Protein might not make the earth rotate — we’ll leave that one for the astrophysicists – but as one of the three main macronutrients we need in our diets, it does keep our bodies ticking the way they should. It provides energy, for starters, helps heal wounds, and, of course, plays a key role in building the muscle we need to go about our day-to-day.
And so thinking “how much protein do I need” isn’t just something to wonder while you’re waiting for the bench press to free up –it’s a question that applies to all of us wanting to keep our minds and bodies as healthy as they can be.
Here we break down what you need to know, with an easy answer to that “how much protein do I need” question, as well as a deeper dive for those who want to get into the science, and a few bits to cover everything in between.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight, per day. “If you weigh 75kg this equates to 60g protein, or the equivalent of two chicken breasts,” explains Daniel Clarke, registered nutritionist and junior sustainable nutrition manager at Huel. “It’s really not very much.”
Well then, wam, bam, thank you Dan. And yet, rather predictably, there’s more to it. “The RDA is for sedentary people, so as soon as you get moving, up go your protein needs.
“When it comes to building muscle, double that RDA, and aim for 1.6-2.2g protein per kg of body weight. Above 2.2g per kg, we no longer see any benefits to building muscle.”
After figuring out how much you need, there comes the non-too-small matter of working out how to get that protein in your belly. Slam one monster shake and be done with it? Well, anything over 100g of protein in one serving and your stomach will certainly not be thanking you for it.
“Having around 100g of protein in one sitting can lead to digestive issues such as bloating and stomach cramps,” says Clarke. “These issues can occur at much lower amounts than 100g, however at around 100g the issues are so bad that people can't consume much more protein.
“There is some research suggesting that having too much protein can eventually lead to health issues, however, this mainly relates to animal protein and animal-based foods high in protein.”
Clarke explains that you’d be better off spreading your protein intake throughout the day if you’re looking to build muscle. This is mainly because our bodies can only use so much protein for muscle-building at one time.
“The body is constantly using protein,” says Clarke. “A more even protein intake allows the body to use this protein as quickly as it's coming in, rather than ‘wasting’ excess protein on lower priority tasks like for energy.
“Aiming for around 20-40g of protein is great for building muscle and is also good for helping you feel full because protein is more satiating than carbohydrate and fat.”
That means someone who weighs 80kg and is looking to build muscle needs to put away around 130g of protein per day, which can be tough to split across just three meals. But Dan has some tips: “The first meal of the day is typically lower in protein so make a conscious effort to include some there,” he says. “An easy way is through a protein shake, or adding protein powder to porridge.”
Snacks should also be protein-heavy – think things like nuts, or Huel Complete Protein bars, which offer a 20g hit for just 200kcals and are also nutritionally complete, so you get a load of other good stuff, too. Alternatively, there’s Huel Complete Protein powder, which contains an even bigger protein hit.
“Ideally, most of your protein will come from wholefood meals, but this can be harder if you have a low appetite or follow a plant-based diet, for example,” Dan adds. “Protein shakes really help with convenience, and there is nothing wrong with including them in your diet if you struggle to hit your protein goals.”
When you’re looking to build real size and muscle, you’ll obviously need to ramp up your protein intake (and lift a bunch of heavy stuff, too – protein alone does not a bodybuilder make). But you need to think about calories, too.
“When people talk about bulking it’s about putting on mass as well as muscle, because that muscle has to fit onto something,” says Clarke. “This means that you should think about not just how much protein you’re eating, but also the amount of calories you consume. You want to consume more calories than you ‘burn’ to put on weight. There are plenty of calorie calculators online that can provide a guide, but 500kcal above your daily maintenance calories will do the trick.”
Many bulkers will go for a mass gainer in this case — supplement shakes with a hefty amount of carbs, protein, and fats to help you gain weight. But it pays to be discerning and not just throw down any old rubbish.
“The problem is most of them are just a cheap protein powder with an even cheaper, highly processed carbohydrate such as maltodextrin,” says Clarke. “The best powders provide a complete protein source. In other words, all the essential amino acids you need in adequate amounts, plus a higher quality carbohydrate such as powdered oats.”
Another popular query around the “how much protein do I need” question is whether you need to be upping your protein intake as you age. Short answer; yes.
It’s all because of something called sarcopenia – a progressive loss of muscle as we age – which can seriously impact your life expectancy and quality of life. It starts at about 30, with muscle mass decreasing approximately 3–8 per cent per decade, a rate of decline that accelerates after the age of 60.
”Aiming for at least 1g protein per kg of body weight, compared to the RDA of 0.75g protein per kg of body weight, is recommended, plus exercise,” says Clarke. “When I say ‘exercise’, this can be as little as going out for a walk or a gentle pilates session.”
Do note that the majority of recommendations about protein are based on male studies, and are generalised when referring to women, who have a number of different considerations to contend with. Not least, the hormonal changes women experience through the menstrual cycle, and also through pregnancy.
“Pregnant women's needs for everything increase because they're carrying another person,” says Clarke. Protein is no exception. Most people will find they get enough protein without thinking about it, so during pregnancy there are other nutrients to focus on, such as iron and folate.
“The menstrual cycle is less clear cut and I'd increase needs based on the individual. If someone feels better eating high protein foods at certain times of the month, then go for it.”
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