Opinions on protein intake vary across a broad spectrum. Some claim the best bodybuilding diets have very high amounts of protein. Others cite the benefits of eating low protein diets. Who is right? Actually, the better question is what’s the best protein intake for you?.
In a nutshell:
You should be eating the amount your body requires to function optimally. No more, no less.
Sedentary people need relatively little protein while Olympic strength athletes may need loads of protein just to keep up with their demanding training. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Bodybuilders will typically be in the higher range but it really depends on your size, training style, and schedule.
Why is protein so important?
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are the foundation of life itself. In fact, after water, our bodies are mostly protein. The all important immune system is made up of protein structures as are all the other cells of your body. The proper protein intake allows you to function optimally.
The body is constantly turning over proteins as it tears down worn cells and rebuilds new ones. The rate of this turnover depends on your activity level. The more active you are the higher your individual protein requirements are. Bodybuilders in training are always in a higher turnover mode.
The type of bodybuilding training you do affects your individual needs. High volume training 4-5 days a week will require a greater protein intake than high-intensity training 2 days a week.
Too Much or Too Little
If you suddenly begin a bodybuilding program and do not increase protein intake your body will not be getting enough raw materials. Of course, the body doesn’t just shut down when this happens. It gets the raw materials it needs from within.
Muscle tissue is broken down to fill the gap between the protein from your diet and your protein requirements. The body will sacrifice muscle to keep the essential organs running. This is a bad situation. After all, exercise is supposed to build muscle, right?
On the other hand, if you stop training and don’t reduce your intake the extra protein will be stored for later use. Like all excess calories, it will be converted and stored as body fat! This is what happens to some professional athletes after retirement. Ex pro football players are notorious for this.
Some people say that their muscle turned to fat. That’s not true. After stopping their hard training they lost the muscle they once had. At the same time, they gained fat by not cutting back on their food intake. Their bodies just don’t need all those raw materials anymore.
The point is is that your protein intake should fluctuate depending on changes in your activity levels. If you increase or decrease your training your protein intake should change with it to stay within the optimal range.
So how much do you require?
Several factors go into determining the right amount of protein for your training needs. These factors include body weight, lean body mass(body weight minus fat weight), and activity levels(training style and volume).
The first thing to do is to determine your lean body mass. Have an accurate flexible measuring tape handy and click on the following link to determine both your current body fat and lean body mass. This calculator is fairly accurate and easy to use. It will open in a new window. Once you get your results write down your “lean weight”. You’ll need this number later.
- Simple Fat Intake Calculator
- Calculate your recommended Protein Intake with our Best Protein Intake Calculator
Your lean body mass is just your body weight minus your body fat. Protein intake is based on this number because your body fat doesn’t have much direct influence on protein needs.
To find your ideal protein intake you’ll next need to determine your activity level. Both Dr. Michael Colgan, author of Optimum Sports Nutrition and Dr. Barry Sears, author of The Zone series of nutrition books use similar tables to determine activity levels and optimal protein consumption. Dr. Sears’ table is an excellent reference for most people. Here is Dr. Sears’ activity factor guide.
- 0.5 – Sedentary (no formal sports activity or training)
- 0.6 – Light Activity (ex. regular walking)
- 0.7 – Moderate Activity (3 days per week or sports participation)
- .08 – Active (Daily aerobic training or moderate weight training)
- 0.9 – Very Active (Intense weight training 3-4 days per week or other daily high volume exercise)
- 1.0 – Elite Athlete(or weight training >5 days per week)
Note: If you feel you are between levels use a number such as .65 or .75 as your activity factor.
Your activity factor is the amount of protein(in grams) you require per lb of lean body mass. For instance, if your lean body mass is 160lbs and your activity factor is .85, then your protein requirement is 160 x .85 or 136. That means your body requires 136 grams of protein per day.
Calculate your own protein requirement and write it down. It is a very important number. Remember, however, that if you make any big changes in your regular activity levels or lean body mass your protein needs will change.