No one wants to be the one to say it, but here’s the truth:
You don’t need to eat a steak that big.
Everyone loves the idea of a 24 oz porterhouse steak, but the reality is that that shouldn’t be the gold standard. The gold standard is set by quality, not quantity.
Choosing Quality Protein Over Quantity of Protein
In America where everything comes in a “super size,” we need to come to terms with the fact that bigger isn’t always better.
According to a 2002 study, the average steak is 224% larger than the recommended portion size.1 With protein specifically, we place value on the portion size we receive, when in reality we shouldn’t be looking to order the biggest protein portion on the menu but instead looking for high quality meat sources. High quality protein refers to the amino acid profile of the protein, how the animals are raised, and what they are fed. For example, grass-fed beef has a different nutritional make up than grain-fed beef.2 Grass-fed beef has a more favorable fatty acid profile and antioxidant profile.
What does that mean? It both tastes better and is better for your body.
In the field of sports nutrition, the questions I encounter the most are surrounding protein recommendations. Protein plays a crucial role in the building of muscle mass, but it doesn’t do that on it’s own. Carbohydrates and fat are also needed to maintain and build muscle mass. The key is a healthy overall diet that meets the needs of all three macronutrients, not just protein.
Your body can only utilize so much protein at a time depending on your body weight.3 Generally this is between 20-30 grams of protein at a time that is needed to maximize muscle protein synthesis or muscle building.3 This is especially important after resistance training sessions.3 After a certain threshold, the protein is just used for energy and not building and maintaining lean mass. In fact, during physical activity only 2-4% of energy contribution comes from amino acids found in protein.3 This means that in order to perform in the gym, out on the field and in the everyday demands of certain professions, you need carbohydrates and fat to supply energy during prolonged activity.3
It’s important to recognize the relationship of nutrition and exercise as the building blocks of muscle. If you can’t perform during bouts of physical activity, nutrition alone won’t build muscle- and visa versa.
Let’s Talk Numbers and Ideal Protein Consumption Amounts
Now that we’ve touch on a little of the basic foundation for protein recommendations, I want to share the numbers that years of scientific research has led nutrition experts to.
Warning: this might crush your bro-science beliefs.
The nutrition calculations used by professionals are based on kilograms of body weight, which can be found by dividing your body weight in pounds by 2.2. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, divide 200 by 2.2. That is 90.9 kilograms. I will use this as a reference to help illustrate how Registered Dietitians and other health care professionals calculate nutritional needs.
Let’s look at how these numbers look for both endurance sports (cycling, track and field, rowing, boxing, etc) athletes and resistance sports (free weights, resistance bands, weight machines, etc) athletes.
For endurance sport athletes: The general recommendation for protein is 1.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.3,4 So for our example athlete weighing in at 200 pounds, this is 109 to 127 grams of protein a day.
During endurance exercise, carbohydrates and fat are the primary fuel sources the body uses.3 This is in part why endurance athletes have a lower protein recommendation, but they still have a higher protein recommendation than the average healthy adult because they need the amino acids to maintain muscle protein balance to preserve, repair and build muscle.3 For reference, the current recommendation for a healthy adult is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.4 So for a 200 pound individual, this is only 73 grams of protein per day.
For resistance sport athletes: The general recommendation for protein is 1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.3,4 So for our example athlete weighing in at 200 pounds, this is 145 to 182 grams of protein a day.
Resistance training is fundamentally anabolic, and requires a higher protein intake because of the increase in muscle fiber size and increase in lean body mass that occurs.3 The essential amino acids found in protein are the main stimulators of muscle protein synthesis rates.3 Muscle protein synthesis is just the metabolic term for gains.
The Upper Limit of Protein Consumption
Some athletes who are in good health consume more than the general recommendations mentioned above. Athletes who consume large amounts of calories based on their goals will sometimes eat large amounts of protein.
The recommended macronutrient range is 10% to 35% of total calories should come from protein.4 If our 200 pound athlete is eating 4,000 calories to build mass and 25% of his daily calories are from protein, that is 250 grams of protein per day. That means he is eating 2.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Some research shows benefit to diets as high as 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for building muscle.5 However, this upper limit number is debated among professionals.
Our athlete might not be using all of the protein for building muscle mass per say, but it is contributing to overall calories.
Pros and Cons of a High Protein Diet
There are both positive and negative aspects to eating high protein diets.
Some of the benefits of protein in the diet include:
- Maintaining body proteins and preventing muscle breakdown5
- Providing structure for bone, connective tissue, muscle and organs5
- Promoting tissue growth and repair5
High protein intake can have negative effects on the human body. It is recommend to see a physician for a yearly physical that includes metabolic labs. For those with kidney or liver issues, it is not recommend to consume a high protein diet.
Some negative effects of high protein consumption include:
- Increased renal solute load that can cause stress on the kidneys4
- Dehydration- protein is a diuretic
Protein recommendations are increased for athletes compared to the average healthy adult based on the demands of different types of physical activity. Despite the scientific evidence, most athletes continue to consume too much protein, neglecting the importance of the other macronutrients and hindering their performance as a result. The overall diet should be balanced based on the type of physical activity of athlete to make sure they are properly fueled.
- Protein consumption should be spread among 4 to 5 meals and snacks each day.3
- Drink plenty of water when consuming high protein diets to stay hydrated.4
- Try to choose high quality proteins over large portion sizes when your food availability and budget allow.
Young L, Nestle M. The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic. American Journal of Public Health. 2002;92(2):246-249. doi:10.2105/ajph.92.2.246.
Daley C, Abbott A, Doyle P, Nader G, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal. 2010;9(1). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10.
Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook For Professionals. 6th ed. Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017.
Mahan L, Raymond J, Escott-Stump S. Krause's Food & The Nutrition Care Process. 13th ed. St. Louis: Elsevier; 2012.
Klein S. Power Eating. 4th ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics; 2014.