The Problem With Protein
Oh, I can just feel some people tensing with rage over that title.
To unbunch knickers, it’s not out of line to say that if building muscle is your goal, the Recommended Dietary Allowance of 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight is way low.
The conventional “broscience” wisdom is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 170 pounds that translates to 170 grams. But the actual science science (screw you, spell check – meant to write “science” twice) says it’s a little lower. Here’s a great post by Dr. Bryan Chung who, after much analysis, states that 0.7 grams per pound of body weight is just fine. This is in line with what my friend Alan Aragon (who provides nutrition counseling to elite athletes and physique competitors) told me in an interview for the LA Times a few years ago, although if you’re trying to lose weight and build muscle at the same time, going up to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight is probably better.
You can go higher than this. The whole thing about high protein intakes leading to kidney damage is a myth that’s been busted by so many people even the New York Times wrote about it.
I dabbled with high protein, and the only change I noticed was a negative effect on my sex life. (It made me fart a lot.)
What about other benefits of protein?
Well, if you’re looking to lose some fat, and judging by the body weight statistics in the developed world, that’s a fair assumption, could a higher protein intake help?
First off, there is its “thermic effect of food,” or TEF. Protein is the best macronutrient for burning its own calories via digestion (and fat sucks at it, just FYI), with approximately 20% of the calories from that big-assed steak you just ate getting burned off because your body needs to work hard to process that delicious slab of cow.
Sounds awesome, but run the numbers and it becomes less awesome.
If you go high protein, it means less of something else, and that “something else” is most likely going to be carbohydrates. But carbs also have a TEF of about 10%, so the TEF gain is only 10%. Even if you make a really big change where you remove 500 calories worth of carbs and replace it with 500 calories of protein, the net TEF gain is only 50 measly calories. That’s like, one-third of a beer.
But protein is super satiating, right? Well, yeah. But perhaps not as much as you think.
“Macronutrient mixture (protein, carbohydrates, fat) is not predictive of weight loss or gain,” Richard Mattes, a registered dietitian and distinguished professor of nutrition at Purdue University told me. “Total calories are the common denominator.” He explained that while protein can be good for satiety, he thought its effect at satisfying appetite have been overblown.
So what is this “problem” with protein
Near obsessive behavior. That’s the damn problem.
Before I elaborate, let’s examine just how easy it is to hit the “want to build muscle” protein numbers with just food, using me as an example. I’m a pretty lean and muscular 175, so at 0.7 grams per pound body weight that puts my daily needs at around 133 grams of protein. Here is what an average calorie restricted (i.e. I want to lose that weekend beer) day of food looks like for me in terms of protein intake:
- 3 eggs = 18 grams protein
- 2 pieces whole wheat / whole grain toast = 8 grams protein
- 16 oz skim milk = 18 grams protein
- ½ cup of pistachios = 12 grams protein
- 70ml (dry measure) brown rice = 4 grams protein
- 30 grams of cheddar cheese = 7 grams protein
- Mixed green salad with bell pepper and berries = 2 grams protein
- 7oz sockeye salmon = 60 grams protein
Total = 129 grams of protein. So close!
I need to reiterate that this day I showed is an example of when I’m restricting calories back to what I consider a bare minimum, and I still came damn to close to hitting that number without ever once thinking I needed to make sure I got enough protein. What’s more, you may notice I was practicing what sport nutritionist Nancy Clark refers to as “two-thirds vegetarian.” (Not to be confused with Mark Bittman’s approach.) I didn’t have any meat until dinner.
And yet, it seems to be what so many lose sleep over. Debates rage in locker rooms and chat rooms, gym floors and supplement stores, message boards and the back seats of Fords. (Sorry, got carried away.)
And this is one reason why I never worry about taking a protein supplement. If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or an anabolic steroid using bodybuilder, then I can see the merit, but for a meat-eating guy who just wants to be muscular, the numbers don’t seem to justify it, unless it’s for convenience because you don’t have time to cook.
I’m not against protein supplements as a concept, but one thing I try hard to keep out of my body is highly refined food. I prefer my calories came from fields and streams, oceans and orchards, rather than some hyper-processed (and not federally regulated) powder that’s been manufactured and likely jammed full of artificial flavors and sweeteners. There is also the fact that I’m concerned about body fat, and liquid protein supplements add calories yet don’t satiate.
I mentioned near obsessive behavior. I was being hyperbolic, but I think a lot of guys miss out on the Zen of fitness (a word I use to incorporate both exercise and nutrition) by dwelling on the micro issues and missing the big picture. In this piece I wrote about harmonious vs. obsessive passion in sport, where those who “do what they feel like” are more successful long term than those who are rigid and controlled in their athletic pursuits.
Using my N1 experiment, I was a fat guy 25 years ago, and when I started my fitness journey I knew one critical thing: motivation rules all. I wanted to focus on what was most important, and that was being motivated to transform my body and sustain my new physique.
And I’ve learned during that process the Zen of fitness. Most of the time, I just do what I feel like, and it works. And “what I feel like” involves focusing on going hard and eating healthy, without a lot of number crunching.
But everything in this piece may not apply to you.
The thing is, there are people who love to crunch the numbers. Some want to weigh every item of food, punch it into MyFitness Pal, track every macro, upload all their workouts online … If that makes you happy—keeps you Zen—then who am I to argue?
The point here is that people are different, and the fitness industry is a populated by a toxic slew of extremism, where some of the loudest voices push people into doing things they’d rather not.
My point is, if you’re in the “rather not” crowd of hyper measurement, you can half-assed your way to health and fitness.
It’s what I did.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.