Protein: it’s the only macronutrient everyone embraces. Vegans, vegetarians, SAD dieters, and paleos always seem to be cramming more of it down their throats. And usually, more protein is a pretty good move. Dieters, the elderly, the stressed, the wounded, the burned, and many other populations tend to benefit from more protein. A few months ago, I even talked about 12 signs that indicate a person needs more protein. But there is an upper limit, particularly for your wallet; protein is expensive. If you can find ways to reduce it in your diet without harming yourself or losing the benefits, why wouldn’t you do it?
Today, I’m going to explain the 8 signs that indicate you may have topped out on protein. It’s not that more would necessarily harm you. More just might be pointless.
Here’s the thing that a lot of strength training beginners don’t understand: gaining pure, unadulterated muscle mass is hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight, and no one except for genetic freaks and performance enhancing drug enthusiasts are putting on ten pounds of muscle in a month. Heck, even five or six pounds is a huge stretch for a beginner.
So if you’re noticing changes in the mirror, you’re probably okay on the protein. If your pants are getting looser around the waist but tighter around the thighs and butt, you’re gaining good weight. If friends are commenting on your gains, that’s a sign that whatever amount of protein you’re eating is working. And that’s about all you can ask for — gradual, steady muscle gain to the tune of a pound or less a month. Adding more protein on top of that probably won’t make a difference.
This is the holy grail of dieting, isn’t it? The absence of hunger. All the things that actually make weight loss happen — spontaneous calorie reduction, lack of junk food cravings, adherence to the diet, ability to focus on things that you don’t put in your mouth — flow from the lack of insistent, aggravating hunger. If you’ve achieved this, your protein intake is probably at the right level.
This applies in acute satiety. Protein is the strongest promoter of short-term satiety following a meal, more so than fat or carbs.
This applies in long term general satiety, too. If you’re not experiencing strong cravings and you’re able to handle yourself between meals without growing ravenous, you’ve probably settled on the proper protein intake.
Our satiety mechanisms are particularly sensitive to protein intake because it’s such a vital nutrient, with both inadequate and excessive intakes posing problems. Mammals have even evolved an instinctual specific appetite for protein, unlearned and present at birth. You know how sometimes you just crave a juicy rare steak, so much that you’re salivating? That’s your specific appetite rearing its head. Protein cravings like that are to be heeded. It goes both ways, too. When that steak looks disgusting and you couldn’t possibly imagine another bite, you’re probably right and you should listen to your body.
It’s difficult for the cravings (or lack thereof) for protein to be corrupted. If your body says “no more protein, please” by inducing revulsion, you don’t need it.
I’ve said it before: high protein diets do not predispose people to kidney trouble. A healthy kidney absolutely can handle higher intakes of protein without incurring damage. That some markers of protein metabolism go up is physiologically normal, not aberrant. They’re a sign that your kidneys are handling themselves well. If anything, higher protein diets that reduce body weight and improve metabolic syndrome biomarkers are protective of the kidneys and help healthy kidneys stay healthy.
However, if you have pre-existing kidney trouble, you may have to lower your protein intake until it’s resolved. As always in cases like these, your doctor is the best person to consult for specific advice; all I can say is “less is probably better.”
The majority of the evidence suggests that muscle protein synthesis benefits max out in most athletes at around 0.82 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. There may be something to eating more — and some anecdotal evidence from lifters and bodybuilders would certainly dispute the numbers — but the evidence is unclear. One gram per pound of bodyweight is a good round number to shoot for. Any more is probably unnecessary, unless you’ve got tons of androgens circulating throughout your body (i.e., you’re juicing or you’re an 18 year old male).
Gram for gram, animal-sourced protein — meat, offal, dairy, eggs — is more efficient than plant protein. It’s more digestible, contains more essential amino acids, promotes nitrogen balance more effectively, and supports growing mammals better than plant protein (PDF). If you’re eating mostly plant protein, you’ll need more grams of protein than a meat eater to get the same effect. One example is in age-related muscle wasting. Compared to soy protein, equal amounts of whey protein are far better at preserving muscle in the elderly at risk for sarcopenia.
What this means, of course, is that you may need less meat, eggs, and whey than you think. It goes a long way.
Huh? Wait a minute — don’t the more advanced powerlifters and bodybuilders need more protein? Actually, probably not:
In one study, elite bodybuilders training over an hour a day only needed 1.12 times more daily protein than sedentary controls to maintain nitrogen balance. It was the endurance athletes who needed way more protein than anyone (1.67 times more than sedentary controls) because they were catabolizing so much muscle during training.
And in another study, researchers determined the amount of protein required for nitrogen balance in people who’d never lifted weights, placed them on a 12 week strength training routine, then retested their protein requirements. After becoming “trained,” the subjects protein requirements actually dropped. They were more efficient at protein utilization.
Furthermore, muscle growth slows down as your training years accumulate. You can’t hope for newbie gains forever, and that means protein needs probably drop a bit the more you train.
So, even though it seems unintuitive, the more advanced you are with your training, the less protein you may require.
To protect against lean mass loss during weight loss, many dieters increase protein intake. This is a good move for most because it helps maintain nitrogen balance and keeps appetite down. However, if you’re maintaining weight and not actively trying to lose it, you don’t need the appetite suppression, and you’re not catabolizing muscle. Protein intake needn’t be increased during weight maintenance.
Of course, if higher protein intakes are helping you maintain your weight by curbing appetite and cravings, carry on.
If some of this advice rings a little odd and seems contradictory to what you’ve heard or read, that’s fine. These are general recommendations to consider “less” protein in select situations, not low protein. As is always the case, play around with the advice and see if it works for you. The primary takeaway is that more protein isn’t always better.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Do these signs jibe with your personal experiences? Let me know down below!
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