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Building Muscle...How Much Protein Do You Need?

One of the most common questions I get as a dietitian is about protein. How much do you need when you’re trying to build muscle? Are protein bars and protein powders worth it? Should you be eating a “high protein diet“? How high is “high protein”? All good questions. 

I'll share with you what I have learned, through research, talking to other dietitians and experience. The thing about dietitians is you can ask 5 of them the same question (on any topic) and you may get 5 pretty different answers. Just like any other profession, everyone has their own opinion. Of course there some are things we pretty much all agree on. Facts are, well…facts.

So you’re trying to build lean muscle? First of all you have to be working out. This means resistance or strength training. Cardio burns calories but you can’t build much muscle without actually working those muscle with resistance training, weight lifting, etc. Do whatever works for you. Some people prefer weight lifting with free weights or machines at the gym. Others might prefer workout video’s where you use your body weight and other equipment like resistance bands. There are also endless gym classes out there that focus on strength training so pick what you like or switch between all of them but you’ve gotta be using those muscles. 

As for your diet. That’s what we’re here to talk about right? If you are increasing your workouts and trying to build muscle (and if you’re tracking your calories) you will need to add an additional 200-300 calories to your daily intake. If you don’t track calories , (which I don't) no worries. I would recommend just adding in an additional snack per day to fuel you body and muscles for the extra work they are doing. If you want to get really specific and actually keep track of grams of protein then…to maintain muscle mass most people need an average of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. In pounds that’s about 0.4 grams per pound of body weight.  So just multiply your weight by 0.4 and that’s how many grams you would need per day. (Example 150 lb person: 150 x .04 = 60 grams) However, when you are trying to build muscle your protein requirement will increase a little, but not nearly as much as many people believe. The American Dietetic Association (and others) have said: “When building muscle, protein needs go up to 1.4 to 1.8 grams per KILOGRAM of body weight per day (or 15 -20% of your daily calories). But research shows eating more protein than this amount doesn’t have a benefit.” 

Or as my professors used to say about people who consume a ton of protein (often via protein powders and bars), “that’s some really expensive pee”. When you give your body more protein than it needs or can use, it processes it through your kidney’s and the excess protein comes out in your urine. When people go really overboard on protein it can actually cause kidney damage and failure because the load on your kidneys is just too much. This isn’t common in most people just from eating a high protein diet so I’m not trying to scare you, just make you aware. When you do increase your protein intake, increase how much water you are drinking daily; this will help keep you from putting a strain on your kidney’s.  So if you’re trying to build muscle you would want to increase you’re protein intake to 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or about 0.6 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.  Here’s the thing though. Most people, without trying to eat a high protein diet, get at least that much. I tracked my intake for a few days – just eating like I normally do. I don’t try to eat a particularly high protein diet. I eat greek yogurt and try to include lean meats and nuts/nut butters (hello, peanut butter!) but nothing extreme. After tracking for a few days I found that I was getting on average 1.2-1.6 grams per kilogram (0.56-73 grams per pound) without even trying. And that’s pretty normal. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is – Bottom line: you don’t have to spend a ton of money on protein supplements. Just eat a healthy diet that includes a decent amount of protein containing foods like lean meats, nuts, nut butters, beans, eggs, and low fat dairy products and you’ll most likely be getting plenty of protein. If you want to buy protein bars and powders because your diet does tent to be a little lower in protein or just as an easy way to add a little extra protein in...go for it (I do, because I love them) but you don't NEED to. I think sometimes people feel like they have to add these supplements in, in order to get enough protein and it's just not true. I do consume protein bars and powders almost daily because I love the taste and they are a fun and easy way to get protein in but they're not necessary...just enjoyable (for me!).

Lastly, guess what. Carbs are actually important in building muscle too. High fiber, complex carbs are important and needed when building muscle. Sports dietitian Sara Dacres-Mannings stated “The carbohydrates increase insulin levels and that actually helps the muscles take in the amino acids they need to build new muscle,” 

The best time to fuel those muscles is right after a workout. So it’s important to not only eat a high protein snack/meal after your work out but you need to include carbohydrates in that snack or meal as well . Dacres-Mannings suggests the following as possible snack ideas: 

  • Low fat milk or chocolate milk 

  • Lean meat sandwich – like a turkey roll 

  • Smoothie with low-fat milk, yogurt and fruit

  • Tuna or chicken with pasta 

  • OR a protein bar or protein powder with some fruit or yogurt

So to recap here:

Things to Remember When Trying to Build Lean Muscle Mass 

  1. Increase lean proteins (eggs, low-fat dairy, chicken, fish, beans, etc.)

  2. When you increase your protein intake (fairly significantly), increase your water intake as well because protein can put a strain on your kidneys

  3. The best time to send amino acids (protein) to the muscles if you want to build them up is right after a work out (within 20-30 minutes)

  4. For the best results, consume carbs right after your workout (with protein) as well

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