More protein isn’t necessarily better. One of the most common myths that I encounter is the idea that protein consumption= building muscle. Unfortunately, building or maintaining muscle is just not that simple.
There is a protein threshold when it comes to how much protein muscles can use. Contrary to common believe, we don’t just “pee” out the extra protein once we are above this threshold. The additional protein is used as energy or to make alternative bodily compounds. Our body is able to convert the protein into glucose (AKA sugar). That’s right, you may be avoiding carbohydrates since they turn into “sugar” but if you replace the carbohydrates with excess protein then you’re just doing the same thing.
So how much protein is too much protein? Of course, there is no simple answer to this question. Like most nutrition questions, the answer is “it depends.” The maximum amount of protein you want to consume is very individualized based on factors such as a person’s body weight, type of protein being consumed and total calorie intake.
Step 1 for figuring out your protein threshold is to calculate your total protein goal for the day. For an athlete who is not on a calorie restricted diet, they should be aiming for 1.2 -1.6 g/kg/day with 0.4g/kg/meal or snack. On the other hand, athletes on a calorie-restricted diet will want to aim for 2.2 g/kg/day with 0.55 g/kg/meal or snack.
So what does that look like? An 80 kg runner who is looking to lean out for an upcoming race would want to aim for 176 grams of protein per day with 45 grams across 4 meals/snacks. Hitting 45 grams of protein while not over consuming proteins is no easy task unless you like lean meats, low fat Greek yogurt, and low fat cottage cheese. For instance, 150 grams chicken would be about 46 grams of protein and 230 calories. On the other hand, a vegetarian trying to meet this 46 grams from chickpeas would need to consume 3 cups of chickpeas, which is also 852 calories. That’s a lot of chickpeas and calories. Opting for the lean animal proteins is probably a better option.
For smaller athletes or those not on a calorie restricted diet, hitting these protein targets is much easier. For instance, a 60 kg runner who is happy with his or her weight would want to aim for 72 grams of protein per day with a maximum of 25 grams per meal or snack. If he or she eats three meals and two snacks per day, they could aim for 15 grams of protein per meal or snack. A salad with ¾ cup of chickpeas and a glass of milk would hit this 15 gram target.
Remember, protein doesn’t magically turn into muscle. There must first be a stimulus (exercise) to put stress on the body before this protein can be used to build muscle. If your goal is to put on muscle, then you have to be taking in additional calories in addition to the exercise.