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Why You’re Probably Eating More Protein Than You Need.

Sardine Salad

The following lesson about how much protein you need is just one of the 20 fueling myths that I dispel in my upcoming title from Endurance Planet entitled: “Endurance Planet’s Guide To Sports Nutrition with Ben Greenfield: “20 Fueling Myths Exposed”. Look for that book to be released in just one week (you can find out when the book is released if you subscribe to the free Endurance Planet newsletter by clicking here).

How Much Protein Should You Eat

“Athletes and exercising individuals need more protein.”

“Protein is crucial for muscle repair and recovery.”

“Eat more lean protein.”

Phrases such as this quite frequently get thrown around in sports and exercise nutrition geek-speak. Problem is, the importance of protein is blown way out of proportion (I personally plead guilty to having over-emphasized the importance of protein).

Sure, you certainly need the stuff. After all, when you eat protein, it gets broken down into protein building blocks called amino acids, and the amino acids are used for everything from cellular repair of all your damaged muscle fibers to a host of other metabolic reactions.

So to determine how much protein you actually should be getting, you need to be familiar with a term called “nitrogen balance”.

Here’s how nitrogen balance works:

Nitrogen enters your body when you consume protein from food or amino acid supplements, and nitrogen exits your body in your urine as ammonia, urea, and uric acid (all the breakdown products of protein) When the amount of protein you eat matches the amount of you use, you’re in nitrogen balance.

As you can probably deduce, if you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll be in negative nitrogen balance and quite unlikely to be able to repair muscle after a workout (a “catabolic” state), and if you consume too much protein, you’ll be in positive nitrogen balance, and while you’ll have what you need for muscle repair (an “anabolic” state), there can be some health issues that arise when you achieve too positive a state of nitrogen balance – since all that ammonia, urea and uric acid has side-effects (we’ll get into that in just a bit).

The current US recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (0.8g/kg), and was designed for most people to be in nitrogen balance – without protein deficits or protein excess. While athletes and frequently exercising individuals need more protein than this, you’ll frequently see bodybuilders, football players, weightlifters and other big strength and power athletes taking this to the extreme and consuming far in excess of this protein RDA (in some cases up to 2 grams per pound!)

But studies such as this one suggests that even for athletes, there really isn’t much additional benefit of exceeding 0.55 grams per pound of protein (1.2g/kg) if you want to maintain nitrogen balance. If you’re trying to exceed nitrogen balance for the purpose of putting on muscle, this study indicates that you don’t need to eat more than 25% above that 0.54 g/lb, which would be 0.55×1.25, which is 0.68 g/lb, or 1.5g/kg.

Sardine Salad
A spinach salad with fresh vegetables, hummus or flax seed crackers, and sardines is a common lunch for me, and has about 30g protein.

So let’s put those numbers into context. I weigh 175 pounds. If I don’t want to gain muscle, and I just want to make sure I’m getting enough protein for muscle recovery and body repair, I should eat 0.55×175, or 96 grams of protein.

Rounded up to a nice even number of 100 grams, that means I could have a couple scoops of protein powder with my morning breakfast (which I do), a can of sardines over my salad at lunch, and 4-6oz of chicken with dinner. That’s easily 100 grams, and doesn’t even count the other protein I get from seeds, nuts, grains, legumes, etc.

Frankly, this is about exactly what I do, and the rest of my diet is healthy fat (which keeps me smart, keeps my joints healthy, feeds my brain and maintains high levels of hormones), and then some vegetables and fruits (incidentally, I photo and text log my diet every day for members of the BenGreenfieldFitness Inner Circle)

And if I wanted to gain muscle, I could eat 0.68×175, or about 120 grams. So I would basically just add in a couple handfuls of almonds and a dollop of yogurt and I’d be good to go.

So what are the risks of eating excess protein, or having your nitrogen balance too great?

First, consider that ammonia is a toxic compound to the body. Once you get close to about 1000 calories a day of protein (that’s about 250 grams), you can longer convert ammonia to urea, and you begin to build up this toxin within your body. This is extremely stressful on your internal organs, especially your kidneys.

Next, excess protein can cause dehydration if you do not drink enough water. This is because your kidneys need more water to convert ammonia into urea.

Most interestingly to me, mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) is a gene in your body that is directly correlated to accelerated aging. Decreased activity in this gene is directly correlated to caloric restrictions and lower amino acid intake. So excessive protein intake and a constantly positive nitrogen balance could actually shorten your life!

Take-away message: eat as much protein as your body needs for repair and recovery, eat a little more if you want to put on muscle, and then take in the rest of your calories from healthy fats and vegetables, with limited fruits and carbohydrates for fueling intense bouts of physical activity.

Questions, comments or feedback? Just leave below, and remember you can find out when my book “20 Fueling Myths Exposed” is released if you subscribe to the free Endurance Planet newsletter by clicking here).

36 thoughts on “Why You’re Probably Eating More Protein Than You Need.

  1. I’m confused. You say at your weight of 175 lbs you would consume a max of 120 grams of protein. But you said your usual fat/protein/carb intake is 40/30/30. Unless my assumption that 1 gram protein = 4 calories is wrong, that would mean your daily caloric intake is 1600. I feel like that’s not the case though…

  2. Hi Ben

    I’m a 47 year old post menopause woman ( surgical menopause). I’m so confused by all the conflicting information. I want to lose weight/fat. I weigh 187 pounds. I’m currently doing the body coach SSS plan but I’m concerned about the amount of protein. One meal consists of 220-250g chicken, or 160 g tinned salmon, or 3 eggs. That’s 3 times a day. Is that too much?

    The weight losses on the plan look amazing for a lot of people judging by their before and after photos, but is it right for me? I know one size does not fit all, so how do I find out exactly what’s right for me at this stage of my life?

    Many thanks

  3. Hello Ben,

    I am trying to lose weight. My height is 5ft 8 inches and I was weighing around 120 kgs but now I have lost 4 kgs. Now I am 116 kgs. My ideal weight should be around 70kgs. I do exercises , mostly walking as its easy on my joints for now. But I do a bit of strength training with Dumbbells . Could you please guide me in what should be my protein intake ( in grams)along with carb and fat as now I am In the phase to lose weight. Thank you .

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  5. according to the exhaustive analysis of Martin et al, there exists no evidence that protein intake negatively influences renal health in otherwise healthy, active individuals. There is some evidence that already impaired renal function might worsen with increased protein, but the experts, as is their wont, can’t resist applying the same recommendations to everyone, regardless of renal health.

    Read more: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/protein-kidneys/#i…

  6. Hi Ben,

    I'm kind of a newbie to your website and podcasts…I have a question that you may or may not have answered before. I've recently returned to triathlons and am just getting over the "cost shock" of it all…race fees (that have to be paid more than 6 months in advance) equipment costs, nutrition, etc… After listening to and reading all of your information on nutriton supplements, I'm finding myself having to guess which supplements I really need and which I can do without since I can't afford everything that you recommend. Can you give a list of the most important nutrition supplements to least or which might help me the most in my racing and training for International through Ironman distances? Thanks Ben, Bill Richards

  7. I've seen plans all over the internet to add one pound of muscle per week (I think I've even seen one on your site). If eating the 0.55 ratio of protein for muscle maintenance then a 175 pound person eats 96 g protein per day. If eating to gain lean muscle mass then the 175 pound person eats 120 g protein per day. That means there's only 24 g (120 g-96 g = 24 g ) per day left for building new muscle after maintenance. Therefore that person has 168 g (24 g x 7 days = 168 g) of protein per week left over after maintenance to build new muscle. There are 454 grams in a pound. This 175 pound person could only put on 0.37 lbs (168 / 454 = 0.37) of muscle mass per week at this rate. If, as your article claims, there is no advantage to eating more protein than the 0.68 ratio then it's not possible for a 175 pound person to add a pound per week of lean muscle mass as all those articles stae. But since people routinely add at least a half-pound/week, then there must be an advantage to eating more protein than the 0.68 ratio. If there is no advantage then where does the extra muscle protein come from? Thanks Ben.

      1. When a 175 pound person (ha ha…i.e. Ben Greenfield) eats 120 g of protein every day then he is eating 0.37 lbs of protein per week (NOT 0.37 lbs of muscle per week, good point Ben). If he gains 1 lb per week of muscle then I can deduce (assuming 100% abosorption of protein and 100% assimilation into muscle) that the muscle is 37% protein and 63% other. Most likely there is only 70-80% absorption and assimilation so muscle is probably closer to being composed of 20-30% protein and 70-80% other. And I just looked it up…yep, Ben is correct, of course.

  8. Does this weight to protein ratio apply to someone who is trying to lose fat and maintain (though preferably gain) lean muscle while on a high protein-low carb diet? If the kidneys are not predisposed to disease, wouldn't having a higher protein be more beneficial (since it takes more calories to digest/absorb protein, etc. etc.) so long as the majority of carbs are limited to mostly non-starchy vegetables and keeping starchy vegetables/fruits for post-exercise?

    I'm reading my own comment and realizing it sounds a bit aggressive/defensive (maybe that's my subconscious speaking). I'm 117 pounds at 16~17% body and trying to bring it down to the 13~14% range and my trainer (who plans out my diet) has me on a pretty high protein diet (100g/day). Should I be concerned that the excess protein is only causing excess calorie or just being wasted and not even used and passing through while stressing my kidneys?

    1. I forgot to mention that I'm trying to trim down my body fat for distance running (marathon/half marathon) and have reduced my cardio/long runs… I don't know if that's important or not.

    2. You say: "If the kidneys are not predisposed to disease, wouldn't having a higher protein be more beneficial (since it takes more calories to digest/absorb protein, etc. etc.) so long as the majority of carbs are limited to mostly non-starchy vegetables and keeping starchy vegetables/fruits for post-exercise?"

      No, replacing the protein with healthy fats would be better. Even if kidney's are predisposed to disease, there are other factors to consider that I talked about in article.

  9. I’m curious if the same .55g per lb guideline applies to larger people like myself. Even though I’ve lost 130 lbs in the past 8 months, my current weight (350) would have me eating 175g of protein a day. Is that protein overkill? Thanks!

  10. Hi Ben, what about protein intake for fat loss and muscle retention? I would think that when restricting calories, one would need a little higher protein than when eating more calories.

  11. Ben you say:
    "Decreased activity in this gene is directly correlated to caloric restrictions and lower amino acid intake. So excessive protein intake and a constantly positive nitrogen balance could actually shorten your life!"

    I don't understand? Does protein slow this gene and cause aging or is it the other way around?
    I thought excess calories cause ageing more than decreased calories.

  12. Yours is one of the very few articles I came across that gives a realistic estimate about protein needs.

    The required amount of protein is probably the most often overestimated number among resistance trainees:
    http://evilcyber.com/nutrition/how-to-use-protein…

      1. Great article Ben, one question: For these calculations should youassume body weight as in your ideal weight at an ideal bodyfat %. Or does it matter if your carrying excess weight??

        One other thing. Going down the pH scale is getting more acidic. If on average urine is neutral around pH 7 then getting more alkaline would be heading up towards pH 8. Or am I misunderstanding??

  13. I'm typically around 50% fat, 35% protein and 15% carbs with the carbs coming from veggies and fruit (I completely avoid bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and sugar), but that has meant that I'm around 160 grams protein daily at 133 pounds.

    So Ben, what does your typical fat/protein/carb ratio look like for a day?

    1. I'd be more concerned for you if you were menopausal that a very high protein intake could potentially cause a calcium imbalance and put you at higher risk for osteporosis. As long as the proteins you are eating are from iron rich foods like meat, poultry and fish, you'll have your bases covered during menopausal iron loss years.

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