What Is The Right Amount of Protein?
Protein seems all the rage these days. It is touted boldly and proudly on the labels of meal-replacement beverages, energy drinks, granola bars, and endless made-to-order smoothies to which protein powder has been generously added, despite soy or cow’s milk and yogurt already providing ample protein in most of these concoctions.
Protein facilitates muscle growth and repair by providing the essential amino acids the body needs before, during and after strenuous activity. It also boosts the immune system, which can become compromised during heavy training. And so while people who exercise strenuously and regularly need more protein than the Recommended Daily Allowance calls for, the truth is that they only need a little bit more.
Furthermore, remember that even these folks, who need only a small increase in protein intake from the RDA, need significantly more protein than sedentary people need. Unfortunately, many sedentary people are listening to the ill-informed battle cry that protein is the miracle macronutrient that will see them to a better body weight, by steering them away from the dreaded carbs.
The problem with protein
The trouble is, the RDA for protein is just 0.8 g per kg of body weight (0.35 g/lb). According to Olympic endurance coach Chris Carmichael, the average American diet receives twice that amount.
And even more crucially, science has shown that consuming above 2 g of protein/kg daily (0.9 g of protein/lb) has no additional benefits. Athletes have been trying for years to up their protein intake to improve performance--by gulping down raw eggs, protein powders, milkshakes and lots of meat. But the vast majority of this extra protein is simply converted to fat for storage. Some portion of it is also converted to glycogen in the liver, which is there as a fuel reserve during intense or long-duration exercise.
What many non-athletes don’t understand, then--and food marketeers aren’t helping clarify the point-- is that they do not need to supplement protein or look for it as an important added bonus to all health bars and drinks, as many people nowadays seem to be fixated on doing. And if you are more or less sedentary, you are almost certainly already ingesting far too much protein, which is not just abundantly present in beef, pork, chicken and fish but also in all fortified bread, pasta, rice, beans, nuts, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, cheese, “health” bars, energy drinks and much more.
Athletes, aim for a modest increase from the RDA for protein: instead of 0.35 g/lb daily, try for 0.5 to 0.7 g/lb of body weight. This means a 165-lb athlete should aim for just 80 to 105 g of protein daily--an amount they are likely already getting. Carmichael notes that he often has to reduce his athletes’ protein intake initially to dial down their overconsumption of overall calories; it is the first culprit and the best one to cut first because it is more than they can use anyway.