Optimal protein intake for athletes and physique sport competitors is one of the most important aspects to diet since we first realized how pivotal a role protein plays in muscle and performance. There are so many variables involved in determining how much is best and further, science can only seem to give us a basic range; even in controlled settings. What we are left with as ‘recommendations’ are generic numbers that we should ‘target’ for a daily intake, and they vary widely from ¼ gram per pound per day to up to two grams per pound per day. Many hardcore lifters subscribe to the ethos that more is better and “you can never get too much protein”. This is untrue for a few reasons. The body is capable of processing and assimilating only so much protein into positive results, any above and beyond what can be used effectively becomes a liability and is detrimental to gains and health, as the body is forced to expend resources breaking down and expelling this protein from our systems in a process that taxes the kidneys, liver, and overall weakens the optimal functioning of the body.. Ideally, we will take in exactly enough protein that our body is capable and willing to process and no more. The onerous part is determining what this number truly is for you.
First understand what protein does. Protein, or its components, amino acids, are the building block of every muscle and many other body tissues. Important to realize also is that the body can’t store protein like it can fat and carbs, so you need to eat it often. If you don’t get enough protein to satiate what your body is calling for, it won’t have the building blocks in order to grow, and you will sacrifice gains in the worse possible way as the body scavenges its own tissues to fill its protein needs. Not unlike putting in a day’s work and not staying around to pick up your paycheck, you did the work but left the reward on the table. When we eat protein, it is digested, then it is broken down into its individual amino acid components, and finally the amino acids are reconstructed into other proteins for repairing and building muscle and a multitude of other things. Bodybuilders, athletes, and anyone active, of course, require more protein than would a sedentary individual. Adequate protein intake for athletes is the foundation for making improvements and progression in the gym and on stage.
While we need protein, and lots of it, there is a fine line when we can get too much of a good thing, and that comes a lot sooner than most of us think. Our upper limit of effective protein intake is established by two main processes. The first is the livers ability to process the excess nitrogen from protein we eat into urea and expel it from the body and the second is your body’s ability (more like willingness, dependent on what your hormones and body signals tell it to do) to utilize this protein for muscle building purposes. The liver is the regulator that processes excess nitrogen from the protein we eat into urea to expel from the body. Essentially, excessive nitrogen in the blood leads to hyperammonemia (toxic levels of nitrogen and why some people smell of ammonia when they sweat), among other things and the liver regulates this. The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism established the upper limit of protein intake to avoid protein toxicity to be 1.61 grams per pound for a healthy individual with a healthy liver. This is a lot of protein and is more than ample to grow. The more limiting factor, however, and the factor that is much harder to determine is how much of this protein your body can actually use. This number ranges widely, but is generally much lower than the amount that a healthy liver can process. While no clinical evidence can pinpoint an exact amount, we can determine from evidence that 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day is not only adequate, but also well within the confines of safe to avoid toxicity. Understand that the 1.61 gr/lb of bodyweight number is the upper limit to which you may get sick if you exceed that amount due to protein toxicity, while the 1 to 1.2 gr/lb of bodyweight number is the ideal number functionally.
So why isn’t it best to take in right at the upper limit of 1.61 gr/lb of bodyweight to ensure you always have enough protein? While protein serves a greatly important role in muscle building and repair, it is not a good energy source for your body. So, any protein you take in that can’t be effectively used for building and repairing becomes a liability. Increasing quality carbohydrate or fat intake in lieu of consuming the upper limit of protein will not only improve your energy and gym performance, but will create a heathier, less acidic environment within your body that places less strain on liver and kidneys and more useable energy for all body processes. A healthier system, in turn, leads to more growth and improved performance.
Overall, while adequate protein intake is paramount to growth, the antiquated theory that more is better is not correct. Determine how much protein to eat within the parameters mentioned above and customize it to your particular body based on activity level and muscle mass. Ideally you will determine exactly how much protein your body can and will assimilate for building and repairing muscle and take in that exact amount, while getting the rest of your calories from easier energy sources like healthy fats and carbs. This way you will feel better, look better and perform better.