Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Protein: How Much Do Regular Guys Really Need?

How much protein do you really need?

There are a lot of answers out there, and they all seem to depend on who you ask:

  • WebMD (ugh) gives you the USRDA answer: The average adult male needs about 56 grams a day.
  • Runners World says you should be getting .55 to .77 grams/pound bodyweight. For me, that'd be around 110 to 125 grams per day.
  • Men's Health puts the number between .45 and .77 grams/pound bodyweight.
  • Men's Fitness puts the number at 1 to 1.5 grams/pound bodyweight. 
  • And Muscle and Fitness says 1 is a bare minimum, and even 2 is good. Good god, 400 grams of protein a day?
I'll be the first to admit I don't understand all there is to know about protein. What I know is that protein is made of the amino acids that are the building blocks of muscle. And if you're looking to achieve some level of fitness, what you're ultimately looking to do is to bump your body's muscle/fat ratio more in favor of the former.

But that doesn't mean you can just eat a huge steak every night and reap the benefits. Your body can absorb only so much protein at once. In real rough terms, more than 30 grams at a time is not going to help with muscle building. And if you're not exercising enough to create a calorie deficit, guess what your body is going to do with it? Convert it to glucose, and eventually to fat.

If you're a heavy bodybuilder, that's probably too simplistic of an explanation for you, and you may well be able to use more at a time. But then, you're probably not a Regular Guy, either.

OK, so we know that carbs and proteins each have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. You probably have an idea, based on your bodyweight, BMI and activity level, what your caloric baseline is -- mine's a little more than 3000 a day. So now we need to do some basic math -- how much of each macro should you eat to ensure you get the protein you need and feel satisfied, without going nuts on calorie intake?

Here's a good article that breaks things down based on your goals. A "normal" ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:1 carbs/protein. If you're trying to lose weight, you can go 2:1 or even closer. But my opinion is that if you're doing aerobic exercise (cardio) regularly, you're going to need some carbs for energy. Yes, your body does turn unused protein into glucose, but not in sufficient, readily accessible amounts for something like, say, a five-mile run. (Some other time we can talk about restrictive diets like Atkins and how they lead to cravings.)

So let's take my 3000-calorie diet. and try it at a 4:1 ratio. If I were to shoot for the high end of the Runner's World suggested intake, 125 grams, that's 600 calories from protein and 2400 from carbs. Oops -- no room for fat at all. Something has to give. Go to 3:1 and I have 600 calories left for fats. That's about 66 or 67 grams of fat -- not horrible. You can monkey with any of the variables here except one: calories. If you burn more than you eat, you're a winner. If you take in more than you burn, you gain weight. 

Now I want to come back to that idea that you absorb only about 30 grams of protein at a time (every three hours or so). What this means is you want to spread your protein intake throughout the day. Here's how I try to do it on a strength-training day:
  • 7:00 a.m.: Whey protein shake right after my workout.
  • 10:00 a.m.: Protein bar.
  • 1:00 p.m.: Lunch
  • 5:00 p.m.: Greek yogurt with chia seeds
  • 8:30 p.m.: Dinner
My diet isn't ideal, because by 8:30 when I finally get to dinner, I'm generally famished and eat too much. But it's not a bad spread of protein intake throughout the day -- netting five shots of roughly 25 grams. I'm also filling in, mostly during the afternoon, with raw fruits and veggies.

Is that enough? I'm still not sure. I know I've been putting on a modest amount of muscle, especially of late with my new-found commitment to bodyweight training. But it's a question of how to add more protein without adding big calories, and that's something I haven't solved yet. I'm not willing to give up the micronutrients I get from fruits and grains, so unless I ramp up my calorie burn to an insane level, I'm pretty much set where I am. 

So sound off! How much protein are you getting? What sources are you getting it from? Do you feel like you're getting enough? How can I ramp mine up without killing my overall diet? Or am I good where I am? Let's hear from ya!

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