If there is one macronutrient that most people struggle with, but that can make the biggest difference to your fat loss results, it’s protein, with most people simultaneously underestimate their calorie intake while overestimating their protein intake. And since fat loss is most strongly tied to these 2 values, then it makes sense to zero in on them. So in this post, I’ll take you through some of the research and we’ll figure out how much protein you really need to get the results you want.
But first, a quick recap on what protein is and why you need it.
Don’t worry, I’ll be brief.
Protein is one of the 3 macronutrients, along with carbs and fats. These provide you with your major building blocks of life, and the micro- and phytonutrients add in all the little details that help everything work as it should. Which is one of the many reasons you should try to eat as wide and varied diet as you can.
Protein is a collection of amino acids, when you eat protein, it’s broken down into these aminos and they are reorganised as needed for cell building and repair. So getting an adequate supply means you don’t need to break down precious muscle mass to cannibalise the aminos stored in them.
Almost all foods contain some or all the amino acids you need. Generally, animal based foods have a full range of amino acids, including those that can only be gotten from your diet. There are 9 of these essential aminos and a further 6 that are conditional and dependent on other factors. This can be a problem if you are vegetarian or vegan, since most plants contain only some of the amino acids, but there are 2 work arounds you can use to offset this.
- Eat a large variety of plants to get a bigger variety of aminos acids from your diet, and
- Use a good protein supplement to top up your numbers, which also helps with getting your total protein intake up.
As a rule, I like most of my clients to get most of their protein from actual food where possible. This is partly for improved fullness if they are aiming for fat loss. Generally, food, particularly protein and veggies, are more satiating and help you stay fuller for longer between meals. Limiting hunger that might otherwise lead to the snack cupboard and make your progress that bit harder. The exception to this is for those looking to gain weight and add muscle mass. Since this requires over feeding, I don’t want you feeling full all the time as it’ll limit how many calories you can pack away to get you to your goal.
So how much protein do you really need?
I think it’s important to understand the difference between the RNI (reference nutrient intake) and what research says is optimal for specific goals. The RNI is not a recommendation of the optimal amount you need each day for your body composition goals, but the minimum amount you need in order to avoid a deficiency. In the UK this is set at 0.75g per kg of bodyweight, or about 54g for men and 45g for women.
However if we look at the research, we see that the optimal intakes for fat loss, maintenance and muscle gain are somewhat higher. And given the method that these RNI values were calculated by tends to underestimate protein needs, you probably need to eat more protein than you do currently.
Protein needs for sedentary adults
|Bodyweight (kgs)||Low intake (1.2x BW)||High intake (1.8x BW)|
Above is the table of recommended protein ranges for sedentary, healthy adults, based on bodyweight. The low range is 1.2 x bw and the higher end is 1.8x. The study this was taken from showed that there was no major improvement in body composition at intakes higher than 1.8 x BW, so this gives you a good upper target if you are sedentary.
But given you are reading this, chances are you are either looking to lose some body fat, or add some muscle mass. So let’s look at the research based values for those goals.
Protein intakes for fat loss
Weight loss is driven by a calorie deficit, without this deficit, however you create it, weight loss can’t happen. The easiest way by far to create a calorie deficit is to reduce the amount of food you eat consistently over a long enough period of time to see the result you want. And in order for the majority of the weight you lose to come from fat, a combination of resistance training and higher protein intakes are necessary. This 1-2 punch of lifting heavy things and eating protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis, helping you maintain, and sometimes gain, more lean mass than you would have otherwise.
This is good for a number of reasons:
- More lean mass (muscle) means a higher metabolism
- Lean mass gives you the toned shape you want
- More muscle typically means stronger joints and connective tissues
- More muscle means better handling of carbs and blood sugar.
- And lots more besides
The other benefit of eating more protein as part of a balanced diet is the higher thermic effect of food. Which is a fancy pants way of saying that protein requires more energy to process and utilise than other foods. It really is a win win win.
So let’s look at the protein ranges for fat loss.
Protein intakes for fat loss
|Weight in kgs||Lower end (1.2x BW)||Higher end (1.5x BW)|
If you are lean and looking to lean out a little further, or you are looking to build muscle mass, then then numbers start to climb a little.
Outside of protein contents, the key difference in these 2 groups, muscle gain and lean trying to get leaner, is calorie intake.
If you are trying to lose fat, as we said right at the start of the post, you have to be in a calorie deficit. There is no way around this, and as your calorie deficit increases the leaner you get, the higher protein intakes help to minimise muscle loss.
If you are trying to add muscle mass, then you need to be in a calorie surplus, in order to supply the fuel to train and recover. This amount will depend on your starting calories and activity levels and you’ll need to adjust as you get results in order to minimise the small amount of fat gain that comes with the process.
Protein needs for building muscle or getting leaner
|Weight (kgs)||Low end 1.6x BW||High end 2.4x BW||May be some benefits going as high as 3.1x BW|
As you can see, the protein intakes for these groups is higher than for overweight individuals trying to lose fat. But why?
2 reasons comes to mind, the first is that if you are lean and trying to lose a little more fat, or trying to gain more muscle, you typically will have more muscle initially than the overweight individual. Therefore you need a higher protein intake to preserve that lean mass.
Secondly, if you are overweight and trying to lose fat, your calorie intake is going to be lower in order to drive the fat loss, therefore your protein intake, even at the same % of total calories is going to be lower.
How much should I eat at each meal
Spreading your protein out over the whole day will result in a more consistent positive protein balance, meaning more muscle protein synthesis across the day, which is a good thing. The simplest way to do this is to just split your whole protein goal over the number of meals or snacks you typically have, with a minimum of around 20g per meal in order to get the minimum amount of the essential amino acid leucine which is responsible for kickstarting the MPS process. Leucine is found in all animal based proteins, so if you are vegetarian or vegan, you may need to combine a variety of foods or supplement in order to get enough.
Assuming you are eating 4 meals across the day (3 meals, 1 snack) your protein targets might look like this:
Protein intake per meal
|Weight (kg)||Low target 0.4g/kg/meal||High target 0.6g/kg/meal|
But I heard that eating more than 30g of protein was a waste of time…
Not so fast. The idea that any protein intake over 30g per feeding has been shown to be false. It was thought that muscle protein synthesis was capped at that amount but it’s been shown that higher feedings actually result in a higher protein turnover. Meaning that your body puts the extra protein to work breaking down more damaged tissues and replacing them.
It all gets used in time.