Protein is one of the most important nutrients in all human biology. When the goal is to build or maintain muscle and burn fat at the same time, protein is a priority. You should aim to eat at least 2 grams of quality protein per kg per day, or 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. That is about twice the amount of a regular diet. Why is that?
- All of our muscle tissue consists of protein. Muscle tissue is one of the most active and energy-consuming tissues in the human body. 1 kilogram of muscle can spend up to 100 kcal a day! Nowadays in the passive lifestyle and carbohydrate-rich nutrition, our muscle mass has fallen to dangerously low levels while the fat tissue has risen. This means our metabolism has slowed significantly (meaning the calories the body spends in a day), not to mention the wellbeing and functionality of our bodies have also decreased. Muscle tissue isn’t just necessary to function well but to boost our calorie spending. We all need more muscle mass. Not just the bodybuilders or young athletic people, but also for older people, sick and healthy, and factory or office workers. Functioning muscle mass also prevents and heals joint and back pains. Eating this extra protein constantly gives a signal to our bodies to grow muscle mass. It happens even without physical exertion; although, exercise does speed up the process.
- Every nutrient spends energy to digest, absorb, and send it to its target tissue. This process spends energy and it is called the thermic effect of food. Protein is very hard for a human body to absorb and use; that’s why the process takes up to 20-30% of the energy of protein itself! Imagine - when you eat 100 kcal of protein, it automatically adds 20-30 kcal to energy expenditure just like that! It might not sound like much, but getting this extra 20-30% from day to day, month to month - it will sum up to a large number of extra calories from doing nothing at all. Not to mention building muscle.
- Eating protein has a very cool side effect - it slows down the digestion of food, keeping us full much longer. Have you ever eaten sugary food and felt hungry just an hour later? It never happens with quality protein. Eating enough protein with every meal keeps you feeling full for hours. It is easy to not feel hungry at all by eating a protein-rich diet. It is especially useful for people that have emotional eating problems. When you constantly feel full and energetic, it lowers your risk of snacking or binging.
- There is a process that takes place in our liver which is called gluconeogenesis. This means that our liver turns protein (or protein building blocks - amino acids) into glucose in case of carbohydrate deficiency. That means that if for some reason (for example, low carb diet, or a fast or exceptionally long physical exertion) we don’t get enough carbohydrates from the food, our body will compensate it by turning protein into glucose.
Those are just the most important things protein can do to us, and there are many more positive effects besides these.
So to sum it up, we aim to eat enough quality protein to:
- Feed our muscles and grow metabolically active muscle tissue
- Add extra calories burnt by protein thermic effect
- To keep hunger at bay
- To create a buffer system for low blood sugar
How much is enough and how much is too much?
As I said, we aim to eat 2 to 3x times the amount of protein as the average person. That means that we have to consciously work to raise the amount of protein in our diet. It is harder in the beginning, but it becomes much more intuitive later. As for my question above, how much is enough? It is 0.8 grams per kg or 0.4 grams per pound per day that is recommended by the state. This is the minimum amount that covers our body’s needs. It means that this amount makes sure we don’t suffer from protein insufficiency and don’t get sick (at least in the short term). But is it optimal? Not even close. In almost all the studies done, 2 grams of protein per kg in a day is the best amount for the human body. Anything over 2 grams isn’t dangerous, it just doesn’t add any more value. An average person doesn’t spend 2 grams of protein per kg per day to feed and grow the muscle. He’ll probably use 1 to 1.5 grams. That being said - we maximize protein metabolic effect and we create a buffer mechanism for carbohydrate deficiency. That’s why we aim to eat close to 2 grams per day.
A common question - is protein harmful to kidneys? No - it is a common myth. Extra protein is harmful only to people with kidney diseases or late-stage kidney insufficiency. As for most of us - we can eat protein up to 6 grams per kg or 2.2 pounds of body weight without any problems. BUT - we won’t get any benefits over 2 grams per day. If you have any kidney diseases, you should consult with your doctor.
So, no - protein isn’t harmful, it is vital. The more we eat, up to 2 grams per kg per day, the better the metabolic boost we get. The better the metabolic effect, the more fat we burn naturally. In the next section, we go deeper into the hows of eating protein.