I 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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!