Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Apr

How Much Protein Should You Be Eating?

ribsI get a lot of emails on a lot of subjects. “Mark, is toothpaste Primal?” “How many micrograms of wheat germ agglutinin can I safely consume each day?” “Did Grok even lift?” Usually, I manage to address them in the Monday Dear Mark posts, but sometimes a question deserves its own dedicated midweek post. Today’s question, or rather pair of questions, definitely qualifies. First is the titular question, “How much protein should I eat?” I get that one a lot, even though I’ve covered this in my books and in various blog posts. The second question is “How much protein do you eat, Mark?” Before we get to my protein intake (which has changed in recent years) let’s explore how much protein you should be eating. The answer – wait for it – depends on who (and what) you are. Your goals, your age, your activity levels, your size, and your health status all impact how much protein you need. And although individual protein requirements ultimately depend on dozens of variables that we can’t really know, there are some baseline intakes that can serve as a foundation for different groups. Let’s take a look.

The Sedentary

The RDA of 0.8 g protein/kg bodyweight or 0.36 g protein/lb bodyweight assumes you are sedentary, uninterested in gaining muscle, and free of health issues that might compromise your lean mass. If that describes you, the RDA is a good baseline from which to experiment. Just don’t go below that.

The Active

Athletes need more protein than the average person, but perhaps not as much as most fitness enthusiasts think (or consume). A 2011 paper on optimal protein intakes for athletes concluded that 1.8 g protein/kg bodyweight (or 0.8 g protein/lb bodyweight) maximizes muscle protein synthesis (while higher amounts are good for dieting athletes interested in preserving lean mass), whereas another settled on “a diet with 12-15% of its energy as protein,” assuming “total energy intake is sufficient to cover the high expenditures caused by daily training” (which could be quite high). One study even found benefit in 2-3 g protein/kg bodyweight (0.9-1.4 g protein/lb bodyweight) for athletes, a significant increase over standard recommendations. That said, I wouldn’t be too quick to discount anecdotal evidence or “iron lore.” A significant-enough portion of the strength training community swears by 1-2 g protein/lb bodyweight that it couldn’t hurt to try if lower amounts aren’t working for you.

The Dieters

Weight loss involves a caloric deficit (whether arrived at spontaneously or consciously). Unfortunately, caloric deficits rarely discriminate between lean mass and body fat, while most people are interested in losing fat, not muscle/bone/tendon/sinew/organ. Numerous studies show that increasing your protein intake during weight loss will partially offset the lean mass loss that tends to occur. In obese and pre-obese women, a 750 calorie diet with 30% of calories from protein (about 56 grams) preserved more lean mass during weight loss than an 18% protein diet. Another study in women showed that a 1.6 g protein/kg bodyweight (or 0.7 g protein/lb bodyweight) diet led to more weight loss, more fat loss, and less lean mass loss than a 0.8 g protein/kg bodyweight diet. Among dieting athletes, 2.3 g protein/kg bodyweight (or a little over 1 g protein/lb bodyweight) was far superior to 1.0 g protein/kg bodyweight in preserving lean mass. And, although specific protein intake recommendations were not stated, a recent meta-analysis concluded that high-protein weight loss diets help preserve lean mass.

The Injured

Healing wounds increases protein requirements. After all, you’re literally rebuilding lost or damaged tissue, the very definition of an anabolic state. One review recommends around 1.5 g protein/kg bodyweight or close to 0.7 g protein/lb bodyweight for injured patients.

The Elderly

The protein RDA may not suffice for older people, who lose thigh muscle mass and exhibit lower urinary nitrogen excretion when given the standard 0.8 g protein/kg bodyweight. What’s good for the goose may not be good for the elderly, frail gander. More recent studies indicate that a baseline intake of 1.0-1.3 g protein/kg bodyweight or 0.5-0.6 g protein/lb bodyweight is more suitable for the healthy and frail elderly to ensure nitrogen balance. As always, active seniors will probably do better with slightly more, and evidence suggests that increasing protein can both improve physical performance without necessarily increasing muscle mass and increase muscle mass when paired with extended resistance training in the elderly.

These are just starting points, mind you. Guidelines. Play around with your protein intake.

I also get a lot of people asking me about my protein intake, and apparently some people have the idea that I’m eating entire racks of ribs for meals. Actually, though, I’ve slightly modified my protein intake over the past couple years. Or, rather, it’s more accurate to say that my protein habits have changed. It wasn’t really a conscious effort; it was a gradual shift that simply happened, spurred by my body’s own appetites. You might even say it was a Primal shift. So, what’s changed about how I eat protein?

I’m eating less meat. The urge to eat large steaks on a regular basis has simply diminished. I still might have meat at most meals, but I’m having 4-6 ounces at a sitting instead of 8-12. This wasn’t a conscious decision. The craving simply isn’t there, and I’m merely eating to appetite.

My protein intake is more cyclical, than regular. Some days, I’ll finish the entire steak and be ready for more. Other days (maybe most), I’ll have a few bites and save the rest for later.

I’m eating fattier, more gelatinous cuts, like short ribs, oxtails, and shanks and making bone broth more often. I’ve always enjoyed my animal fat, so that hasn’t changed, but the gelatinous focus is definitely newer. It may have been the Masterjohn “bones and skin” post from a few years back that got me thinking more about gelatin and spurred me to be more regular with the stock-making. After all, a cow isn’t just sirloin tips and ground beef. It’s bones and skin and organs and joints, too. A 1000 pound cow will provide about 430 pounds of “retail cuts” (PDF) – steaks, roasts, things like that. Some of the leftover is water weight, but the majority of the remaining 570 pounds is gelatin, offal, bones, skin, and other “waste products” that our ancestors certainly utilized. It’s only very recently – and in select places (ahem, United States) – that people began thinking of food animals as “meat” and nothing else. Demi-glace, consomme, pho, Jamaican oxtail stew anyone?

The end result is that while I’ve reduced my “meat” intake, I’m still eating a good amount of protein. It’s just that some of it is coming from broth and gelatin now, which have the effect of “protein sparing.” In other words, eating gelatin reduces the amount of meat required to maintain muscle mass and perform all my regular protein-related physiological functions. Adding more stock and gelatin-rich meats, particularly at dinner, has also seemed to improve my sleep. Eating the whole animal makes everything easier – who knew?

Anyway, I’m eating a bit less meat nowadays and a few more plants and odder animal bits, which may be a huge shock to some of you. You know why? My needs have probably changed and my body is responding accordingly.

I want to reiterate: this was not a conscious decision borne of theorizing. My “decision” to eat less meat has only happened because I crave it less. As to why my cravings might have diminished, I have a few ideas:

I’m no longer catabolizing my lean mass through excessive endurance training, nor am I actively recovering from it. Endurance athletics (and really, any activity, but especially catabolic training like marathons and triathlons) increases the need for protein. You’d better heed that need unless you like losing muscle and bone. Since I’m not doing Chronic Cardio anymore, I don’t need to eat so much to preserve my muscle.

I’m maintaining, rather than seeking to build more lean mass. There was a short stint of deliberate mass building several years ago where I overate (especially protein) and managed to get up to the high 170s, but I didn’t enjoy it and maintaining that kind of lean mass was tough and required too much food. I’m happy where I am – both aesthetically and functionally – and so I don’t really have to eat a ton of protein to maintain.

My training is far more moderate than it ever was. I focus on play and strength training, but I mostly do bodyweight stuff (sometimes supplemented with a weight vest). This reduces the protein I need to recover and rebuild.

My “nitrogen sink” (muscle tissue) has become more efficient, allowing more variation. I don’t have any bloodwork to back this up, I just know that I’ll have 45 gram days (where I have, say, four ounces of lamb, some yogurt, maybe a bit of aged cheese and a few nuts) right alongside 160 gram days (where I indeed approach full rack of ribs territory). But those big protein days are less frequent now, and my average daily intake is right around 100 to 120 grams. I suspect this is closer to how people traditionally consumed meat – in intermittent bursts. Some days, you’d get relatively little, while other stretches were outright feasts. It definitely feels right to me.

Again, that’s what I’m doing. I think this works for me because I’m extremely clued in to my body (I’d better be after all these years!). If it tells me something – like “eat some protein!” – I trust it. If you’re not quite so far along your journey, you may not place as much trust in your body’s messaging. That’s fine. We can’t always trust our bodies at all times. In that case, start with the basic guidelines outlined above and revise upwards or downwards based on your feedback.

Losing strength/muscle during weight loss? Increase the protein.

Your favorite cut of meat suddenly disgusts you? Try reducing the protein.

Not recovering from workouts? Increase the protein.

Ideally, you should be able to bump the protein up and down depending on what your body requires. I’ve reached that point myself, and I think once you get there, it gets a lot easier. You shouldn’t have to count protein grams and I don’t want you to obsess over the numbers listed above, as they are merely guidelines to consider. As long as you’re observing the “best practices” like eating offal, incorporating gelatinous cuts and/or stock, and eating a variety of foods, your protein intake should be fairly intuitive.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful, and maybe illuminating, without being too much for you guys. Going Primal doesn’t necessarily mean gorging on meat, especially lean meat. It certainly can, from time to time, if that lines up with your goals and needs, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And as time goes on and you grow more attuned to your body, you may find yourself simply requiring – and thus craving – less meat. Or more meat, if that’s what your body needs. Bodies are funny like that.

What do you think about all this? How much protein do you eat on average? How has that changed over the years?

Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I been eating 0.82 grams per as per this http://mennohenselmans.com/the-myth-of-1glb-optimal-protein-intake-for-bodybuilders/

    I have no problem maintaining muscle and increasing strength and many ppl say I looking bigger. When I was consuming more protein I saw difference.

    silas wrote on May 1st, 2013
  2. Hmmm. Your maths about recovering meat from a cattlebeast is a bit different than mine. We find a liveweight animal of, say, 500kg will be about 250kg on the hook. the butcher will end up with 130/140 kg of meat. As we use a mobile abbatoir, we recover up to 20kgs of tail, tongue, cheeks, heart, liver, kidney and “mystery meat”. We also compost the first two stomachs.

    kem wrote on May 14th, 2013
  3. In response to the methane and co2 from cows. A properly pastured farm animal (cow in this instance) will not produce excess methane and co2. Yes, it will produce methane and co2, but those will be utilized beneficially to the environment. If you utilize pastures, with appropriate grasses which should be planned to grow naturally in the season that the animals will be grazed, and rotate the pasture animals along with goats and chickens in this manner there will not be any excesses unused and harmful to the environment. The goats and chickens will eat the weeds and weed seeds, providing manure and loosened topsoil for the grasses to grow, the grasses will utilize the co2 and fertilizer and in turn produce clean pure air.

    Only are farm animals harmful to the environment in the manner that modern agriculture puts them into feedlots and feeds them unhealthy and unnatural grain (hopefully just unnatural grain and not animal parts) and keeps them unmoving in stalls, standing in their feces, then being given antibiotics and antifungal medications to keep them from dying in these fetid conditions. This is what produces the excess methane and co2, as it is not going back to the plants and earth to create an ecologically productive environment.

    US is the worst agricultural country for this misuse of farm animals, which is why most countries will not allow sale of our meats (export) including dog foods. Not too mention the added growth hormones for quick gains which causes pain, weak bones and inflammation to the animals already unable to move away from their own feces in these small confines.

    Grazing pastured cows in a proper environment creates a healthy balance for our earth, as do other farm animals. Farm animals should be treated in a natural and humane way, from birth onward.

    Should all people become vegan, and farm animals become extinct, and there is a draught or other prolonged inclement weather, where would we be?

    Lisa wrote on May 14th, 2013
  4. Love this page!! Thanks for all the info!

    Chace wrote on September 17th, 2013
  5. Really good article, finally to get something good, most of the time I see they say you should take 0;45 to 0.6 grams per pound, but I’m active in bodybuilding exercising from 3-6 times a week and need huge amount of calories 3400 to keep my muscle, and i;, 190 lb * 0.5 that is 95 g of protein 95 * 4 = 380 calories just from protein, rest 3000 calories from fat and carbs and there is no way that you stay lean. Think about, that, but this article says it good for active people I take somewhere from 180 to 220 grams of proteins, and some times more, that way I’m keeping lean. probably gonna write about this topic on my site fitandneat.

    Filip wrote on December 27th, 2013
  6. Thanks for the article. I have been primal for about 24 months. I’m a 33yo/f and went from 160 lbs to 130lbs in a year, but the last 8 months I steadily have gained 18 lbs. I have been more sedentary because of a surgery, but my eating has not changed. I am gaining about .5lb per week. I recently started logging my food intake and I am averaging 1250-1350 calories a day. My average protein intake is 120 g. Is possible that I’m consuming too much protein? I am at a loss here.
    Thanks!

    Kelly

    Kelly wrote on January 14th, 2014

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