The final word on protein(?)

Protein is just one of those somewhat controversial topics that there just doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on. How much, how often, what types of protein – fast, slow, whole food or supplements.

The research also seems to be conflicting – until you actually read the studies. The lab of, among others, Stuart M. Phillips have been publishing a lot of interesting research the past few years. He’s sort of the go-to guy on protein synthesis and muscle growth in general since he’s also recently shown that it’s the amount of WORK you do that determines how big your muscles can get – not necessarily the load… but that’s a topic for another time, and something I’ve talked about before.

Here’s their recent review, with a nice summary of the current state of affairs:

Nutritional regulation of muscle protein synthesis with resistance exercise: strategies to enhance anabolism.

I’ll make it easier for you by providing you with the Cliff’s Notes version, as well as my own addendums:

1. Dairy protein seems to be the superior protein source, probably due to a higher leucine content (10-12%) as well as a fast delivery (whey). The rapid rise in amino acid (AA) levels is a determinant in the anabolic response. Whey is suggested as the primary source, but other studies show that a combination of whey and casein is probably much better as it prolongs the effect beyond the first 2-3hrs of meal ingestion, and this ties into the next point:

2. A certain time off from protein is probably better than a constant influx, due to something called the refractory response – meaning that the protein synthesis machinery stops responding to input if it is constantly bombarded with food. Unpublished research from Phillips’ lab shows that 4 meals were 30% better than both 8 meals and 2 meals, and this is in line with research done a few years ago (the PhD dissertation of our own Therese Fostervold-Mathisen) where 3 meals were superior to 6 meals for muscle gains. There’s one minor caveat, though – the 4 meals used a protein intake deemed to be optimal at 20g (providing 2,5g of leucine), whereas the 8 meal group only used 10g and the 2 meal group (which was too infrequent, apparently) used 40g. So 80g total of protein per day, which sounds a little on the low side, doesn’t it? This brings us to the next point:

3. Their studies show 20-25g of protein to be the maximum effective intake on a meal-per-meal basis, at least if you are young and healthy. Older people seem to require more protein, approximately double (40g) to overcome some sort of “anabolic resistance”. We´re not sure what the mechanism is, we just know it exists. Let’s expand on that: 20-25g of whey is 2,5-3g or so of leucine, the branched-chain amino acid which is the primary driver of all the good stuff happening. That’s for someone at an average bodyweight of 80kg, so we can probably round it up to 3,5g if you’re bigger and 2g if you’re smaller. Now, a diet comprised of whey protein drinks isn’t very satisfying, so what happens if you want to eat some real food? Leucine content is about 7-8% in red and white meat, fish and eggs, so the equivalent of whole food protein required for 2g of leucine is 25g (about 100-120g of beef/chicken/fish or 4 whole eggs) and for 3g it’s 40g (170-200g of beef/chicken/fish or 6 whole eggs) – and not too far off from the generic recommendations. This goes to show, though, that protein supplements are quite cheap when you look at how much bang for your buck you get (high leucine content, 80-90% protein content).

4. The next point I’d like to make is the recent study showing a pre-bed intake of a slower digesting protein ensures you get a high anabolic effect throughout the next 8-12hrs until the next meal (or 16 if you belong to the Intermittent Fasting crowd). This was in comparison to 20g of whey ingested after a late workout, though – so in the real world, 40g of protein from casein (found in cottage cheese and quark/curd) isn’t necessarily a requirement. A composite meal with carbs, fiber from veggies, and fats would also slow down the digestion rate of meat and fish. Eggs in particular are even slower digested than casein. So, you should be fine just following the regular Biorhythm Diet concept of having a large meal a couple of hours before bedtime. I tend to have slightly more protein in this meal, anyway.

(Addendum July 15th: In personal dialogue, Stuart Phillips recommended 0.6g/kg for the final meal based on unpublished data).

5. Pre- and post-workout intake is still a little back-and-forth, since many studies have been done in a fasted state, which isn’t necessarily how it’s done in the real world. In fact, one recent study showed that whey + leucine ingested in one big gulp (bolus) 45min before the workout was inferior to the same spread out over the next 3hrs (pulse), mimicking a “slow” protein. The reason for this is probably that with the bolus, amino acid levels were already declining when the workout started. Most people have at least 1 or 2 whole food meals in them before they hit the gym, so unless you are very hungry and/or the last meal was more than 3-4 hours ago, there’s not a real need for any super-magic hydrolysates or BCAAs pre-workout. I do admit that I like to be “better safe than sorry”, so I usually add 5-8g of BCAAs here or some whey with added leucine/BCAA. Post-workout, a 50/50 or 60/40 combination of whey and casein (as in MyoProtein, which I designed for MyRevolution) is perfect, and as the studies indicate, 20-30g (the equivalent of 25-35g product) may very well be plenty unless you’re a heavyweight bodybuilder.

Practical recommendations, based on the above research and my opinion and experience:

  • 25-40g of whole food protein per meal x 3-4 meals per day. The final meal of the day could have a higher protein intake of 30-60g with the inclusion of a “slow” protein source such as eggs or casein.
  • Add in some (optional) pre-workout whey(15-25g) or BCAAs (4-8g).
  • Post-workout, have a whey+casein blend, 20-30g worth. If you’re having a whole food meal within an hour, that’s perfectly fine and you could just have a small amount of whey and some fruits when leaving the gym, then cook and eat when you get home. Or have your girlfriend/boyfriend do it for you, gotta recover those arms, obviously. The 3-4 meal recommendation includes this post-workout protein feeding (either whey+casein or whey with a whole food meal within an hour), but 5 meals is also feasible if you have particularly long days.
  • Total protein intake – and I usually don’t count protein from carbs or fat sources, except eggs –  is going to be around 1,5-2g/kg bodyweight or even 1,2-1,5 with the predominant use of high-quality whey or milk proteins. This is probably quite a bit lower than what you’re doing now and have been led to believe is needed, and also quite a bit lower than what I’ve recommended in the past. The benefits – less digestion issues, saves $$$, and makes room for more carbs and fats in your diet – are worth it. You’re not going to lose muscle, and you might even gain some muscle (not sufficient research yet, but there are certain indicators).
  • If you’re restricting calories for fat loss, there are so many benefits of a higher protein intake (satiety and thermic effect to name a couple), that I think you should increase the recommendations given by 20-30% (2-2,5g/kg bodyweight).

Oh, and I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – white rice is a perfectly fine carb source, whole grains or brown rice can actually inhibit nutrient uptake. Get your fiber from fruits and vegetables.

So is this the final word? Probably not, but for the most part I doubt there will be any major surprises. Over-anal-yzing and going back and forth on a gram here or a minute there is, more often than not, irrelevant in the grand perspective of things. Over the span of months and years where so many other things can go wrong anyway…

Until next time, may your farts smell like flowers instead of rotten eggs.

219 Comments

  1. Nei, samme her 🙂 Poenget er vel at selv om det ikke trenger å ha noen negativ effekt om du spiser en stor saftig biff til hvert måltid, så er det heller ikke nødvendig.

    Translation: point being that while there might not be any negative consequences if you eat a large, juicy steak every meal, it’s not really needed either.

  2. Borge what about carbohydrates, fats and total calories? I’m assuming since your protein recommendations are lower, carbs and fats goes up dramatically, when trying to put on mass? For an 100kg lifter to maintain his weoght he need at least 3200cals, if he takes 1,5g/kg protein (150g/day) that leaves 2600 cals for fats and casb, if the fats are at 30% (about 100g/day) carbs must be 410g/day, just for maintaining his weight and to add weight (~20% more cals or 500-600kcal more) he need another 100g carbs and 20g fats. Am I right?

    • You don’t need as many calories to grow as you think, so why would carbs and fats go up “dramatically”? But those numbers seem quite normal for a 100kg guy, I’m dieting now on 300-350g of carbs whereas in the past I would gain fat on anything above 250g…so you can reprogram your metabolism over time if you go about it the right way. It even seems that quality mass gains are better (less fat gains) without having to force feed, and without having to feel and look bloated.

      I’ve talked about it here: http://myrevolution.no/blade/2011/11/03/your-body-is-listening-what-are-you-telling-it/

      btw – try calculating the cost of 1lbs of rice to cover those carb needs, vs the cost of 3-4lbs of meat and chicken to eat the equivalent in protein.

      • Very interesting. So at the end of the it’s all about calories in vs calories out (when those calories are from clean/nutritious foods)? You have obcisouslly dieted on lower carbs/higher protein in the past, what the main differences you’ve noticed (muscle fullnes, easier/harder to lose bf, water retiontion, strenght in the gym etc)? How much protein you are taking in on 300-350g carbs? I’m assuming your fats are kept very low?

        • Well, sorta…I think food selection is VERY important, but having said that – my experience with less protein is that my stomach is flatter, my muscles have more fullness (since I can have more carbs) even though overall calories are slightly lower (TEF of protein is 10 times that of carbs) I’m not really hungry. I used to do high protein (400g), moderate fats, low’ish carbs and no carbs for the last 1-2 meals – and I would wake up several times in the night starving. No such thing now, I go to bed with almost 200g of carbs in my last meal and sleep great through the night. I wake up at 7am without an alarm clock. I’m not even hungry until a couple of hours after getting out of bed in the morning.

          My protein intake is around 200g right now, and my fats are in the 60-90g range – my diet is kinda intuitive and based on hunger right now so it varies according to what I want to eat.

  3. Well written article. I’m on the high end of protein consumption, of the ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ crowd though I have never used supplements. By the way, is your forum open to regular mortals?

  4. Great summary Børge. Is 1.5 g protein pr kg (mostly whey\casein and meat\fish and some crappy tasting bcaa) enough to maintain lbm at a diet? (max 0,5 kg weightloss pr week, usually less). I have no problems with satiety, but due to food preferencies and economy I find it hard to eat more protein than this all week (some days though I easily hit 2 gr pr kg). I try to follow IF most days and eat bio-rythm-ish (due to vacation I can`t do it every day).

    • It should be, but depends on the caloric restriction. I would go higher on a PSMF-type diet, but a more moderate deficit should be fine at 1.5g/kg, especially if some of it is comprised of whey/casein and BCAA.

  5. Hey Børge,
    I wonder if a low(er) meal frequency in general would lower the protein requirements, since science has repeatedly shown, that a lower meal frequency reduces AA oxidation?
    Also, I would appreciate studies, where the protein threshold is taken account of in every meal, instead of a total protein intake, that only allows the lower frequencies to consistently reach the threshold. What are your thoughts on this?

    • What science is that? The study mentioned in the article I talked about, they compared eight, four and then two meals of more protein (40g) and the 4 meals with less protein (20g) was still 30-40% better.

      • Alan Aragon has talked about it, the respective studies showing that 3 meals were better than 6, 1 meal better than 3, and so on. Muscle sparing on a deficit, that is.
        What you just said makes perfectly sense, when you consider the threshold theory as true for building muscle/anabolism. Like 4x full MPS response is better than 2x full MPS response & 8x “nothing” (not necessarily nothing, but since not reaching the threshold…i hope you get what I mean). But when a study would compare, say, 150-200g of quality protein, split up on the same frequencies (and everyone reaching the threshold), would the outcome be the same?

  6. Tjark: I believe my blog post is pretty clear and i would hate to repeat myself. Again – 8 meals was tested and there was indeed a refractory response, i.e. even if we could say 10g protein is below the optimal level, the difference in MPS between 10g and 20g (5-15%) is less than the total loss of efficiency from eating every 2hrs (30%) so I think this points to a refractory response as the most likely explanation.

    The Stote et al study – they used maintenance calories, it wasn’t a diet per se.
    “However, when consuming 1 meal/d, subjects had a significant increase in hunger; a significant modification of body composition, including reductions in fat mass; significant increases in blood pressure and in total, LDL-, and HDL-cholesterol concentrations; and a significant decrease in concentrations of cortisol.”

    BIA for body composition measures is very unreliable under conditions where you would expect severe alterations in electrolyte and fluid balance.

    If indeed the 1 meal/d group lost both weight and bodyfat, it indicates some sort of “wastage” factor, not that 1 meal is better than 3 meals.

    I also find this weird: “Our study withdrawal rate was 28.6%. Typical rates of withdrawal from human feeding studies at our facility are ≈4–7%”

    Even though only 1 subject reported that the problem with following the protocol was the 1 meal.

    “subjects did not become habituated to the 1 meal/d diet. Over time, hunger, desire to eat, and prospective consumption increased, whereas feelings of fullness decreased.”

    I really don’t see the point in arguing for this anymore. I prefer to design diets that active individuals not confined to metabolic wards are able to follow.

    • In no way I was arguing for 1 meal a day or anything of that nonsense. Personally I prefer 3-4 Meals a day, just as you advise here and in various blogposts. I was just curious.
      Thanks for your effort of clearing this up, appreciate it!

  7. Yes, that’s me. I saw your post linked on another forum and thought I would take a look. I have some experience with middle eastern bodybuilders and many of these simply can’t afford the same protein intake that many american and european bodybuilders can, but still they get results (growth, muscle retention when dieting). So clearly 1.5-2g/kg bw/day can be sufficient.

    • Good observation, and I actually had that one in mind, too. They’re also not (in general) using boatloads of insulin, GH and AAS either – it is very simple and many can obviously not afford GH or any exotics. I think that’s saying something.

      But then obviously, when I see that the average Joe’s and Jane’s I’m working with are growing nicely on that protein range, that’s saying even more. Some nice unpublished research from elite athletes at Olympiatoppen (connected to Norwegian School of Sports Sciences) is confirming this (as well as that 3 vs 6 meal study).

      • You probably know this but in many of those countries AAS is cheaper than protein powder ;). In general protein sources are expensive.

        • Though anecdotal to the point, I was recently in Nigeria, Africa and noted saw many individuals who were absolutely ripped and large. Curiously, these individuals had a substantially larger carb intake daily and ate probably 50
          grams of protein a day. The underlying factor in most of these guys was their NEPA. They worked in jobs like stone masons, car mechanics, labourers etc. I also found that the general populace ate the same levels of protein but with less resistance training and generally looked skinny fat(for the guys) and over weight (for women). I know genetics play a role but the amount of muscle built by these individuals on very little protein was absolutely impressive. I believe Brad Pilon has a book out that questions the current recommendations for hypertrophy.
          ps Borge, I don;t know if you’ve already done this, but I would like to see the same treatment given to Carbs as well(best sources, how much for growth, fat loss etc). I absolutely trust the thoroughness of your work .

          • Exactly! People overplay the role of protein (as well as genetics and drugs, but that is a different discussion) and think that training a lift on consecutive days their muscles will deteriorate and fall off their bones. Go tell a farmer, construction worker or someone else involved in physical labour that they can only work for one day then take several days off to “recover” and they will laugh at you. They would probably love it if it was true and they really could work for just a few days per week, but still – they will laugh at you.

            I’ve had a discussion with Pilon about this, and although we don’t agree on everything (70-120g for everyone regardless of size, age, deficit/surplus or training history), he is also on to something.

            I will cover carbs, although that’s not really all that complicated IMO. I just let it scale with training volume, and adjust according to bf% and insulin sensitivity (the leaner you are, the more carbs you can handle) – and staple foods are fruits, white rice, sweet potato/yams and potatoes. Or maybe it is, come to think about it 🙂

      • So Olympiatoppen was right all along, with their claims of a normal, Norwegian diet being optimal for protein requirements? Kinda makes me ashamed of hating on them for so long if thats the case.

        • Well…sort of. See, what is a “normal” diet these days? Look into the shopping cart of the person next to you in line at the grocery store. The average protein consumption of a normal, Norwegian diet is in the range of 60-80g (from food logs recorded throughout my 15+ years of working with people) – so about half of what I recommend here.

  8. Many thanks for this very instructive article. I workout three days a week from 17:30 to 19:00. My post workout meal is even my dinner. If I’ve good understood I do well if I eat the great part of carbs (and calories) in this meal also in the rest days without impair insuline sensitivity. On training days I skip breakfast (leangains style IF). On rest days I eat a low carb breakfast (2-3 entire eggs, 15 gr of almonds and peanuts, 150 gr of yougurt with fat milk) to take advanced of enhanced protein synthesys. My lunch is always low carb. My actual goal is to burn body fat and maintain (or add a little of) muscles.

      • Yes Borge. After the reading of this interesting discussion I’m not sure anymore if it’s better to eat my usual amount of carbs (abt 150 gr) every evening, or if it’s better to limit carbs in the training days to 30-50 gr and eat more carbs in the rest days (always 150 gr). Many thanks in advance for your answer.

        • I would never limit carbs to 50g on training days unless your bodyfat is really high and you’re doing a short-term low-carb diet. I have 50kg girls on 200g of carbs and losing fat just nicely.

  9. I’m currently doing a PSMF which I plan to wrap up at the end of this week at about 11-12% bodyfat. Because of the severe deficit I’ve had my protein at 270g/day (I’m a small lifter at 160 lbs with a maintenance of around 2200-2300 kcal).

    I’m planning on moving towards a more moderate deficit of 500kcal/day after the PSMF. This would put me at about 1700kcal/day. I was going to aim for Lyle’s suggestion of 1.5g/lb of LBM and get in about 225g protein/day. From there I was going to get about 1g of carbs per lb of LBM and the rest of the calories from fat.

    After reading this I’m doubting I need close to the 225g of protein per day and personally I’d rather eat more carbs.

    Would I spare LBM if I kept the same 1700 kcal/day intake but lowered my protein intake in order to raise my carb intake? Maybe 180g-200g of protein a day?

      • This is true. I’m curious to know how protein-sparing carbs are on a diet. I’m guessing it’s not a 1:1 ratio with protein.

        How low could I bring protein while keeping a 500kcal deficit and still spare LBM if carbs replace the protein? Some days it can be difficult to get in enough protein when I’m out and about, busy all day.

        • Carbs are always protein sparing. If you bring fats really low you can bring carbs higher, as well. The recommendations in the post still stands. 2g/kg LBM or 0.8g/lbs is my recommendation – if you use whey or some BCAAs you can get away with less, obviously.

    • This is very interesting. For my curiosity, your current intake of 1 gr of carbs per LB of LBM is for a precise reason or it’s only the result of your experience? I’m also involved in a sort of rapid fat loss program. My bodyweight is 153 lbs (BF 15%) and in three months I’ve not registered visible muscles loss. Instead It seems that in certain body zones the muscle mass is augmented. My protein intake is about 90-100 gr and, how I’ve I wrote above, I train my entire body (with the myo-reps) three times at week. As Brat Pilon often underlines, studies indicate that weight training is the key to spare muscles, and a very big amount of protein perhaps is only a waste of money. This seems plausible if carbs intake isn’t almost zero as in a PSF but it’s above 100 gr.

      • Carbs are always individualized and this range is what works for me at the moment, at my current macros, at my current training setup – don’t take it as a guideline.

        I love that you named him “Brat” Pilon…

  10. Excellent article as usual, Borge!

    How do fat macros fit into this then? Taking for example someone who’s dieting on an average of 1,900 cals/day (varies, using a zig-zag approach) and 145g protein or 580 cals covers protein needs at 2.0g/kg/lb of lean mass, how would you distribute the rest of the macros?

    I’ve currently been doing 33/33/33 as I definitely do better on higher carbs, with smaller protein w/ fruit carb based meals during the day, and usually one large feast at night making up the majority of calories. However I haven’t been restricting fat in the evenings, just hitting my macros whatever is still called for. Some days fat is as high as 120g/day, and as much as 40-60g of this can come in the large evening meal. Usually eating 4-5 meals/day and currently mid 8% bodyfat.

    Thinking I may be better off limiting overall fat intake more, and especially in the evenings, while keeping protein around the 2.0g/kg/lb lean mass and making up the rest with carbs. But just how much fat is enough, or recommended?

    Any clarification would be appreciated! Thanks, and keep up the good work!

    • Depends on what works better for you, fats or carbs. I have an extensive questionnaire I go through with clients before setting up diets for them, so without knowing anything about you I can’t really give you a useful answer. You have to look at if your current setup is working for you, and if not – adjust it. That doesn’t mean you should flip-flop everything at the same time, but if you lower protein to 2g/kg (0.8g/lbs) then I usually suggest increasing carbs – at least on training days.

  11. A further thought about the protein issue. It seems that last researches confirm the old statement about the maximum amount of 30 gr of protein for each meal that body can handle. So this isn’t a mith as many people say today.
    I want also report to your attention the following article of Mauro de Pasquale on carbs eating after exercise (post-exercise carbohydrates may be counter-productive). I know that de Pasquale emphasizes the “bad side” of post-workout carbs assumption due to justify his Metabolic Diet also for mass gaining, but I think It’s however a good article.

    • The body can handle as much protein as you throw at it, that’s not the issue here – the issue is seeing how many grams it takes to max out Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS), so it’s not as if the rest is just wasted.

      I’ve read Pasquales article and a couple of years ago I, in fact, also recommended the no-carbs PWO approach. There is, however, no proof that this has any beneficial effects except for perhaps a prolonged higher insulin sensitivity. Most all research shows that placing carbs post-workout will lead to improved recovery and nutrient partitioning. In practice, the no-carb PWO led to insatiable hunger – I could eat 2lbs of meat with added fats, we’re easily talking 100g of protein and 100g of fat…and still be hungry. I can now have 30-40g of protein and 30-40g of carbs and feel great.

      I still place the majority of carbs for the evening meals, though – if I train around 4-5PM I usually split the carbs evenly between my post-workout meal and the evening meal.

      • This thread is a true mine of useful informations. 🙂 Can we say that if I will eat abt 80-100 gr of carbs in the evening meal (which is also my post-workout meal) I will have some of the advantages of eating carbs togheter proteins without saturate glycogen depots and this leads to a better insulin sensitivity during the next day of rest? (my WO lasts 1,5h and is quite intensive). If this is true, then in the rest day a bigger amount of carbs could be gradually eaten. Better if in the evening meal according to the Biorythm Diet principles (i.e. 200 gr in the evening meal and 40-50 gr during the rest of the day… considering my personal intake).

        • Yes, but I really don’t see why you wouldn’t refill muscle glycogen when you have the chance. Why wait until the rest day when you’re not really burning a lot of calories and creating a sink for incoming carbs?

          • The sink was created by the previous workout and it will be filled slowly in more than 24 hours rather than in few hours. if I’ve understood correctly the Dipasquale’s article, insulin sensitivity and protein synthesis will decrease when glycogen depots are filled. So if I won’t replenish them immediately after WO but slowly during the next day of rest, perhaps it can be more productive for muscle gains.

            He wrote: “capacity for glycogen synthesis, and everything that goes with it, can persist for several days if the muscle glycogen concentration is maintained below normal levels by carbohydrate restriction. By keeping carbs low and protein and energy high after training, you can increase protein synthesis over a prolonged period of time and get long term anabolic effect.”

            So glycogen depots won’t be refilled within few hours but at the end of the rest days. If calories on rest days are below the maintenance level (for body recomposition purposes), the risk of gaining fat due to any excess of carbs (if any) will be avoided.

            Or not?

          • Except that there is no evidence I am aware of that amino acid sensitivity or protein synthesis tracks with insulin sensitivity, nor does it decrease with glycogen compensation – quite the contrary in fact.

        • Hi Borge,

          According to BioRhythm Diet these are the reasons why not to completely refill muscle glycogen, and the role of glycogen compensation in amino acid uptake.

          Could you please clarify?

          Keep up the good work, Clood

          “Also, I’m going to argue that slightly delaying complete glycogen (super)compensation will maintain a higher insulin sensitivity, i.e. insulin can do its job at shuttling nutrients into the muscle more efficiently if it’s not completely full.

          Noted scientists Kevin D. Tipton specializing in amino acid and protein research has mentioned in a paper I just can’t seem to dig up right now, that a cell-full phenomena which would happen if you supercompensated glycogen stores decreases amino acid uptake and increases oxidation (it is burned off as energy instead of used for growth).

          Hence, keeping a slight nutrient deficit by prioritizing protein intake and saving up carbs for later seems like an even more interesting thought, doesn’t it?”

          • Yeah, I’m not completely convinced that one should delay glycogen supercompensation post-workout, so depending on the individual diet setup I might have someone load hard after training. If it’s early in the day, some find that loading up on carbs makes them sleepy and bloated – so saving up for the evening meal is a good thing from an adherence perspective even if we can’t find any hard evidence that there are some protein synthesis benefits from it.