets – A systematic review and meta analysis. Nutr. Metab. Cardiovasc. Dis. 24, 224–235 (2014).
- Dong, J.-Y., Zhang, Z.-L., Wang, P.-Y. & Qin, L.-Q. Effects of high-protein diets on body weight, glycaemic control, blood lipids and blood pressure in type 2 diabetes: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br. J. Nutr. 110, 781–789 (2013).
- Longland, T. M., Oikawa, S. Y., Mitchell, C. J., Devries, M. C. & Phillips, S. M. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 103, 738–746 (2016).
- Moore, D. R. et al. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 89, 161–168 (2009).
- Pasiakos, S. M. et al. Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. FASEB J. 27, 3837–3847 (2013).
- Phillips, S. M., Chevalier, S. & Leidy, H. J. Protein ‘requirements’ beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. Physiol. Appl. Nutr. Metab. 1–8 (2016). doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0550
- Phillips, S. M. & Loon, L. J. C. V. Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation. J. Sports Sci. 29, S29–S38 (2011).
- Phillips, S. M. Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. Br. J. Nutr. 108, S158–S167 (2012).
- Phillips, S. M. A brief review of higher dietary protein diets in weight loss: a focus on athletes. Sports Med. Auckl. NZ 44 Suppl 2, S149–153 (2014).
- Santesso, N. et al. Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 66, 780–788 (2012).
- Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. et al. Dietary protein, metabolism, and body-weight regulation: dose–response effects. Int. J. Obes. 30, S16–S23 (2006).
- Sport Performance Research in New Zealand (SPRINZ), AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand., Helms, E. R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D. S. & Brown, S. R. A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein During Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes: A Case for Higher Intakes. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 24, 127–138 (2014).