I think I’m about to agitate both the high protein and low protein advocates, because the way I see it, they are both right.
It seems reasonable to me that people should eat high protein while they are growing. There is an obvious advantage to a high protein diet during a period of muscle building. The only item left for debate is the definition of ‘high protein’ (IE what is ‘high’?).
It also seems reasonable that people eat a higher protein diet while they are attempting to lose fat by drastically under eating. There are documented advantages here too. My thought is your best bet is to keep protein the same, but drop calories from carbs, fat and alcohol.
However, I do NOT think we should be eating high protein all the time.
In fact, there may be a point where the lower the protein the better (within reason). Here I think your best option is to work backwards from a fitness industry mantra of ‘high protein all the time for all purposes’.
let me explain…
I’m not going to review protein basics or how protein is involved in muscle building. If you are interested in this stuff you can read my thoughts in How Much Protein.
Instead of a lengthy review I’ll simply state that dietary protein can stimulate anabolic processes in the human body, and this is both the reason it’s good for muscle building and the reason why it may be killing us slowly once we are done building muscle.
It is well known that the same anabolic pathways and hormones that initiate muscle growth are also involved in many disease states, including Cancer and Diabetes. Simply put – we never want uncontrolled growth in the human body, and with certain rare exceptions we don’t even really want lengthy periods of forced growth, especially once we are fully grown adults.
It has also been suggested that many of the anabolic hormones and pathways stimulated with high protein intake are counter-productive to longevity – how long you live.
As anti-bodybuilder as it may sound, if you average your health across the entire 80-100 years you are expected to live, you could say that growth is bad for your health.
The bad kind of growth
Sure, most of the growth we experience up to our mid-twenties is good growth (most – the fat gains still aren’t exactly good for you), but for the other 60-80 years of life, growth is something we want in small doses and in the right places.
What I’m getting at is this – high protein when you have the ability to increase your muscle size seems to be a good idea… but once your are done growing (and we ALL reach this point) then maybe it’s time to scale the intake down.
I’m not suggesting zero protein. I’m suggesting that you see how low you can go while still maintaining your muscle mass, then stay there.
One of the most pervasive ‘protein is good for you’ arguments comes from the concept that higher lean body masses are associated with longevity, which seems to be true, however I’m not sure constant super-high protein intake is needed to maintain a high level of lean body mass. You may need a time of high protein intake to build that extra muscle, but you may not need it to be quite so high to maintain that muscle.
Eat it when you need it
Based on the work I’ve done with both the Adonis Index and the Venus Index, I’m interested in nutritional principles that are specific to a persons body-metrics. I’m a firm believer that their is a shape to health, and the way you should eat is different depending on how close (or how far) you are from that shape.
As an example, if your lean body mass is lower than suggested for your height, and your body circumferences are under the suggested measurements for your height AND you are interested in adding more muscle mass, then eating a higher amount of protein while following a resistance training program designed to add muscle mass would be a good idea.
However, once you’ve hit your numbers (or at least moved much closer), Continue to weight-train, while slowly tapinger down your protein and see how much you need to eat to maintain your new lean body mass and your measurements.
Again, note I’m not saying remove all protein – that would be silly.
At 5’10” I seem to do fine with around 70-80 grams of protein per day. This amount is easy for me and I can comfortably eat this amount eating in my typical fashion – I’m not out searching for protein containing foods, nor am I avoiding any high protein foods that I like. At this amount my Lean Body Mass stays constant as do my waist and shoulder circumference measurements (with a small amount of day to day variance).
The benefit of eating at this amount of protein is if for some reason I felt that I could and wanted to add more muscle then I could easily increase the amount of protein I eat in a day. If I increased my protein intake to 120-140 grams per day this would represent a 50-70% increase in my daily protein intake – in other words a pretty big jump. At my stage of my development I’m not sure that this would make any difference, but at least it’s an option.
If I were to eat 300 grams of protein every day, and for some reason decide that I wanted to add more muscle…then what would I do? a 60% increase in daily intake would push me up to 450 grams per day! And then what? where do I go from there?
A big part of protein and muscle research that people seem to miss that it may simply be the percent change that is important. It may also be how quickly that percent change occurs.
In one of the most often quoted studies showing that eating high protein preserved muscle mass when dieting, the people eating the least protein did lose
muscle lean body mass, but the part that is often left out is that when the study started they were asked to immediately slash their protein intake by more than 40%. They already started with a high intake (around 130 grams), then cut both their calories and protein drastically.
I’d be curious to know what would have happened if they kept their protein intake the same, or slowly decreased it.
In fact, this is another benefit of keeping your protein somewhat low, if you want to increase your protein while dieting, you can do so without having to eat super massive amounts of protein.
The bottom line is that there may be a time and place for high protein intakes, and there may also be time to keep protein on the low side, especially if you are interested in health and longevity. If (and it’s a theoretical ‘if’) change in total protein intake is more important than absolute intake, then this also provides an interesting way to create occasional large increases in totally daily protein intake without having to consume 500 grams of protein every day.
I guess the question becomes, if you are already at a near maximal amount of lean body mass, and are happy with the way you look, and CAN decrease your protein intake slightly without risking muscle loss… then why not do it?
You have the possible benefit of improved longevity, and if you are able to maintain your lean body mass then you are avoiding the negative of a loss of lean body mass (obviously).
The protein life cycle
As a compromise between muscle and longevity, it may be beneficial to eat high protein during the important part of muscle building (the first couple years) then once you’ve reached the upper limit for your frame and genetics, keep protein ‘lowish’ for most of the year and then increase it occasionally for small 8-12 week periods of muscle gains or fat loss. I still don’t think the increased protein will make a large difference, but I do think it beats eating high protein all the time.
The trick to this whole technique is knowing how much muscle mass you are able to carry and admitting there is an upper limit to the amount of muscle a steroid free man of woman can carry <– that’s the hard part.
The even harder part is the willingness to accept or even entertain the idea that a lean body mass that is far beyond 2-3 standard deviations past the mean for your height may actually be detrimental to your health. While not causative in any way, we can look to the fact that the average lifespan of an NFL player is far below the norm, and while multiple blows to the head and a whole host of other factors may come into play, we cannot rule out the idea that large amounts of lean body mass – whether naturally occurring through outlier genetics or through the use of drugs, may in itself shorten lifespan, regardless of protein intake.
The bottom line is for this article to have any value you need
accept entertain the concept that their is an upper limit to the amount of muscle you can build and an upper limit to the amount that is ‘good for you’.
Lean Body Mass and Height
I’ve listed the equations on here before (men HERE, women HERE). In general my suggestion is to find your age, and add two standard deviations (Add 1 to the number ‘c’). This would be roughly the amount of mass you would find on a a top level steroid-free bodybuilder at your height and age. There are some exceptions, people far above this level, but they are genetic outliers and if you were one of them, well… you’d know.
Next, get a DEXA performed so you know your lean body mass. If you can’t get a DEXA then do your best to guess at your lean body mass.
As a example, at my age and my height (35 & 5’10”), You’d expect a lean mass with two standard deviations to be around 162 pounds. I’ve been hovering around 154-156 for years, so I’ve done most of my growing already (I had about 145 pounds of lean body mass when I was 19). Since most of my growing has already happened I know that jacking up my protein intake isn’t going to force me to build more muscle (I know, I’ve tried). The best option for me would be to occasionally cycle my protein intake to a higher level when concentrating on attempting to add muscle, but to keep it lower for most of the year. Realistically the higher protein intake is probably not going to make much of a difference as to how much muscle I gain or lose at this stage… but at least I have the option of trying, especially if I want to try to slowly get closer to the illusive 160 pound of lean body mass mark.
However, if I was 19, with 145 pounds of Lean Body Mass, and no real training history, then I would be smart to increase my protein intake for the next year or two while attempting to gain muscle. It would help with growth, and during this period of time the fact that protein is being used for muscle growth may negate it’s use for other more deleterious types of growth.
Basically, if you have room to grow, then do your best to grow, but realize that you will reach a point where you are fully grown, fully developed for you… More protein simply will not be able to force more muscle growth. Also, keep this in mind when you are reading about protein advice on-line.. age, and training age may be an underlying factor in people’s personal experiences with protein and muscle growth.