Do you need extra protein to build
Protein in food is broken down to amino
acids in our bodies. Amino acids provide the building blocks for
growth and repair of ALL the body’s cells, including skin cells,
liver cells, immune cells, as well as muscle cells.
The key to building muscle is resistance training (not consuming
protein or amino acids) and consuming adequate calories and
carbohydrate to fuel this type of training. In theory, it costs an
extra 350-500 calories every day to build a pound of muscle in a
week. It only costs an extra 10-14 grams of protein every day to
build a pound of muscle in a week. (NOTE: 14 grams of protein is the
amount in 2 oz. of chicken--a mere biteful!) In most cases, the only
reason high protein, weight gainer drinks and sports bars help is
because they provide these extra calories.
That being said, it IS true that people trying to build muscle DO
need more protein than a sedentary person.
Read on to learn…
Exactly how much protein you need.
How vegetarians can meet their
What is the best way to build
How much protein do you need?
The amount of protein you need depends on your weight (specifically
your lean body mass), your total calorie intake (specifically
whether or not you are consuming adequate carbs and fats for
energy), and your fitness goals. Find your weight and fitness
category on the table below to see how many grams of protein you
need each day.
If you are very overweight and your excess weight is from excess
body fat (not muscle), this table will overestimate your protein
needs. The extra fat on your body does not require extra protein
intake. To avoid overestimating your protein needs, use your
desired, healthy weight instead of your actual weight.
Recommended grams of protein per day
based on body weight
per lb. weight
||0.45 - 0.68
|0.55 - 0.64
| 0.73 - 0.82
|Active Person Restricting
|Maximum Usable Amount
From this table, you can see that students trying to build muscle
need up to 2 times as much protein as sedentary students. But that
doesn’t mean you need to go out of your way eating dozens of egg
whites, multiple cans of tuna, tons of skinless chicken breasts, and
several high protein bars and shakes on top of that to build muscle.
First, the average sedentary person already consumes much more
protein than he/she really needs, without even trying. Consider the
protein content of normal foods: a small 3 oz. chicken breast (about
the size of a deck of cards) has about 25 g of protein, an 8 oz.
glass of milk has 8 g, a slice of bread or ½ cup of vegetables has
2-3 g. An active man who eats like the Food Guide Pyramid suggests
(with three, 3 oz. servings of lean meat, 3 cups of low fat milk,
and several servings from the vegetable group and bread, cereal, and
grain group) will be consuming about 140 grams of protein per day.
Second, even though you need more total grams of protein per day for
muscle building, you still only need to eat 12-15% of your total
calories from protein. This is the same percentage recommended for
people who are sedentary. The trick is that if you are very active,
you need to eat more total calories every day. If you consume these
extra calories, you more than likely are consuming more protein too.
EXAMPLE (based on a 175 lb. man):
15% of 2000 calories (sedentary man’s diet)
= 300 calories, 75 g of protein (0.43 g/lb.)
15% of 3500 calories (active man’s diet)
= 525 calories, 131 g of protein (0.75 g/lb.)
Finally, the body can only use a maximum of about 0.9 g protein per
pound of body weight per day for tissue building. There is no way to
store extra protein in the body. Whatever is not used is either
burned for energy, converted to carbohydrate for energy, or stored
as fat. Since protein-rich foods tend to be more expensive than
carbohydrate-rich foods, it’s a waste of money to eat lots of extra
protein in place of adequate carbohydrates.
Are there any risks to consuming excessive protein?
Excess protein may not be effective for building muscle, but is it
safe? Too much protein can be harmful to your health and your
physical performance. Here's why…
Unlike carbohydrate or fat, protein produces nitrogen waste
products (urea, ammonia, uric acid, etc.) when it is used for
energy. These waste products must be excreted by the kidneys. When a
lot of urea is produced, the kidneys may get overworked and start to
fail. There is definitely evidence to support this concern in people
with diabetes and others with pre-existing kidney problems. However,
there is limited evidence to support this concern in people with
normally functioning kidneys. But, some researchers still remain
cautious and warn against excessive protein intake (>1 g/lb. per
Too much protein can also promote dehydration, since extra water
is needed to excrete the extra urea.
Too much protein (especially from animal sources) may cause
excessive calcium loss from your bones. Acid is generated when high
protein foods are eaten. Calcium is released from the bone as a
buffer to the increased acid load. Both the acid and the calcium are
excreted in the urine.
Many animal proteins (such as whole fat milk, cheese, red meat,
and chicken with skin) are high in saturated fats, which are
associated with high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease.
Also, many protein bars are packed with palm oil (which is highly
saturated) and/or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (a source of
trans fat, which is equally damaging to your cholesterol levels and
If you eat excessive protein, you’re probably not getting adequate
carbohydrate. Carbs are the muscles' only fuel source during high
intensity anaerobic exercise (like weight training). If your muscles
are carbo-depleted because you loaded up so much on protein, you’re
not going to be able to train as hard and you won’t be able to build
as much muscle.
Also, carbohydrate stimulates insulin--an anabolic hormone which
helps carry glucose (sugar), as well as amino acids into muscle
cells. When consumed immediately after heavy training, carbohydrate
seems to help prevent protein breakdown and promote optimal recovery
and muscle building.
If you are not eating adequate carbohydrate from the fruit,
vegetable, grain, and milk groups, your diet is likely low in fiber
and several other vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are
important to your health and physical performance.
Are there any risks to consuming too little protein?
If you don't consume adequate protein from your diet, you will
start breaking down your body's own proteins (i.e. your muscles,
bones, and vital organs) to get the amino acids you need. Obviously,
this is NOT desirable!
Inadequate protein intakes are also associated with depressed
immune function (so you get sick more often) and fatigue (so you
don't have the energy to study, work, or play).
In addition, low protein intakes put you at greater risk for
exercise-related injuries and slower healing from these injuries
because protein builds and repairs your cells.
Low protein also lowers intakes of important minerals such as
calcium, iron, and zinc (which are found predominantly in
protein-rich foods like milk and meat products).
Finally, protein contributes to satiety (a feeling of fullness)
after eating. So, students who don't consume enough protein with
meals may experience increased appetite and food cravings during the
day, especially for sugary sweets and other carbohydrate-rich foods.
If you're loading up on extra sweets and carbs all day long to
satisfy your cravings, you may gain weight.
Who is at risk for low protein intake?
There are two groups of people at especially high risk for low
protein intakes: 1) people dieting to lose weight and 2)
1. People dieting to control weight
Weight-conscious students are especially at risk for inadequate
protein intakes. Some of these students exclude a lot of
protein-rich foods from their diets because they perceive them to be
too high in calories and fat (which is NOT necessarily true). This
is especially common among students participating in weight-class
sports (like rowing, wrestling, and boxing), activities that focus
on appearance (like modeling, acting, body building, gymnastics,
dance, and cheerleading), and sports in which low body weight is
advantageous for quickness and speed (like running and cycling).
Without adequate protein, these students lose muscle mass and bone
density and suffer many other negative effects of
Other weight-conscious students falsely believe that if they follow
a high protein (but low calorie) diet they can lose weight without
losing muscle. However, if you don't consume enough total calories
from carbohydrate and fat for energy, you will break down the
protein you eat for energy and it will NOT be available for muscle
building and maintenance. Adequate calories (from carbohydrate and
fat) are critical to spare protein for its building functions.
Students who follow a vegetarian diet, which excludes many (or all)
animal foods, may also be at risk for inadequate protein intakes.
But, with a little education and planning, it is possible for
vegetarians to get all the protein they need with plant foods alone.
Animal vs. Plant Sources of Protein
Protein can be found in both animal and plant foods.
1. Animal sources
Animal foods that are rich in protein include meats, poultry, fish,
eggs, cheese, milk and yogurt. These foods are often referred to as
“complete,” or “high quality” proteins because they contain high
amounts of all the "essential" amino acids. "Essential" means that
they must be consumed in our diet – our bodies cannot manufacture
them. There are nine essential amino acids: phenylalanine, valine,
tyrosine, methionine, tryptophan, histidine, isoleucine, leucine,
and lysine. The other eleven amino acids are considered
"non-essential" because they do not have to be consumed in the diet.
Our bodies can manufacture them from the essential amino acids.
2. Plant sources
Plant foods that are rich in protein include soy products (tofu,
tempeh, soy milk, and other products made from soy), beans, seeds,
and nuts. There are also small amounts of protein in breads,
cereals, and other grains, as well as in vegetables. Plant sources
of protein are often referred to as “incomplete” because they are
low in one or more essential amino acids. Soy protein is the one
But just because most plant proteins are lower in some essential
amino acids does NOT mean that you can’t build a healthy eating plan
with plant foods alone. Vegetarians who include a variety of plant
proteins throughout the day can get the full array of essential
amino acids they need. For instance, beans are low in the essential
amino acid (EAA) methionine, but they are rich in the EAA lysine.
Meanwhile, grains are low in the EAA lysine, but they are rich in
the EAA methionine. By consuming both beans and grains throughout
the day, vegetarians CAN get the optimal amount of essential amino
acids they need.
Bottom line for consuming protein and building muscle.
The most important factor to building muscle is resistance
training, not eating extra protein and amino acids.
Make sure you consume adequate calories to build new muscle
tissue. Increase your total calorie intake by 350-500 calories every
day to gain about 1 pound per week.
Make sure you consume adequate carbohydrate to meet your energy
needs for heavy training (and to spare the protein you eat for its
building functions). It's especially important to consume
carbohydrate (along with a little protein) immediately after your
work-outs to promote recovery and building. Click here for more tips
on what to eat before, during, and after workouts for maximal
Be sure to consume adequate (but not excessive) protein from a
variety of animal and/or plant foods. Students should aim for about
10-35% of total calories from protein.
Emphasize protein-rich foods that are low in saturated fat, such
as lean meats, skinless poultry, fish, egg whites, 1% low fat or fat
free milk products, beans, nuts, tofu, or other soy-based meat
That doesn’t mean it’s “bad” to enjoy a couple slices of pizza or
a big juicy burger once in a while. Just balance it out by eating
other foods that are low in saturated fat at other meals during the
Try to include one serving of a protein-rich food with each meal
to insure that you are getting enough protein and to increase the
satiety value of your meals. Protein, like fat, makes you feel full
longer after you eat than if you ate a meal with just carbohydrate.
If you’re on the go and don’t have time to eat protein-rich foods,
a high protein drink or energy bar (with 20-30 g protein per
serving) can come in quite handy. Just be sure that it is low in
saturated fat and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fat).
If you decide to add a protein supplement to your diet, save your
money and buy nonfat dried milk powder at the grocery store or a
simple whey protein or soy protein powder, instead of expensive
"designer weight gain products." Add the powder to beverages, soups,
sauces, and hot cereals for a good boost of calories and high
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center