How Much Protein Do You Really Need a Day to Build Muscle?
In case you haven't noticed, protein is in, and people are adding it to everything—from their coffee to their oatmeal. Between trendy diets like keto and paleo and the influx of new high-protein products ranging from ice cream and pasta to peanut butter and pancake mix, it's clear that there's a growing obsession with this macronutrient. Surely, protein plays an important role in anyone's diet, but if you're seeking to build muscle, you'll have to consume more of it than the average person. That said, there are a lot of major misconceptions about exactly how much protein you need a day to boost muscle growth.
If you think the more protein you eat, the more you'll bulk up, think again. Because when it comes down to it, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that includes protein. Not to mention, protein needs are not one-size-fits-all—they depend largely on your current body weight and activity level, so what's sufficient for one person to build muscle might not cut it for someone else.
Sound complicated? Fortunately, we spoke to two experts—Cedrina Calder (aka FitDoc), MD, preventive medicine doctor, and health expert, and Monica Auslander Moreno, RD, LD/N, and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition—to find out just how much protein you need on a daily basis for maximum muscle growth.
How much protein do you need to build muscle?
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for a healthy, non-pregnant adult is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. But let's be clear—the RDA is just the minimum amount you need to meet your baseline nutritional requirements.
So, that's your RDA if you're solely seeking to maintain your current muscle mass. But if you're trying to build muscle, Calder suggests heeding the American College of Sports Medicine's guidelines, and consuming between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight of protein daily (or about 0.54 to 0.9 grams per pound).
According to Moreno, this number can shoot up even higher in athletic individuals with super high training demands. This is why she emphasizes the importance of taking your own unique needs into account. If you're doing high-intensity exercise or heavy weightlifting five to six days a week, then your protein needs will be higher than they are for someone with the same bodyweight who's sedentary or only engaging in light exercise two to three days a week. Because it can be a process of trial and error to find your "sweet spot," she suggests monitoring your progress closely as you increase your protein intake, and tweaking as needed.
"This has to be considered in the framework of how much weight-bearing exercise you are doing to accompany the protein intake, as well as if you are attempting to lose weight—as weight loss efforts actually would increase your protein needs to spare muscle mass," says Moreno. "A registered dietitian can help you assess and monitor your own needs."
Can you eat too much protein?
Research has shown time and again that it is actually possible to overdo it on the protein, which is why it's important to figure out what your specific needs are. The reality is that eating too much protein can lead to dehydration, foul-smelling breath, indigestion, and nausea, among other unpleasant side effects. Studies have shown that the excess protein you consume cannot be used efficiently by your body—and moreover, may cause stress to the kidneys and liver. Not to mention, Moreno notes that consuming excessive amounts of protein could also potentially sabotage your weight loss efforts.
According to Harvard Health, it can be difficult to define how much is too much, as protein needs can vary so vastly from individual to individual. However, for the average person, it's generally best not to consume more than 2 grams per kilogram of body weight. An elite athlete or bodybuilder may very well be able to safely exceed this amount, however.
Does the source of your protein matter?
Experts agree that the quality of the protein is just as important as the quantity. Protein can come from a variety of foods, including animal and plant sources, as well as supplemental sources (like whey, casein, soy, and pea protein powder). But Calder says the sources that are most effective for building muscle are those that contain all of the essential amino acids.
These foods are known as complete proteins, and they include:
"Whey protein is the gold standard for muscle protein synthesis as it has been well-studied, so you'd want to include whey protein throughout your day for optimal muscle protein synthesis," says Moreno.
These include food sources like:
- cottage cheese
- whey protein concentrate
Moreno adds: "Plant proteins are great for their nutrient power and do contribute amino acids to your diet—but they are not the most ideal or efficient path to muscle protein synthesis. You'd have to consume much more beans by weight than beef to get the same muscle growth."
While Calder advises prioritizing those whole food sources of protein, she adds that high-quality supplements can be used to increase your intake when necessary. However, it's crucial to keep in mind that many commercial protein powders are chock-full of artificial sweeteners, as well as other additives and preservatives—in other words, not all of them are created equal. If you like to make shakes on-the-go, or simply want a portable source to help boost your protein intake, Moreno suggests finding a grass-fed whey protein.
One of the most common protein mistakes is packing most of your protein into one meal—such as at dinner, or in a post-workout shake. Make sure to spread out your protein intake across all your meals. Not only will this ensure that you stay satiated throughout the day, but it's also optimal muscle growth.
Also, Calder is adamant that while consuming higher amounts of protein can help, exercise also plays a key role in your muscle-building efforts.
"Without the proper strength training regimen, you will not be successful at building muscle even if you were to increase your protein intake," says Calder.
When making any changes to your diet, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor to find out if you have any health conditions that may factor into your protein needs. Additionally, if you're uncertain about your protein needs, you may want to talk to a registered dietitian or licensed nutritionist to get some personalized recommendations. And as you start gathering high-protein recipes, remember: it's not just about consuming more protein, but finding the optimal amount for your unique needs, as well as seeking out high-quality sources.