“How much protein?” This has probably been the single most asked question in muscle-building and sports nutrition history. What better place to go for answers than straight to one of the world’s top researchers in the field – Dr. Peter Lemon? We recently interviewed Dr. Lemon and natural bodybuilder Kostas Marangopoulos conducted the call. Kostas: let’s start off now with the most basic question on protein – how much? What does the latest research say? In particular, we’re most interested in protein needs for strength and hypertrophy.
Dr. Lemon: Well, there’s still a controversy as to how much is really needed. Starting back in the mid 1980s, there was quite a bit of interest in that area. Through the 1990?s and early 2000s, there was some pretty good evidence that protein needs were a little bit higher for exercising individuals than for non-exercising individuals. But the protein needs as determined by researchers weren’t quite as high as what a lot of athletes were using.
If you look at the methods that are used trying to measure muscle growth acutely, which means, over a short time period immediately following ingestion of food and training, the requirements are probably under two grams per kilogram of body weight per day. And, of course, as you know, many body builders consume way more than that.
One of the problems is that the scientists have been looking at acute measures; short term measures. It’s very difficult to do a study over months or years to really see what’s happening over the long term. The big problem is, if I do a study and I measure the effect of a training bout or the effect of food intake on acute muscle growth, the changes I get over a two or three hour study period may not be repeated if I studied a person for weeks.
In other words, there is often an adaptation and that’s why I’m not so sure that the results we have are necessarily accurate for elite body builders – certainly not if somebody is taking some anabolic agents, which we know is occurring.
It’s also very difficult to determine because most of the studies are done in novice lifters not in advanced body builders and there are adaptations over time that probably change the requirements. What you might need when you start a program might be very different from what you need later on. And what you need to be a really elite bodybuilder could be very different than a novice.
We did a series of studies through the 1980?s and 1990?s showing that the needs for bodybuilding athletes not taking any anabolic agents were on the order of about 1.6 to 1.8 grams per kg of body mass. However, a number of people that we studied were taking three or four grams per kg per day and certainly were seeing large increases in hypertrophy.
I would say that certainly in the range of 2 grams per kg is where you should start. But, it might be higher than that and we just don’t have the science to answer that question definitively. I guess the short answer to your question is that we still don’t really know exactly how much protein is optimal.
Kostas: I see your point about why we still don’t have definitive answers and that’s probably why “how much protein” is still one of the most common questions, especially, “how much protein should I consume if I want to gain muscle.”
Dr. Lemon: Yes. And you’ll get scientists all the time that say, “Well, 1.5-2.0 grams per kg is all an athlete needs” but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. It might be that this amount is adequate to maintain a positive nitrogen balance, but it might be that larger amounts actually stimulate growth and there just isn’t a lot of data to support that, because it’s not an easy thing to measure.
Kostas: In the strength and bodybuilding community, a common recommendation I hear all the time is “one gram per pound of body weight” as the minimum.
Dr. Lemon: Yes, and that’s in the same range because, of course, there’s just a little over two pounds in a kilogram. So, one gram per pound of bodyweight would be a little over 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, which is probably in the range where most people will be fine.
There’s probably some other caveats, too when making these recommendations. It depends on what type of protein, and it probably depends on when you’re consuming it much more so than how much you’re consuming.
We’ve been more interested in the timing relative to training than we’ve been with the total amount. Or, put another way, it’s probably possible to do better with less protein if you get the protein at the right time of the day. And by time of day, we me the time relates to your training sessions.
Kostas: So you’re saying that timing is more important than quantity?
Dr. Lemon: I’m saying that I think you can get by with less if you consume it in close proximity to the training bout, as opposed to other times in the day.
Kostas: What is your current position stand on pre- and post-workout protein intake?
Dr. Lemon: I think it’s very important. The first three hours following exercise are very important. One should be consuming some carbohydrate and high-quality protein during that time period. The closer to the exercise bout, the better. I also think that within an hour or so prior to working out, a carbohydrate/protein mixture is beneficial.
I even think by extrapolation, if before and after are beneficial, and those have both been shown to be beneficial in the research, then probably during the training bout is important, as well.
All of these things are difficult to study, so I’m going a little bit beyond the data that we have in making that statement, but I think it’s a logical conclusion that some carbohydrate and amino acids before, during, and immediately following training are probably the most important – even more important than how much carbohydrate and protein you get for the day.
Kostas: Do you think protein consumption should depend on the body fat level? For example, will a strength training athlete with lower body fat utilize protein more efficiently than someone who is obese?
Dr. Lemon: I’ve never been asked that question before. If somebody has higher body fat and they’re dropping their energy intake to try and lose body fat, then more protein is important to prevent loss of muscle mass while you’re losing fat mass. But everything being equal, I don’t see why somebody with a higher percentage of fat would handle protein any differently.
Kostas: Considering the differences between an athlete and overweight person, do you think the recommendations for protein per kilo or pound should be based on lean body mass instead of total body weight?
Dr. Lemon: In the strength athletes, there’s a very good relationship between lean mass and total body weight, so I don’t think it really makes much difference. Probably it’s a little bit better if you’re relating protein recommendations to lean mass because obviously, if there’s a big difference in body fat content, then you’re going to be getting a different protein intake if you relate it to total body weight instead of lean mass.
The general recommendations today that go out to the masses are in terms of grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or per pound of body weight. That’s because in the general population, everybody knows their body weight, but a lot of people don’t know their lean body mass, and that’s why it’s historically been done that way.
Obviously, the numbers would change a little bit with each recommendation because your lean mass is a smaller number than your body mass, but there’s a very close relationship between the two in a lean person. Since bodybuilders have such low body fat, I don’t think it really matters if you prescribe by pounds of total bodyweight or pounds of lean bodyweight.
Kostas: Do you think a longer duration study on the effects of a high-protein diet might play a role in justifying higher protein intakes like the amounts that some of the bodybuilders are using successfully? For example, above 2 grams per kilogram per day up to even 3 or 4 grams per kilogram?
Dr. Lemon: That’s a good question. If I could do a study comparing someone consuming 2 grams of protein per day versus someone consuming 4 or 5 grams per kg over several months, I would love to do that because most people find it hard to believe that those high intakes are really beneficial. And yet, for many, many years, many strength athletes have done that.
My philosophy is: where there’s smoke, there’s probably some fire. I think there’s some stimulus that bodybuilders have discovered over months and years of training that the scientists who study weeks or a few months can’t find. And so, there probably is some adaptation that we’re missing in the short term studies. It’s just too difficult to do these types of studies for that length of time.
Kostas: should protein recommendations change for hypocaloric weight loss diets as compared to isocaloric and hypercaloric conditions?
Dr Lemon: Absolutely. There’s some very good evidence showing that if you increase your protein when you’re on a low-calorie diet, you will preserve your muscle mass better than those who don’t. There’s another reason why this is recommended, though. Protein has a higher satiety value, so that you feel full even having eaten less total energy. That gives us a couple reasons for more protein on hypocaloric diets: One, you won’t be hungry on that diet, and if you’re hungry on a diet, you’re not going to stick with it. And two, when you lose weight, you’ll lose a higher percentage from the fat component than from the muscle component.
This is critical because if you start losing muscle, then it’s going to be easier to regain that weight as fat, and, of course, what happens to a large percentage of people who lose a lot of body fat by dieting is they regain it all back and more. So, six months to a year after the diet, they actually weigh more and have a higher body fat than they had before they started.
So, increasing dietary protein is critical and also engaging in some type of strength exercise with a weight loss diet is very important as well, because the higher dietary protein and the strength exercise will really protect muscle so you can actually gain muscle while you’re losing fat.
Kostas: Why are so many people still worried that high-protein diets are unhealthy?
Dr Lemon: That’s a good question. The original data came from the fact that high-protein diets require more work for the kidney in order to excrete the excess Nitrogen. However, a number of studies have shown that a normally functioning kidney can easily handle intakes of protein into the two, three grams per kg range, maybe even higher. I’m not sure where or why that fear continues to be out there. I think a bigger concern with high-protein intakes is the possibility of dehydration.
Kostas: It seems there are always debates on all these subjects even after all thse years of research and even the experts don’t agree.
Dr. Lemon: It’s very difficult to answer these questions. You talk to me and I give you my ideas of how it works, then you talk to someone else who is equally qualified and they’ll have a different opinion. For the average strength trainer, that makes it all really confusing.
I can propose a lot of theoretical things that would be beneficial, but when we actually test them, they’re ultimately not beneficial because there are a lot of redundancies in the bodily system that prevent these things from working the way that we think they will. In other words, it’s just a lot more complex than many people propose.
That’s why I think the best experiments are these more longitudinal studies where we take two groups, and one group gets the treatment, while the other group doesn’t, and we keep every other variable controlled as best as we can. Then at the end we see whether one group did better than the other. But very few studies are performed like that.
Also, many of them are done in novice strength trainers and not in individuals who have trained for ten years, because the response is so much greater in novices and researchers want to maximize their opportunity to find a significant change.
I guess the good news is a lot of things work because it’s relatively easy to get big and strong if you’re going to work hard at it. I came to the conclusion with all the different training programs out there — and there are thousands of training programs – that every expert has a different idea of how to train, and yet they all can work. So that’s the good news.
If you just put an overload on the muscle, we know that it’s going to respond, and some of the finer points of exactly how to do that don’t seem to really matter as much. It might be true with food intake, too. There’s a lot of ways that will work as long as you get the basic nutrients in place.
But the real problem part is that they want to get the results faster without having to work hard, too. That’s why the supplement industry has taken off because people think, “Well, gee, I can just ingest these pills and that will make me big and strong.”
A lot of the early work we did showed clearly that very few of these supplements work unless you’re training very hard. So, it’s not just the supplement, it’s the interaction. You benefit more from your training if you have the right nutrient mixture, but if you’re not training hard, it really doesn’t make any difference. You certainly can’t just pop these pills and drink these shakes and get big and strong. If you could, everyone would be looking like that.
We hope you enjoyed this info! Here are some more of the “knowledge-bombs” from the full interview:
* Meat vs fish vs plant protein: which is best for strength trained athletes?
* Does your body adapt to high protein intakes over time?
* Glutamine research results from Dr. Lemon’s protein lab
* Protein cycling: Is it a myth or does research support it?
* Is fasted weight training as catabolic and counterproductive as most people think?
* The low-down on Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
* What is the ideal meal frequency with regards to protein intake?
* Why everyone in bodybuilding is talking about the amino acid Leucine
* Can taking individual amino acids be hazardous to your health?
* What the heck is MTOR? Molecular signaling pathways 101
* Supplement company marketing and researcher bias
* How sports drink companies are changing their formulas based on the new protein research
* The latest on creatine and muscle growth
* The facts about creatine safety
* Which creatine side effects are real
* Therapeutic uses for creatine
* Beta alanine: worth taking or not?
Kostas Marangopoulos is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, fitness writer and bodybuilding nutrition coach specializing in lean muscle building with 15 years experience. His educational background includes a Master’s Degree and he is also a certified personal trainer with the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA-CPT). Kostas is a contributing writer for the www.burnthefatinnercircle.com and he is the managing director of the largest Greek bodybuilding website and forum in the world, www.Bodybuilders.gr
Peter Lemon PhD, FACSM completed his undergraduate education at McMaster University and his graduate studies at the Universities of Windsor and Wisconsin-Madison. From 1979 to 1997, he was on the faculty at Ohio’s Kent State University working in the Applied Physiology Research Laboratory, most recently as the laboratory director. In January of 1998, Dr. Lemon became the first recipient of the Weider Research Chair in Exercise Nutrition at The University of Western Ontario. He mentors graduate students, lectures, and conducts research on the health and performance effects of exercise training and proper nutrition/supplementation.
For more information go to www.burnthefat.com
About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in Iron Man Magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.