When it comes to building muscle and losing fat, few questions can be as confusing as that of how much protein you should consume. The FDA’s suggestions for avoiding a protein deficiency are a lot lower than what the average lean, muscular person will tell you they eat. What’s the minimum and is there a maximum? We talked to multiple experts and look at a ton of research to land on the formulas used in this calculator.
Protein Intake Calculator
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How We Calculated Your Protein Intake
There’s a difference between avoiding a nutrient deficiency and eating the optimal amount of a nutrient. (Think how much Vitamin C will keep you from getting scurvy vs. the amount you might supplement with during flu season.)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s daily value for protein is 50 grams, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which is 10 percent of your total calories. A protein deficiency can cause muscle wasting and a greater risk of bone fractures, among other issues.(1)(2)
But if you want to maximize the amount of muscle you can build and minimize the amount of fat you’ll gain? Or if you’re eating in a calorie deficit, if you want to maximize muscle retention and fat loss, then just about every expert and non-expert (like that jacked guy at your gym) will recommend anywhere from 0.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Here’s what the data says on setting your own intake.
Minimum Protein Intake
Again, we’re not talking about the minimum amount to avoid a deficiency, here. We’re talking about the amount, in the words of the The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF),
to train as hard as possible with optimal adaptation and recovery, to remain healthy and injury free, to achieve a physique that is suited to their event, and to perform at their best on the day(s) of peak competitions.(3)
In other words, if you want to train hard, recover well, and look nice. And the IAAF’s position paper (linked above) falls right in line with the position paper of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: the minimum intake “active individuals” should shoot for is 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.54 to 0.77 grams per pound.(4)
Sports dietitians and nutritionists we’ve spoken to, like Precision Nutrition’s Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, Stronger By Science’s Dr. Eric Trexler, and Dr. Mike T. Nelson, simplify that by saying the “floor” you should hit every day is 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight. That’s your minimum. A lot of research, like a meta-analysis of 49 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, supports that number as well.(5)
“If your goal is muscle gain, the evidence doesn’t really suggest that eating more protein than that helps you gain more muscle,” says St. Pierre.
Average Protein Intake
When we say “average” protein intake, we’re talking about the standard amount that’s most often recommended by bodybuilders and athletes, which is 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
“I mean, I’ve told people that,’ says Dr. Nelson. “Especially if you’re cutting and you’re hypocaloric, yeah you can go to a gram per pound of bodyweight. That’s probably going to be fine, if you want to err on being conservative and make sure you’re covering the widest possible population? I think that’s fine.”
A gram per pound of bodyweight can also be a good goal to aim for not just because it won’t be any worse for your physique, but also because if you aim for this goal and you fall short, even by 30 percent, you’re still hitting the minimum advised. It’s not a big deal if you miss this goal, whereas those who keep their macros at the minimum may find themselves needing to be stricter with their diet.
High Protein Intake for Fat Loss
If you noticed Dr. Nelson’s comment about being hypocaloric (that’s in a calorie deficit), you may be wondering if there’s evidence that protein needs might change based on if you’re trying to lose fat or gain muscle.
To be clear: the majority of research and the most prominent sports nutrition bodies agree that there’s probably no need to exceed the daily 0.7 grams per pound, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
That said, there are a couple of studies that have suggested more protein might be useful if you have a good amount of muscle mass and are trying to lose fat quickly. One, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, , found that athletes in a big calorie deficit (40 percent below maintenance) maintained more muscle and lost more fat eating 1.1 grams of protein per pound than a group taking 0.54 grams, the absolute minimum recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.(6)
Another study published in 2014 that looked specifically at bodybuilders found that they would “respond best to consuming 2.3-3.1 g/kg (1.05-1.4g/lb) of lean body mass per day of protein.”(7) This is among folks with under 10 percent body fat, so they were eating an upper level of about 1.3 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Another big reason why extra protein might be useful for fat loss? It’s filling. Protein is very satiating, especially if you’re eating takes-a-while-to-chew meat instead of shakes, plus protein takes more calories to digest: about 25 percent of the calories from protein are burned just in digesting it, versus ~7 for carbs and ~2 for fat.(8) Remember, though, if you’re looking to suppress appetite, fiber is another option that’s extremely satiating if you’d rather not crank your protein up so high.
Remember, though, there really isn’t a lot of research on exceeding a gram per pound, and one study found it to confer no extra benefits to consume two grams per pound when compared to one.(9) The main thing to keep in mind here is to not eat so much protein that you’re running low in your other two macronutrients — fat and carbohydrate — which are also fundamental for performance and aesthetics. To get some recommendations for your total macronutrients, check out our macros calculator.
How to Track Your Protein Intake
If you’re new to measuring your food intake, don’t be discouraged: it’s easy for it to seem overwhelming at first, but there are a few tips you can keep in mind.
We’re big fans of the app Calorie King to determine how much protein is in almost anything, from chicken breast to a specific flavor of Doritos. (Not much.)
Once you know a product’s protein content, you can track your daily intake in an app like MyFitnessPal or My Macros +, which act as daily food journals. (They also have libraries for searching protein content of your foods, which are good, but not quite as good as Calorie King.)
Don’t want to futz with an app? Verywell’s Recipe Nutrition Calculator is a useful place to plug in what you’re eating and get the nutrition facts calculated for you.
A food scale
It’s a good idea to purchase an inexpensive food scale — many out there can fit into your pocket.
This doesn’t mean you have to weigh everything you eat for the rest of your life. However, it does pay to weigh your foods for a few weeks (and ideally enter into an app or food journal) so that you can develop the skill of getting a rough idea of the amount of protein you’re consuming at once.
Think of it as training your protein knowledge muscle.
The hand method
Another popular method is to eat “a palm” or two worth of protein at each serving. Estimate how much that is, weigh it, and use it as a default serving. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to eyeball pieces of meat (or other sources) and have a firm idea of a meal’s protein content, no scales required.
What’s a High Quality Protein?
One often hears of proteins being separated into categories of “high” or “low” quality. This refers to the source’s content of amino acids, the “building blocks” of protein: animal sources (including eggs and dairy) contain all nine essential amino acids, meaning the ones the body can’t make on its own. Vegan sources of protein typically don’t, with the exceptions of soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and a few others.
Generally, people worry about this more than they should. Research suggests that if you’re eating a varied diet, you’ll effortlessly get all your amino acids throughout the day, which is more important than getting them all at every meal.(10)(11) It’s also easy to combine plant-based proteins — like legumes and rice, an extremely popular combination throughout the world — and this forms a complete protein on its own.
How Much Protein Should I Eat at Once?
That said, the amino acids most closely linked to muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a process that switches on genes responsible for muscle gain — are the branched chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine has far and away the most research linking it to MPS.
Now, MPS is just one piece of the muscle gain puzzle: total daily calories is hugely important, as is total protein intake, one’s exercise regimen, sleep, and many other factors. While these are far more important than worrying about leucine — some research has found people to gain and lose the same amount of muscle and fat whether they’re eating every day or every other day, so long as their calories are in check — it seems that about three grams of leucine per serving is ideal for keeping MPS maintained.(12)(13)
You’ll get that in about 20 to 30 grams of protein from most protein dense sources, including many vegan ones like legumes and grains.
So if you’re eating 150 grams of protein a day, this might sound like you should eat 5 meals with 30 grams of protein each, so a meal every three hours. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s worth remembering that some research has found MPS to be about the same after six hours whether you ate two small meals with 30 grams apiece or if you ate a big meal with 60 grams of protein and then nothing else for six hours.(14)
There’s not a massive amount of research here, but as long as your meals are big enough that you’re getting in all your calories and protein by the day’s end, it appears you’ll have sufficient MPS throughout the day whether you eat three or six meals. Don’t lose too much sleep over timing, but it seems worth it to eat 20 or 30 grams of protein per serving.
Here, we’ve given you all the tools you need to make sure you’re getting enough protein from the right places at the right time to help you achieve your goals for athletic performance and body composition. Just make sure to speak with a doctor before making any changes to your diet and workout regimen.
Featured image via Oleksandra Naumenko/Shutterstock
Frequently Asked Questions
How much protein should I eat to gain muscle and lose fat?
Multiple sporting bodies have said that a minimum intake for those looking to gain muscle, lose fat, and improve athletic performance is 0.54 to 0.77 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day.
Many default to 1 gram per pound of bodyweight because it appears to be just as effective, it’s easier to remember, and it’s less of a problem if you happen to fall short of your goal.
How much protein should I eat at every meal?
Research suggests that 30 grams of protein per meal is a good goal to shoot for in order to maintain muscle protein synthesis, though 20 grams may be sufficient if the protein is very high quality and high in the amino acid leucine, like whey protein.
Do I need more protein as I age?
The body becomes more “anabolic resistant” as you age, so it may be more important to eat larger portions of protein at a time to boost muscle protein synthesis. For folks over 50, forty grams of protein per serving is a good bet.
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