Protein Intake Basics!
Of all the diet questions we get asked, dietary protein intake inquiries far exceed anything else. People are confused. How much should I have? When should I have it? What are the best sources? Will too much hurt my kidneys?
The truth is, for all of those questions the answer is pretty similar: it depends. It depends on your body weight, lean body mass, activity level, and many other factors. With that said, just because we can’t give an all encompassing number doesn’t mean we have no advice! There are some evidence based principles we can apply to help you find a reasonable starting point for determining your protein intake, and then you can adjust as you see fit while you progress.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for endurance and strength athletes. I believe this is a great starting point. This formula will give skewed numbers for people with a very high or very low body weight, but for the majority it will give a reasonable starting point. There are some limitations, as lean body mass is likely a more important factor than total body weight, but for most people this will give us a good starting point.
You will notice upon doing the calculations that the number is a lot higher than the RDA for protein, and that is ok. The RDA is an amount set for the majority of the population to not be deficient in protein. It is not about optimizing your body composition or performance. As long as you have no pre existing kidney issues, there should be nothing to worry about in the range recommended by the ISSN.
The second question, when should I take my protein in, is less important than the first question about how much should I take in - but it is still important. Ideally, we’d like to take our total daily protein intake and divide it into 3-6 smaller portions per day. The benefit of this is that we can maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) multiple times per day to aid recovery and rebuilding of muscle tissue. With that said, the total amount that you take in is the most important factor and you are better off hitting your goal intake for the day even if it is in fewer feedings than you are to miss the target. If you miss a meal, you can make it up at the next one. Many people worry about this as there have been so many myths spread about protein being wasted after 25-30 grams in a sitting, but research has shown this to be untrue and that you do in fact absorb all of the protein you take in.
So far, we’ve established how to find a reasonable protein target and discussed the optimal way to spread this out in your day. The final question we get asked is what is the best source of protein.
The truth to this is there is no “best” source, but there are many great options that you can put in your diet to hit your target. You can use lean meats, plant sources such as brown rice or pea protein, or whey protein shakes as needed to hit your target. As long as you are getting complete protein sources (proteins that have all of the essential amino acids), you will be ok. This variable is the least important of the 3 questions posed above. You can pretty much have your way with this one and use the sources that you enjoy most to ensure consistency and compliance with your diet plan. If adding a couple of shakes is easier than relying solely on foods, that is perfectly fine! Whatever works for you is great, just make sure to hit that target.
In summary, you can find a great place to start by taking your body weight in KG and multiplying by 1.4-2 (I like to use 2). Take that total, and split it in to 3-6 equal portions if you can. Focus on a variety of lean meats, plant sources, and shakes to hit that total and enjoy the gains!