It’s widely accepted and unquestioned that eating 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is what’s best for your muscles. Whether that’s building muscle or sustaining what muscle you have when you diet.
I’m not sure why, but that seems to be the amount of protein most people assume what’s needed. If I was to guess, I’d say it’s because it’s a round number.
Therefore in this article, I’m going to outline why I think 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is more than necessary, with regards to evidence. What’s more appropriate, And whether there may be some small benefits or reasons to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
Is one gram per pound necessary?
The best way to see what the appropriate amount of protein to eat each day would be to see what previous evidence has suggested.
A study done in 2014 (1), shows more is not better. This study took protein intakes to a far extreme. It compared men eating 1.4-2g of protein per kg (0.63 – 0.92g per lb) to guys eating 4.4g per kg of protein (2g per lb), which is double the 1 gram per pound.
Not much. The study found there was very little difference between the groups in terms of body composition.
A meta analysis, a fancy way of saying a summary of a big collection of studies, showed that eating more than 1.6g (0.72g per pound) of protein per day, had no extra effects. (2)
What the evidence suggests is that eating more protein than 1.6g per kg, isn’t really going to add any benefits.
Reasons why consuming excess protein may be bad
I used to eat 180g of protein per day, when I was doing the 1 gram of protein per pound rule. Now I do the 1 gram per 0.72 pounds or 1.6g per kg. Looking back I can see some of the downfalls of consuming 1 gram per pound, which I will outline here.
The main downfalls were:
- It made meal times kinda suck
- Less room for carbs and fat
Protein is the most expensive food to produce. More energy is required for protein than it is compared to carbohydrates and fat.
For instance if you look at a protein version of a chocolate bar compared to its standard version, the protein version will cost more. Same for a pack of mince, a 5% fat mince, will cost a lot more than a 20% fat mince, when both packs are the same weight. The 5% fat version will have more protein, due to having less fat than the 20% version.
So whenever you are shopping, if you ever compare food prices, you will notice anything with more protein will cost more. Therefore you may be spending more money on food than what is necessary.
I tend to eat 3-4 times per day and having to eat 180g of protein each day sucked the fun out of eating. This meant I was eating around 45g of protein per meal. If I had a meal low in protein that would make me feel guilty and make it feel like the meal isn’t worth it. Therefore most meals consisted of either a chicken breast, egg whites or a protein shake on the side.
I love pasta and pizza, these foods aren’t known for being high in protein. Sometimes you want to enjoy a pizza or a bowl of pasta with cheese and tomato sauce without it being accompanied by a huge chicken breast.
Though nutrition is important, food is to be enjoyed too and if you can’t enjoy what you’re eating then what is the point?
This leads on to the last point. If you’re eating to a certain number of calories per day and eating a lot of protein, this means there will be less room for carbs and fat.
Why is this an issue? It’s an issue for a few reasons.
Most importantly, carbs and fats are delicious. Let’s be honest most of us aren’t craving huge portions of protein. We crave bread and butter, pasta and cheese. You can see where I’m going here, a diet super high in protein, makes eating those foods more difficult.
Second important point, is you may be missing out on essential nutrients. Though carbohydrates are essential, they still provide plenty of nutrients, which are more difficult to get through other measures. For instance, a lot of carbohydrates are rich in fibre, such as oats, wholemeal bread, fruits, vegetables and potatoes.
Another thing is if you’re lowering your carb intake, you may be hindering your performance. Though your body can use protein as an energy form, itd much rather use carbohydrates. Let’s say you’re training either to build muscle or prevent losing it during a diet, you want to train to the best of your ability. Eating more carbohydrates is what’s going to fuel your workout best.
Doing this may be the difference between lifting more weight or doing a better workout, which will workout your muscles more.
Then you have fats. Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds are great for the heart, in helping lower cholesterol levels. Fats are also essential to hormones. Anecdotally and talking from experience with working with people.
When a diet is super high in protein, fat levels tend to go super low. Therefore lowering protein to an amount where you get everything you need, may give you a bit of room to incorporate a bit of fat into your diet. Just to caveat, fats are higher in calories, so you do still need to be mindful, but they are also important.
Why eating 1 gram of protein per pound might be beneficial
Though I don’t agree with the premise, you need to eat grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, I still want to give credit where it’s due and some reasons it may be more beneficial compared to only eating 1.6g per kg.
These reasons include:
- Less hunger
- Makes eating junk harder
- Higher thermic effect of feeding
- Safety net
Protein is known for being the most filling of the macronutrients. Though we’re still not 100% sure why, when studies are done and hormones are looked at, protein seems to suppress the hunger hormones and elevate the fullness hormones more compared to carbohydrates and fat. Other studies comparing calorie intake of low protein and higher protein diets also show those on higher-protein diets tend to eat fewer calories.
Therefore when losing weight on a calorie controlled diet, eating more protein, even if it’s more than what’s needed, might be a useful tool in keeping hunger at bay, when your calorie intake is low.
Eating a high protein diet makes eating junk food harder. If you have to eat 180 -200g of protein everyday, it’s going to be hard to fit in any high calorie, non nutritious food. You know the cakes and chocolates and the foods we tend to overeat on. This is because nobody accidentally eats 180g of protein by mistake. When eating that amount you need to make a conscious effort, this will most likely affect your food choices.
As well as being the most satiating macronutrient, protein also has the highest thermic of feeding. When you eat it, your body uses more energy to break it down compared to carbohydrates and fat.
These are thermic effects of each macronutrient:
- Protein: 20-30%
- Carbohydrate: 5-10%
- Fat: 0-3%
If we are generous and use the highest thermic effect for each macronutrient, this would be the number of calories burned if we ate 1000 calories worth of each macronutrient:
- Protein: 300 calories
- Carbohydrate: 100 calories
- Fat: 30 calories
This shows by eating a diet higher in protein, means you will burn more calories, even when calories are the same.
Finally, eating more protein than the minimum is a good safety net. The studies done can’t control every person in the world. There will be people who get the same benefits eating less than 1.6g per kg of protein per day. On the other hand, there will be some people that will need more than 1.6g per kg of protein to get the benefit. The studies show a larger majority fall within 1.6g per kg.
I’m not psychic. I won’t know exactly how you, myself or any clients will respond to a certain number. If you want to be extra sure you’re getting the maximum protein for yourself, going to 1 gram per pound will most likely assure that you. However there is a high likelihood you’re eating more than you need. All I can say is that it is your call.
Finally, protein quality may be another reason people still eat more than needed. In the studies where 1.6g per kg were done, the people in the study were getting their protein from high-quality sources. In the real world, most people will be getting their protein from a variety of sources, not only from dairy. Eating protein from plants means you will be getting proteins that do not have the full amino acid profile and will not be as greatly absorbed as animal protein.
So there may be a case, to eat a little more protein, just to compensate for that potential lack of quality. It’s not something I personally do, but I can see why some serious bodybuilders, competitors and athletes would.
Is too much protein bad for the kidneys?
One argument many use to say eating 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is bad, is that too much protein is bad for the kidneys.
The current evidence suggests that is not true.
Anecdotally if that was the case, there’d be 1000’s if not millions of fitness people and athletes with kidney problems and from what I’ve seen that isn’t a common issue.
From the perspective of evidence, there are studies showing when people eat even more than 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, their kidneys are fine.
A 2016 study had guys eating 3.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight for over a year and there were no bad effects to the kidneys. That’s double what I eat or would recommend to my clients. (4)
“Our investigation discovered that, in resistance-trained men that consumed a high protein diet (~2.51-3.32 g/kg/d) for one year, there were no harmful effects on measures of blood lipids as well as liver and kidney function
Protein is only an issue when you already have kidney problems, then it is recommended to eat a lower protein diet. (5) I’m a nutritionist, not a dietitian, so this is out of my scope and I won’t go any further than that.
Overall the evidence shows that eating 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is more than necessary. For most people eating more than 1.6g of protein per kg, will mean the excess protein will be converted to excess energy. The energy that would be more beneficial to your performance coming from carbohydrates.
There is also the case that those calories could come from more enjoyable food sources, such as bread and pasta, making your diet more enjoyable and allowing you to get in more fibre.
On the other hand, eating more than 1.6g per kg, will give you that extra insurance ensuring you certainly hit your protein goals, especially if you’re unsure of the quality of your protein sources. There is also the small chance you may be one of those people that does need a little more protein to get the same effect.
When writing this, I was writing to challenge the unquestioned premise that you must consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. I know for a lot of people that it is a boat laid on protein and will be very challenging. It may put some people off starting. Therefore, realising you can get by on less can be very empowering.
This is why when starting with new clients, I prefer to let them gradually increase their intake over time. I see how they fair on 1.2g per kg, then slowly bring it up 1.4, then 1.6. Some choose to go to 1.8 and above as it helps them stick with their diet, whereas most feel comfortable at 1.6. I also have had others who prefer to stay at 1.2-1.4 and if that means they stick with their routine, i’m all for it and the evidence still suggests those numbers still get good results.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.