Protein Requirements by Lyle McDonald

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Possibly one of the longest standing debates in sports nutrition (though people argue about stuff constantly) is over protein requirements for athletes. Traditionally, there have been two primary and opposing views to this topic.

The mainstream nutrition types are in the first camp. They’re usually registered dieticians who maintain that the RDA for protein is sufficient for all conditions including individuals involved heavily in sports. Their bible—the RDA Handbook—mirrors this stance. So what is the RDA? Currently, it’s set at 0.8 g/kg (0.36 g/lb) protein per day. For a 200-lb individual, that’s a mere 72 grams of protein per day. I bet most of the people reading this eat that at a meal.

As a sub-argument to what I wrote above, some will point out that even if protein requirements in athletes are higher, there is no need to worry about it in the first place because most strength athletes already eat more protein than the supposed requirements. That is, strength athletes already consume enough protein and don’t need to focus on trying to get more.

At the other extreme are the athletes themselves who have long felt (and therefore argued) that high proteins are absolutely necessary for optimal results. Bodybuilders have traditionally used 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg) as a baseline recommendation with others taking this level to 2 g/lb (4.4 g/kg) or sometimes even higher. Muscle magazines, usually with a vested interest in moving protein powder, tend to promote high protein intakes with claims of athletes, mostly top bodybuilders, eating 800–1000 grams protein per day (a level only achievable with supplementation).

Who’s right?

Science nerds like me always want to see the research on the topic. Of course, if you know me at all, you know that I’ve read it all. To say that it’s a bit mixed is an understatement and even researchers can’t make up their damn minds, preferring to hold polite arguments with one another for months in scientific journals.

Some research seems to clearly indicate an increased requirement for protein. However, it uses a methodology (nitrogen balance) that is questionable at best so the low protein folks will shoot it down. Other research (done with low intensity aerobic work) suggests that training improves protein retention. That is, as athletes become more trained, their protein requirements may actually go down. But does research with lower intensity aerobic work apply to the kind of training a strength/power athlete is doing? Probably not so the high protein researchers will shoot that down. Around and around it goes.

Some research (again using a questionable methodology) suggests that athletes need more protein when they start a new or intensified training program, but after a couple of weeks, protein requirements go back down. What happens if you’re always pushing your limits day in, day out, week in, and week out? Nobody knows. Of course, the impact of anabolic steroids on protein requirements is almost a complete unknown although empirically most who would argue that a natural bodybuilder only needs 1 g/lb daily would also argue that someone using anabolic steroids needs about double that to maximize the effects of the drugs.

A final problem is what’s being measured. Athletes want to know what will maximize their performance, strength, power, speed, and throwing. Researchers invariably measure stuff of less relevance to athletes and coaches. For example, nitrogen balance, amino acid uptake, and sometimes actual muscle growth is measured over the length of the study. Is the amount of protein needed to optimize performance different than what’s needed to maximize some aspect of muscular physiology?

An added issue is that solely looking at skeletal muscle may be missing pathways of importance to athletes. Immune system, connective tissue synthesis, and a host of other pathways use amino acids. Presumably, athletes will up-regulate those pathways, meaning that true protein requirements, if you only look at what’s going on in the muscle, may be underestimating what athletes truly need to maximize every aspect of performance.

The debate rages on and on, and I’m not going to go into much more detail here about it. If you want to read about it in seemingly endless detail, I spent an entire chapter addressing both sides of the controversy in my Protein Book .

Sufficed to say that, as is always the case, both sides have their research and both ends of the research can be criticized on some methodological grounds or another. I don’t think researchers are going to stop arguing with one another any time soon.

Reaching a consensus

And yet, I’m going to tell you how to rationalize all of the above stuff that I imagine most of you skimmed in the first place. Two researchers named Tipton and Wolfe wrote a cool paper about this argument. In it, they first detailed all of the stuff I just bored you with. At the end, they gave their recommendations where they basically argued that:

  1. We don’t know how much protein is required to optimize all of the potential pathways important to athletes.
  2. We know that a protein intake of 1.4 g/lb (3.0 g/kg) isn’t harmful and may have benefits that are too small to be measured in research.
  3. As long as eating lots of protein doesn’t keep an athlete from eating too few of the other nutrients (carbs/fats), there’s no reason to not eat a lot of it and there may be benefits.

Essentially, a high protein intake won’t hurt an athlete (basically everything you may have read about the dangers of high protein intakes is nonsense). It may provide small benefits of importance to elite athletes, and at the end of the day, athletes and coaches don’t give a shit about pedantic scientific debates over amino acid metabolism that gives researchers and nerds like me a giant hard on. Admittedly, they didn’t put it in exactly those terms, but that’s the gist of it.

So, here’s my recommendation. Strength/power athletes should aim for 1.5 g/lb protein per day (again this is about 3.3 g/kg for the metrically inclined). So for a 200-lb strength/power athlete, that’s 300 grams of protein per day. For a 300-lb athlete, that’s 450 grams per day. If you’re Jeff Lewis, I imagine your protein requirements are basically “all of it” or perhaps “a cow” per day.

Because most strength/power athletes have plenty of high caloric requirements, this will still leave plenty of room for the other macros and, if nothing else, will ensure that protein intake is not limiting in any way. I’d note that female athletes often restrict calories heavily (for both good and bad reasons), and it is possible for them to get into situations where protein ends up making up damn near all of their daily food intake. There is some evidence that female athletes can get by with less protein, but I’m not going to get into that here. Perhaps a later article for Elite Fitness can address that.

I’d add that athletes who are using anabolic steroids may wish to take this even higher to 2 g/lb (4.4 g/kg) or possibly higher. Again, there’s very little research here.

I should address one other issue that always seems to come up about now which is whether to set protein requirements relative to lean body mass or total weight. There are some good arguments for both. In theory, using lean body mass probably makes the most sense. Fat cells don’t have a huge protein requirement. At the same time, problems in measuring lean body mass as well as the fact that a little bit too much protein is arguably superior to too little protein make using total body weight more tenable. Or at least easier to use. I’d only note that for athletes carrying tremendous amounts of body fat (you know who you are), scaling protein intake back to take that into account may not be a bad idea. It may not be necessary, but it can still be done.

More protein issues

Having looked at the issue of quantity, I want to talk briefly about issues of quality and variety. Frankly, the whole deal with protein quality has been blown way out of proportion by most folks. Unless you’re talking about folks eating small amounts of single shitty quality proteins every day, it’s just not that relevant. So yeah, for someone getting 30 grams of some piss quality grain as their only protein source, quality matters.

When an athlete is eating 1.5 g/lb or more of high quality (read animal source) proteins per day, it really doesn’t. Now, yes, there are differences between proteins in terms of digestion speed (which is relevant for around workout nutrition) and other micronutrients (e.g. red meat has lots of zinc and iron, fatty fish has fish oils, etc.). Amino acids can vary too (e.g. dairy proteins have more leucine than other sources), but unless you live on that one source, it’s just not that critical of an issue to worry about most of the time. Rather, I recommend that strength/power athletes try to obtain their daily protein from mixed sources every day. That way, any potential limitation of one protein will be fixed by the consumption of another protein. Also, although there isn’t much research to base this on, I feel that consuming different protein sources at a given meal may be superior to single sources. You’re getting slightly different amino acid patterns and digestion speeds. You’ll see this reflected in the sample menus below.

Of course, protein powders are always an option. I think they tend to have their greatest utility around training, but they can be used for athletes on the go or for those who are working endlessly during the day and who need to get protein in large amounts quickly. For various reasons (discussed of course in my book), I prefer milk protein isolate (a mix of whey and casein) for most applications. Fast digesting proteins such as whey are most appropriate before or during training (I prefer MPI post-workout).

Putting it to use

So with that as a background, I want to present two sample meal plans focusing only on protein intake for the two example lifters I used above. One plan is based around 300 grams of protein per day and the other around 450 grams of protein per day. Although I didn’t touch on meal frequency in this article, athletes with large food intakes generally need to split their meals up so I’ll be using a 5–6 meal/day frequency in the examples below. Each meal below contains either 50 grams of protein or 75 grams of protein.

I want to make it clear that I didn’t present these meals in any order of importance, nor should readers simply do these meal plans without thinking about it. Rather, I wanted to show lifters how they could achieve the kinds of protein intakes I discussed above in a practical manner. Of course, bigger and smaller athletes can scale the numbers up or down (or add additional meals) as needed to hit their targets.

Meal plan for 300 g/day protein

Meal 1:

2 whole eggs + 4 egg whites

½ cup shredded 2% cheese

1 cup 1% milk

Meal 2:

5oz chicken breast

1/2 cup cheese

Meal 3:

8.5 oz ground beef

Meal 4:

5 oz canned tuna

1/2up cottage cheese

Meal 5:

5 oz chicken breast

2 cups 1% milk

Meal 6:

1 cup 2% cottage cheese

30 grams protein powder

Meal plan for 450 g/day protein

Meal 1:

3 whole egg + 4 egg whites

¾ shredded 2% cheese

1.5 cups 1% milk

Meal 2:

7.5oz chicken

¾ cup cheese

Meal 3:

12.5 oz ground beef

Meal 4:

7.5 oz canned tuna

¾ cup 2% cottage cheese

Meal 5:

7.5 oz. chicken breast

1/ cup cheese, 1 cup milk

Meal 6:

1.5 cups 2% cottage cheese

45 grams protein powder



More from Lyle Mcdonald

Lyle McDonald is a well-known researcher, writer, and science nerd. A better writer than athlete, he applies his obsessive compulsive nature to any project that he works on. This has allowed him to help athletes such as bodybuilders, powerlifters, and others optimize their nutrition, lose fat, and improve performance. Visit his website at www.bodyrecomposition.com where you can sign up for a free newsletter or buy his books.

 

Elite Fitness Systems strives to be a recognized leader in the strength training industry by providing the highest quality strength training products and services while providing the highest level of customer service in the industry. For the best training equipment, information, and accessories, visit us at www.EliteFTS.com.

 

Submitted by DMorgan on Fri, 03/14/2008 - 4:48pm.

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