It is true that bodybuilders and weightlifters need to keep their dietary protein intake up in order to maintain or build the large muscle mass. While it would be fair to assume that you need to eat massive amounts to build massive muscles, it rarely is the case. In fact, eating excessive amounts of protein can hurt more than it helps.
General Dietary Guidelines
The recommended daily requirement of protein, fat, and carbohydrates are set by the various nutrition authorities of each country. In the United States, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP)—a subsidiary of the Department of Health and Human Service—issues recommendations every five years, the latest of which are included in the 2015-2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
As part of the guidelines, the ODPHP recommends a protein intake of between 10 percent and 35 percent of the total daily calories for women and men over the age of 18.
Despite needing many more calories when training, a bodybuilder’s protein intake would still fall within this range. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Nutrition endorses protein consumption at the upper end of the scale, a recommendation echoed by many bodybuilding trainers and enthusiasts.
Grams per Calorie Method
Many bodybuilders will use the grams per calorie formula to direct their protein consumption. While some trainers will calculate based on 35 percent of the total calories, others endorse 30 percent or less based on your current training level.
Given that a 200-pound bodybuilder may need to consume up to 4,000 calories per day, protein would account for 1,200 of those calories (4,000 calories x 30 percent = 1,200 calories).
Since a gram of protein equals 4 calories, that would mean that the 200-pound bodybuilder should consume roughly 300 grams of protein daily (1,200 calories ÷ 4 calories/gram = 300 calories).
Limitations and Considerations
In case you were wondering, 300 grams is actually a lot of protein. By way of reference, 300 grams of protein equals two 3.5-gram chicken breasts (60 grams), one 12-ounce steak (85 grams), two 6-ounce cans of tuna (80 grams), a half dozen eggs (35 grams), 3 cups of milk (25 grams), and 7 ounces of tofu (15 grams).
Clearly, your body weight and training goals will alter your actual protein needs, making this mathematical formula more generalized than specific.
Moreover, most sports nutrition authorities will tell you to consume no more than twice the recommended daily allowance of protein compared to other adults in your age and sex. For an adult between 31 and 50, that could range anywhere from 150 grams (for a 2,000-calorie diet) to 225 grams (for a 3,000-calorie diet) of protein per day.
Given this wide range, there is an alternate method of calculation that may be more appropriate to you as a bodybuilder.
Grams per Body Weight Method
While the protein requirements for an adult male is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), a study published in 2014 that evaluated nitrogen balance—a product of protein breakdown—suggest that athletes may need up to three times that amount, or roughly 2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (gm/kg/day).
For a 200-pound (90-kg) bodybuilder, that would translate to 225 grams of protein per day (90 kg x 2.5 gm/kg = 225 gm).
Limitation and Considerations
That are some who will argue that 225 gm/day is still too much for anything but extreme competition training. Consider, for example, that the average adult male weighing 200 pounds only needs 72 grams of protein per day (90 kg x 0.8 gm/kg = 72 gm).
On an ongoing basis, it is hard to justify triple the protein intake. This is especially true if you adhere to the advice that you should consume no more than twice the daily allowance of protein than other adults of your age and sex.
Many sports nutritionists endorse 2.0 gm/kg/day as an upper ceiling of protein intake for athletes. Lower amounts would be sufficient for moderate- or low-intensity training.
For a 200-pound bodybuilder, that would translate to 180 grams per day (90 kg x 2.0 gm/kg = 180 grams). While this is still more than twice the intake recommended for a sedentary 200-pound male, it may be appropriate when actively training for competition.
Excessive Protein Risks
There are bodybuilding and weight-training coaches who endorse a protein intake of 40 percent of your daily calories. For a bodybuilder on a 4,000-calorie diet, that translates to a stunning 400 grams of protein per day (4,000 calories x 40 percent ÷ 4 calories/gm = 400 gm).
Quite honestly, there is nothing in the way of scientific evidence to support this dietary approach. No matter how hard you train, the fuel that your body will burn first is neither protein nor fat, but glucose derived mainly from carbohydrates.
Since bodybuilder diets are typically high in carbs, you will usually have more than ample supplies of glucose and glycogen (the stored form of glucose) for training. Adding excessive protein rarely helps.
Extra protein is not used efficiently by the body and may impose an excessive burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver. This is especially true for people with underlying kidney disease in whom proteinuria (protein in urine) is indicative of kidney damage.
Moreover, high-protein/high-meat diets are associated with an increased risk for coronary heart disease due to the intake of saturated fat and additives. In essence, you could be the model of fitness but still be a risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart attack, and stroke later in life.
Fast vs. Slow Proteins
How quickly protein gets metabolized into amino acids and absorbed into muscles can vary by the protein type. There are some bodybuilding enthusiasts who will tell you that “fast” proteins such as whey are superior to “slow” proteins like casein in that you can consume more and build muscles faster.
By way of example:
- Egg protein gets absorbed at a rate of 1.3 grams per hour.
- Casein gets absorbed at a rate of 6.1 grams per hour.
- Whey gets absorbed at a rate of 8 to 10 grams per hour.
There is not much evidence that these variations make a big difference in muscle building over the long term. Moreover, if a protein is metabolized and absorbed at a rate of, say, 7 grams per hour, you would only absorb around 168 grams per day.
Given these limitations, the type of protein you consume really won’t make all that much difference given the amount you’ll be able to reasonably consume. Certain whole-food proteins may be just as good—or even better—and cost far less.
One advantage that casein and whey products do offer, outside of convenience, is that you may not have to consume as much as some whole-food products.