illustration of a woman peering through a forest of protein powder jars
Illustration by Elnora Turner
Health

I Need HOW Much Protein in a Day?

The right amount is often somewhere between "more than you might think, but less than 'as much as you can possibly get.'"
January 8, 2020, 9:51pm

I've been weightlifting for a few months now and have heard mixed opinions about taking protein powder. What're your thoughts on it? — RS

So before we answer the question of “do I need to consume protein powder?”, first we need to contend with how much protein you need, and that depends on what you’re doing. But the short answer is, If you know how much protein you need, and are struggling to meet your numbers, or otherwise just notice yourself feeling not-great in these protein-related ways (feeling weaker, mostly), your protein intake is a lever you can tweak. And if you feel like you’re at your absolute limit of how much protein-laden food you can eat? You can have a little protein powder, as a treat. But there are some questions contained in there (How much protein do I need? When do I know if protein powder is right for me?) that I’ll dig into now.

Caveat here that I am not a dietitian, and am not making dietary recommendations to everyone, but thankfully there is plenty of research available on this topic. (The numbers given here are drawn from the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and are used by most of the resources I’ve read on sports nutrition. For whatever reason, even though this is America, the figures are communicated “grams per kilogram of body weight”, but I will convert kilograms to pounds for the sake of ease.)

This is a subject that is pretty clearly on a lot of people’s minds, because there are innumerable articles on the theme of “how much protein am I supposed to be eating?” that frame their central, top level answer in this way: “well, the recommended daily protein allowance according to the FDA is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound of body weight). Therefore, a 150 pound person needs less than 40 grams of protein per day, according to dietitians, and you are probably getting that much from just eating a balanced diet.” (How many grams of protein are in anything? The nutrition label will tell you, or else Google.)

There are two problems with this: first, the RDA does not meet the needs of even remotely active people. Second, people who are worrying about how much protein they are supposed to be eating probably heavily overlap with people who are trying to change their body composition, either trying to gain a little lean muscle mass or lose body fat (during which, research shows, it really pays to do everything you can to at least maintain the muscle you have, which requires you do certain things that are not “just eat the RDA of protein”).

First, let's talk about people who are trying to lose body fat and keep their lean muscle. According to the NASM, these people actually need the most protein of all, somewhere between 0.72-1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day, and may even benefit from an even higher intake of 1-1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight (so a person who weighs 200 pounds is aiming for 145 to 300 grams per day).

This does NOT mean the more protein the better; you don’t want to go insane here. But per a large body of research, a higher protein intake greatly reduces the chances of protecting lean body mass (particularly if you are lifting weights, which really helps with that protecting-lean-body-mass process). It’s important to note that while body fat loss requires a caloric deficit, this ALSO does not mean the bigger the deficit the better; at too great a deficit, you can lose muscle, which is not good. But the message is clear: protecting lean body mass is very important in the course of body fat loss, and it’s better to wonder if you’re eating too much protein than worry about killing off your hard-won muscle tissue.

People who are trying to build strength, and therein probably gain muscle, which is you, benefit from a protein intake somewhere in the range of 0.64 to 0.91 grams per pound of body weight. I have found, personally, that I’ve benefited from actually doing my best to hit the one-gram-per-pound-of-bodyweight threshold when trying to gain muscle, but that 0.5-0.75 grams is enough to maintain the muscle I have (and this is the amount NASM recommends for maintaining).

So given all this, let’s say you weigh 150 pounds. Here is what your protein intake would look like in various scenarios:

  • If you’re just maintaining, you’re trying to get 75-112 grams of protein a day. If you’re trying to build strength, you’re going for as much as 150 grams per day.

  • If you’re trying to lose body fat and preserve your muscle, it may make sense to eat as much as 225 grams per day.

75 grams alone may feel like a lot, never mind nearing 225. In real-food terms, 75 grams is the equivalent of about eight and a half ounces of chicken breast (one fairly large breast); 225 grams would be three such large breasts. About eight ounces of chicken’s worth of protein spread across a day’s food intake is pretty manageable (and you’re including the protein content of all the food you’re eating, there, not just meat; even bread has a little protein). Three times that, and you might be starting to get to a protein intake that is a little prohibitive to even chew, let alone buy, prepare, and store.

No one NEEDS protein powder, and you can get all your protein from whole foods. It probably even is superior to do so, since protein powder doesn’t have many of the micronutrients that real food does, and the biology that governs nutrition is all an intricate system of what nutrients you need to absorb other nutrients, and there really isn’t a shortcut around the unfortunately nebulous concept of “a balanced diet.”

But as in life, sometimes we have to make “optimal health” tradeoffs for the sake of convenience, sanity, money, or any other number of factors. In my personal case, especially when my protein intake is a bit higher, I lose patience with all the chewing and the cost of meats and eggs and so forth, and just kick in a scoop or two of protein powder. Is it better than getting all my protein from whole foods? Probably not. But I’m not doing it forever, and it’s a supplement, not an entire diet.

If I were continuously trying to lose weight for years on end, and as a result drowning myself in protein powder—well, that would be bad. But if I notice that I’m trying to get stronger and not actually getting stronger, or trying to lose body fat and accidentally losing strength fast, and maybe I’m only hitting the bottom of those intake ranges, I know it’s time to kick it up a notch, and protein powder is an easy way to do that.

The most important thing here is to know how much protein you actually need, and then have a strategy for meeting those needs. Your letter suggests to me that maybe you think about protein powder the way some people do, in the sense of “I’m supposed to have a lot of protein since I’m lifting, maybe I’ll just throw it in on top of everything else, what could it hurt!!”

But protein powder is a tool for meeting a goal; you might be erring on the side of getting enough protein, which is great, but you might also be spending money you don’t have to getting extra protein you don’t need—like this absolutely wild case of one man taking in something like 400 grams of protein a day with a diet including four daily protein shakes. Don’t do this, it’s deranged.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELFand follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Emailswole.woman@vice.com.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.