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How To Build A Human
Protein is the world’s most famous, exalted, often misused and misunderstood macronutrient
As a child being raised by Eastern European grandparents, the two things I was never short on were love and food. Even during what I now know to have been tough economic conditions, my plate was always full to the very extent that it could hold the delicious meals my grandma would make.
Happily chowing down on these dishes would be an otherworldly experience to my very young taste buds. It never even occurred to me to question this back then of course, but in retrospect I realize that the diet my doting grandmother would feed me was exceptionally high in protein.
Rich, heavy meat dishes would be a daily feature. Leftovers were for weaklings. Even a “light” vegetable soup would have some sort of meat or at least beans fighting for space in the pot.
First and foremost, as an adult adulting in the world of adults, the thought of cooking full-scale meals each and every living day makes me legit shudder. Don’t get me wrong - I love cooking and was even a personal chef for a while in what is seemingly another life. But I have to give a special shoutout to grandma wherever she may be now. That is impressive.
Back to the meat of the story (see what I did there? Forgive me).
Looking back on my steady ingestion of meat and legumes and the fairly large role that it plays in my current lifestyle, I’ve wondered many times if the sea of protein I’ve been floating on is good, bad or neutral.
And chances are, if you are interested in the topic of fitness and building a better body, so have you.
Maybe it’s time for a deeper dive.
At its most fundamental level, protein is an essential part of what we eat. It helps to build and repair muscle, organs, and bones. By providing the building blocks of lean tissue, it helps in the creation and retention of muscle which in turn has a thermogenic effect (it fires up your metabolism. Higher metabolism = more fat burn).
Diets high in protein have also been shown to increase satiety. Basically, protein makes your body not think it's starving. This is very important when it comes to controlling body fat.
A limited-scale study done with overweight or obese adolescent girls found evidence that eating a high-protein breakfast may help control neural signals that regulate food cravings and drive reward-driven food behaviors.
There is more research needed to establish definitive links between protein intake and weight/fat loss, but early results are promising and the anecdotal evidence around the benefits of protein on fitness can be quite convincing.
Just eat it?
Just how important is the world’s most famous, exalted, often misused and regularly misunderstood macronutrient?
Well, it depends on who you ask. If you were to ask a competitive bodybuilder this question, chances are they would fervently tell you to pack in as much protein as you can possibly get down the hatch. Spare no animal in this quest!
A nutritionist would most likely warn against that type of attitude and recommend not exceeding the “recommended daily amount”.
What a fine segue! To get an idea into what exactly this recommended daily amount of protein is for a person at different stages of life, here is a handy chart brought to us by the National Academy of Medicine:
This would roughly translate to about 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight (the chart uses the body weight of the average individual).
Keep in mind that the numbers on this chart are for the purpose of maintaining muscle and other important lean tissues.
But what about the folks who actually want to build the sexy, lean stuff?
You guessed it – you need more. But probably not as much as you might think.
Based on an extensive study done at Texas A&M in 2016, the daily protein needs for anything above maintenance are:
1.3 g of protein per kg of body weight with moderate activity levels
1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight with intense activity levels
Elite athletes can push this up to 2g per kg of body weight with the very upper ceiling of tolerance being around 3.5g
Beware the protein tsunami
A friend of mine recently posted a picture of himself holding a large cup with what the caption stated was a protein shake. Just by an off chance, we started talking about the importance of protein and I half-jokingly (and somewhat curiously) asked him how much protein was in that cup in that posted pic. He casually replied: “oh about 100 grams”.
My friend lives on the East coast of Canada while I, living in Toronto, am closer to the middle of this vast country, but I’m pretty sure he heard my jaw drop.
I immediately went into well-intentioned lecture mode with my friend.
You see, I used to do the same kind of thing. That is, until a highly respected nutritionist that I had the privilege to work with told me that any more than 50g of protein at one time would be a waste of money.
This is due to the fact that our bodies can only process that much protein at any one time while anything above this number simply becomes waste product.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not opposed to saving money and I’m certainly not opposed to having less ‘waste product’ circulating in my body.
My friend however was simply doing what a lot of people do when it comes to protein and building muscle – embrace the “more is more” philosophy of the bodybuilder.
How much is too much?
Let’s put the brains before the brawn for a moment.
Unless you have a liver or kidney issue, you can in fact safely consume up to around 2-3.5g of protein per kg of body weight daily. Any more than that and you are playing with fire.
Consuming protein excessively for a long time can result in feeling nauseous, irritable and achy. It can also cause constipation or diarrhea.
The end result of overly high protein intake sustained over long time periods can be as serious as heart disease, kidney and liver injury and even seizures. There can also be an increased risk for certain forms of cancer. Serious stuff.
Also, speaking from personal experience – “protein breath” is real. I will never forget a time when my husband and I decided to try an “Anabolic Diet” which involved eating absolutely massive amounts of protein. Let’s just say our friends had a tough time standing in front of us as we spoke.
Keep the protein reasonable. Keep your health and your friends.
Just give me the muscle already
Staying within healthy guidelines, I personally never go over the 1.5 to maybe 2g per kg body weight mark per day anymore. I always make sure that in each of my individual meals (5-6 of them per day), I average around 30g per meal. This is a general idea. A little under or a little over will not make or break me.
This has served me very well over the course of the past decade or so. It has allowed me to continuously build muscle during targeted muscle gain phases and hold on to muscle during leaning periods.
And it doesn’t have to be a case of measuring protein with the latest scientific tools either. Certainly, someone who is just starting to pay attention to their macronutrient ratios might want to research and weigh their protein sources until it becomes habit.
In my case, I’ve been at this for so long now that I go entirely by feel. My protein portions are the size and thickness of the palm of my hand – give or take. With something like a protein powder, usually one scoop provides anywhere from 20-30g of protein.
The ultimate sources
Speaking of protein powder - this product is meant to be taken right after a weightlifting workout. At that time, your body is in a state where a quick shot of easily available protein (liquid form) is beneficial to kickstart the process of muscle recovery and growth.
In all other situations, you should always aim for your protein source to be from whole food.
So what are some solid choices for the muscle building stuff? Here is a quick list in order from highest protein to lowest:
grass-fed lean meats and pasture-raised poultry
“meat substitutes” such as tofu, tempeh and seitan
eggs from pastured hens
grass-fed and organic dairy
Please note, the above list is an ideal. If you can’t get your hands on these items, their ‘regular’ counterparts will work too – albeit with probably less quality protein than what you could get from the ultimate sources on the list.
Always aim to get your protein from the sources that are highest on the list, working your way down based on preference and other personal factors. These will give you a lot more ‘bang for the buck’ so to say.
The bottom line
To sum it all up, here are the ‘four commandments’ of protein intake:
Eat, don’t drink your protein (unless it’s a protein shake post-weights workout)
Make sure your protein sources are lean and healthy (sorry grandma)
Don’t take more than 50g of protein at any one time
Use the recommended daily amounts to maintain sufficient protein intake based on your current weight and age; increase it to no more than 2g per kg of body weight to gain muscle (with the support of a weight lifting program of course)
If you want to lose fat, improve your metabolic health, or gain muscle mass and strength, protein is your champion.
That said, it’s tempting (very tempting) to go overboard on the stuff with the belief that it will accelerate your goals. But like everything else – there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Protein is probably the poster child for that saying. However, with knowledge and a good dose of respect, this powerhouse macronutrient is a friend for life.
Until next time,
Make health a priority – the rest will follow!
1. Heather J Leidy, Laura C Ortinau, Steve M Douglas, Heather A Hoertel, Beneficial effects of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese, “breakfast-skipping,” late-adolescent girls, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 97, Issue 4, April 2013, Pages 677–688, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.053116
2. Wu G. Dietary protein intake and human health. Food Funct. 2016 Mar;7(3):1251-65. doi: 10.1039/c5fo01530h. PMID: 26797090.
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