Protein is without a doubt the most talked about macronutrient. The other ones just don’t get enough attention.
Carbs are good for energy. Fat is cool for hormonal health.
Alcohol is cute and tasty, but protein literally builds you slabs of muscles that makes you look aesthetic to the opposite sex.
That reason alone makes protein quite the talk of the town when it comes to fitness circles. There are other benefits to protein as well if you needed more reasons to eat some steak. Some of which might surprise you more than others.
- Protein has the highest thermic effect of food meaning your body expends the most energy digesting it.
- Protein is generally the most filling macronutrient1,2.
- Protein is the most forgiving macronutrient as it’s difficult to store as body fat when overeaten3.
- Protein makes you sleep better when dieting4.
- Protein makes you less stressful and irritable while dieting5.
- Low protein intake is correlated with earlier death of all causes6.
So as you can see, protein is quite awesome especially if you have physique related goals. The issue is there’s an overload of conflicting information on how to optimize it and which factors are most important.
Here’s exactly how to optimize protein in order of importance so you no longer have to discern between so much confusing information.
1. Total Daily Protein
The total daily amount of protein you eat is most important. It doesn’t matter if you eat the best sources, if you don’t eat enough daily you won’t be maximizing your gains or worse, you won’t build any muscle at all.
Most people should eat more, but you probably don’t need as much as 1 gram per pound of bodyweight as often taught.
This systematic review found the totality of research shows 1.6 grams per kg of bodyweight to be enough to maximize muscle growth as well as muscle retention during a diet in people who strength train7. This is about 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight.
So while you probably don’t need 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, the review did show the confidence interval extended to 2.2 grams per kg or 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. This might be better for people who simply respond better to higher protein intakes.
Another argument can be made to eat on the higher end would be during a deep energy deficit.
During an energy deficit, protein breakdown increases especially in lean individuals, so aiming higher might be beneficial8,9. Even if it didn’t help with additional muscle, additional protein can provide a higher thermic effect along with more satiety, both of which are crucial for those on a diet.
Long story short, you’ll retain or gain all the muscle you need if you eat between 0.7-1 gram per pound of bodyweight daily. You should consider aiming towards the higher end if you’re dieting or simply because it’s easier to remember.
2. Protein Quality
Once you get a good grip on eating enough protein, focusing your intake on high quality sources will be the next important aspect.
These are the 3 aspects that make a protein source high quality:
- Amino acid profile
- Animal source
It should have a complete amino acid profile. Without all the necessary amino acids, muscle growth is hindered and bioavailability (how much you absorb) drops.
Fortunately, animal sources will have a complete amino acid profile along with having more leucine.
For these reasons, animal protein has been shown to be more anabolic than plant based protein10. If you do choose to be vegan, you’d have to consume more total protein on top of strategically pairing up specific protein sources throughout the day to have a chance of matching the anabolic effect.
Finally, there’s practicality. Trendy types of protein are flashy, but usually aren’t practical. Crickets for example get a lot of attention for having a high percentage of protein, but you’d have to eat hundreds of them to reach targeted absolute numbers. That’s about as practical as trying to get all of your protein from broccoli.
Even if you opt for cricket protein powder, their macro ratios are comparable to conventional sources at best and at worst are overpriced inferior supplements.
So a high quality protein source must not only be an animal source with a complete amino acid profile, it must be practical as well.
Your best bet is to get at least 60% of your daily protein from the following sources:
- Fish, sardines, and seafood
- Lean beef
- Lean pork
- Ground meats (at least 80% lean)
- Lean deli meats
- Eggs or egg whites
- Fat free Greek yogurt
- Low fat cottage cheese
- Whey protein
These all contain an appreciable amount of protein, a full range of amino acids to build muscle, and are practical enough for anyone to stock up on.
3. Protein Distribution
Once you’ve mastered eating enough protein and getting in quality sources, you can aim to optimize distribution, but know that this isn’t necessary and the return will be minimal.
For fat loss, this doesn’t seem to matter as intermittent fasting studies have shown us, muscle is retained just fine with a low distribution of protein11.
For muscle gain, we actually don’t have well designed studies on optimal protein distribution during a caloric surplus. However, researchers theorize if there is any benefit, it’s best to spread your daily protein intake as evenly as possible across 4 meals12.
This allows at least 20-40 grams of protein to be consumed at each meal and maximize on muscle protein synthesis.
So if it’s not too much of a hassle, spreading your protein like a strategic scientist could yield some marginal benefit. If you choose not to, it’s no big deal. You’re probably not missing out on much.
4. Protein Near Your Workout
The so called anabolic window where you must chug down a protein shake after your last rep is largely overexaggerated.
Still research does show timing your protein near your workout has merit especially with more advanced lifters13,14. However, the anabolic effects of a meal is pretty large. Research shows us you don’t have to swallow down some protein the moment you get back to the locker room.
As long as you get some protein a few hours before and/or after your workout, you will be fine.
While timing your protein near your workout has more evidence than protein distribution, it’s lower as a priority because if you distribute your protein correctly, your anabolic window is covered as well.
Think about it. If you’re awake for 16 hours and eat protein 4 times throughout the day, it doesn’t really matter when you work out, you’ll be sandwiched between feedings of protein to provide building blocks for hypertrophy.
5. Protein Before Bed
Old pre-bed protein studies are deeply limited in design. Most of them either don’t involve strength training or don’t match for total daily protein between groups.
A study done by Jordan and colleagues is the only one studying pre-bed that included strength training and matched for total daily protein15. They even used casein which is the common choice for pre-bed protein thanks to its ability to keep muscle protein synthesis elevated throughout the night.
However, the study showed no difference in muscle mass between groups indicating that the benefit of protein before bed is not from the timing itself, but likely just a way to get in more protein if you’re not already eating enough.
This is one of those strategies that seems great in theory, but probably isn’t necessary in practice if the main priorities are already mastered.
Still, there are no negative effects to pre-bed protein, so have at it if this helps you eat more total protein. It theoretically could also help you sleep better which is always great for your gains and for life in general.
The best choices for pre-bed protein would be Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, casein protein, or meat if that doesn’t affect your sleep.
Everything You Need to Know About Protein
That’s everything any fitness enthusiast will need to know about protein. In fact, just the first two points alone will get you almost all of your gains. Eating enough daily protein and sticking to mostly high quality sources are the major non-negotiable strategies.
Distributing your protein, timing it near your workout, and having a serving before bed are secondary strategies. They’re like the cherry on top, but don’t focus too much on them at the expense of the primary strategies.
Do this consistently and you’ll be maximizing on hypertrophy that you can enjoy for a lifetime.
- Dhillon, Jaapna, et al. “The Effects of Increased Protein Intake on Fullness: A Meta-Analysis and Its Limitations.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26947338.
- “Optimising Foods for Satiety.” Trends in Food Science & Technology, Elsevier, 28 Oct. 2014, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924224414002386.
- Leaf, Alex, and Jose Antonio. “The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition - A Narrative Review.” International Journal of Exercise Science, Berkeley Electronic Press, 1 Dec. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29399253.
- Zhou, Jing, et al. “Higher-Protein Diets Improve Indexes of Sleep in Energy-Restricted Overweight and Obese Adults: Results from 2 Randomized Controlled Trials.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, American Society for Nutrition, Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26864362.
- Helms, Eric R, et al. “High-Protein, Low-Fat, Short-Term Diet Results in Less Stress and Fatigue than Moderate-Protein Moderate-Fat Diet during Weight Loss in Male Weightlifters: a Pilot Study.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25028958.
- Bilancio, Giancarlo, et al. “Dietary Protein, Kidney Function and Mortality: Review of the Evidence from Epidemiological Studies.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 18 Jan. 2019, www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/1/196/htm.
- Morton, Robert W, et al. “A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-Induced Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Healthy Adults.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine, 1 Mar. 2018, bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/6/376.
- Joe, D. “Macronutrient Intakes as Determinants of Dietary Protein and Amino Acid Adequacy.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Oct. 2004, academic.oup.com/jn/article/134/6/1588S/4688852.
- Elia, M, et al. “Differences in Fat, Carbohydrate, and Protein Metabolism between Lean and Obese Subjects Undergoing Total Starvation.” Obesity Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 1999, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10574520.
- van Vliet, Stephan, et al. “The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption.” The Journal of Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26224750.
- Seimon, Radhika V, et al. “Do Intermittent Diets Provide Physiological Benefits over Continuous Diets for Weight Loss? A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials.” Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Dec. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26384657.
- Brad Jon Schoenfeld, and Alan Albert Aragon. “How Much Protein Can the Body Use in a Single Meal for Muscle-Building? Implications for Daily Protein Distribution.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BioMed Central, 27 Feb. 2018, jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1.
- Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, and Alan Albert Aragon. “Is There a Postworkout Anabolic Window of Opportunity for Nutrient Consumption? Clearing up Controversies.” The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30702982.
- Chad M. Kerksick, et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BioMed Central, 29 Aug. 2017, jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4.
- Joy, Jordan M, et al. “Daytime and Nighttime Casein Supplements Similarly Increase Muscle Size and Strength in Response to Resistance Training Earlier in the Day: a Preliminary Investigation.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BioMed Central, 15 May 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5952515/.