Everything You Could Ever Know About Protein
Just off of Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas sits an old building that’s nearly 50 years old. It’s a hideous shade of yellow with a ghastly blue trim, and a gigantic longhorn in the parking lot.
It also happens to be one of the most famous restaurants in the world. The Big Texan, home of the “free” 72oz steak. The big catch to the steak being free is that you must finish the steak, and the accompanying meal, which consists of a buttered bread roll, shrimp cocktail, a baked potato, and a salad, all in under an hour.
It’s a hell of a lot of food, steak especially. In fact, it’s roughly 500g of delicious, gains inducing protein. Which is exactly what we’re talking about, because there’s hardly ever a bad time to talk about protein.
Go grab your steak and a protein shake to wash it down with. Shits about to get real, and you’re about to get jacked.
What is protein?
Protein, at its most basic level is an organic compound that is made up of large molecules, which are in turn made up of long chains of amino acids. It’s essential for all living things, especially as a structural component of bodily tissues like the liver, kidneys, and biceps.
Pretty boring though, right? All you really need to know is that protein the way that we think of it is a combination of amino acids, of which there are 22 in total. 9 of those 22 are essential. The rest we can make on our own, so long as we’re getting in enough protein from our diet.
Other than my affinity for flexing and eating steak, why is protein important?
When most people think of protein they typically think of bros slamming protein shakes, otherwise known as brotein shakes, and talking about gainz. And this isn’t wrong per say, its just simplifying protein and it’s uses a bit.
When you go in the gym and deadlift for an hour straight you’re putting the body under quite a bit of stress. The muscles that were forced to work will subsequently breakdown, and this is where protein comes into play.
Eating protein, which is broken down into amino acids in the body, allows you to rebuild those muscles into bigger and stronger versions of their previous selves via a process known as muscle protein synthesis. Which is really just a fancy way of saying getting jacked.
And while getting jacked is awesome, and we should all do more of it, protein isn’t a one trick pony.
When it comes to normal bodily function, protein is often overlooked. It plays a roll in keeping your organs working properly, because after all, it’s a critical component of building those organs.
It also plays a major role in keeping your immune system functioning properly. And then on top of these obviously important points, it tends to taste delicious. Especially in steak form. But only medium rare. Anything else and you’re dead to me.
Why do some people drink haterade and scoff at protein?
Thankfully we haven’t hit that point yet where people freak out about protein to the degree that they have the other two macronutrients, fat and carbohydrates. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people still out there worrying about getting in too much protein.
A lot of the scary stuff about protein stems from fears that excess protein could severely impact kidney function. Because as we’ll learn, a big function of protein and building muscle has to do with nitrogen balance, and the primary job of the kidneys is to excrete nitrogen.
So when you wind up with a metric fuckton of nitrogen from eating an entire dead cow for dinner, that puts a lot of undue stress on your kidneys.
Fortunately, a lot of the fear mongering headlines borne out of studies on high protein diets tend to be about studies that weren’t done on healthy individuals who ate a balanced diet.
On top of that, there are plenty of people who sleep with a copy of The China Study right next to their bed and view it as their bible. The main premise of the book is that excess animal protein causes cancer, limp dick, and a whole host of other shit you don’t want.
Instead of taking the time to dispel that one myself, I’ll let someone who is far smarter than me do that. If you’re eating plenty of vegetables and staying active, you can still eat plenty of protein and be completely fine.
So you want to know the nitty-gritty details in how protein helps you do more curls?
One of the most important reasons that people who lift hard need to really pay attention to their protein intake is because it works so well in helping people build muscle.
When you’re getting in plenty of protein, you’re supplying the body with a constant source of amino acids and keeping the body in a positive nitrogen state. When trying to get jacked, being in a positive nitrogen state is a very good thing because it essentially shows that you’re recovering properly and getting in enough protein to support your quest in catching a severe case of swoliosis.
This is part of the reason that BCAA (branched chain amino acids) supplements are so popular to drink during a workout. The thought being that if you’re lifting and drinking amino acids at the same time you’ll prevent muscle breakdown to some degree, and build even more muscle because of the increased positive nitrogen balance and availability of even more amino acids.
But protein is also king when it comes to dieting.
Remember, protein is delicious. Steak, seafood, chicken, etc. it’s all phenomenal. It also happens to be incredibly satiating. Eating a diet high in protein when dieting allows you to feel fuller while eating less overall calories, and this is where the magic really starts to happen.
Protein signals a hormone released from the inner lining of the GI tract called CCK, which sends a signal to your brain telling you that you’re now full, and you need to quit eating.
But we’re not done.
You may or may not be aware that when you eat, you actually burn calories to eat. Digesting all that shit isn’t easy, and it requires energy from the body. It just so happens that protein requires more energy to break down when compared to fats and carbohydrates.
In fact, when you eat protein you’re actually burning about 20-30% of the total caloric content of that food to breakdown the very food you’ve eaten. It’s like eating inception.
Which means that when dieting, eating a diet high in protein not only helps you stay fuller for longer, but it helps you burn more calories overall than you would if you were eating a diet equally as high in fat or carbs.
So how much should you be eating?
Here’s where shit gets tricky. The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) is set at .8g per kilogram of bodyweight. Which is confusing as fuck, because as Americans we’re not used to using grams and kilograms to begin with.
So to make it easy on you:
- A 200lb man would be 90.9kgs (200/2.2) that means that individual, when following the RDA, would eat 72.7g of protein.
If you’ve been lifting and paying attention to your nutrition for any appreciable length of time you should be freaking out and trying to deliver this poor bro a brotein shake immediately, because this number is ridiculously low.
The issue with RDA’s is that they’re always based on healthy, moderately active people. Think of people who go on walks in the evenings after spending most of the day at their desk job.
Now, when you’re an active bro who also likes to lift weights for an hour a day 4-5x a week, those protein needs suddenly change, and rather dramatically. In fact, for active individuals the recommendations jump up to 1.6-1.7g per kilogram of body weight. But that still doesn’t really solve our dilemma. Here’s why:
We’ve got two women who are both in the gym fighting over their right to use the squat rack, because the gym is arcane and only has 1 squat rack. Meanwhile, I’m doing curls and watching this fight happen from afar.
- Both women are 150lbs. But one is 30% body fat, and one is 18% body fat.
It would be crazy to think that the woman who is 30% body fat has the exact same protein requirements compared to a woman who is the exact same weight, but is only 18% body fat. There’s roughly 18lbs of lean body mass and fat between them that will have a major impact on just how much protein someone requires.
If you harken back to earlier, you’ll remember that protein is responsible for maintaining tissue like muscle. When you carry more muscle mass, you need more protein.
For real this time, here’s how much you should eat.
It should be fairly obvious that basing your protein requirements off of bodyweight alone isn’t exactly the greatest option. It’s not wrong, but there are better ways. And that’s by basing your protein requirements off of your lean body mass.
In order to do that you’ll obviously need to get an estimate of your body fat percentage. And while there are a ton of high-tech tools that exist nowadays, most people still don’t have those available to you. And getting the number spot on isn’t what’s most important in this example, it’s getting a rough estimate and working from that point. One of my favorite sources to get a body fat estimate is from my boy Eric Bach here.
Once you’ve done that, you multiply your body fat percentage by your bodyweight, and then subtract that answer from your bodyweight. For example:
- 200lb guy at 20% body fat
- 200lbs x .2 = 40lbs of fat mass
- 200lbs – 40lbs = 160lbs of lean body mass
And here’s where the magic happens. From this point, you base your protein needs solely on lean body mass, because that’s the tissue you want to preserve and build, and the fat mass is the stuff you want to get rid of.
The only step you have to do from here is multiply your lean body mass, which is 160lbs for our hypothetical bro up above, by 1.
- 160 x 1 = 160g of protein
That means our bro is now starting his diet by knowing that he needs to be consuming at least 160g of protein per day. Which is far different than the number he would’ve gotten had he based his recommendations off of the RDA or his bodyweight alone.
From that point, you can play with things depending on where you’re at in a diet, hunger levels, food preferences, etc. If someone is deep into a pretty dramatic cutting program, then at times it makes total sense to take their protein all the way up to 1.5g per pound of lean body mass, since the extra protein will help retain muscle and keep hunger at bay.
The biggest issue is finding what sort of system is going to work for you, and adjusting as you go. And as always, if you’re just confused as hell, I’m happy to help.
How much can I eat at once?
In gyms of old where bros sat in their stringer tank tops and sipped from their protein shakes the standard rule was that you couldn’t have anymore than 30g of protein at a time. The rest was a waste, because you couldn’t absorb it.
This is a bit of a fallacy, but my beloved bros of old aren’t exactly wrong. There’s a big difference between absorption and anabolism. Absorption is food actually being broken down, entering the blood stream, and being used for various purposes. Anabolism is the actual act of building muscle on a cellular level thanks to things I mentioned above like muscle protein synthesis and nitrogen balance.
You can absolutely absorb more than 30g of protein at a time. If I go eat a 24oz steak, which I’ve been known to do, I’m absolutely going to absorb the 135g of protein in that steak.
Will all of it be used in an anabolic manner, though? Not quite. In essence, you’re going to top out muscle protein synthesis after about 30-40g of protein. After that, you’re just getting more protein just to get it. It’s not necessarily going to be immediately used in the muscle building process.
Because of this it makes more sense to break up your meals throughout the day, each one containing about 30-40g of protein, in order to keep muscle protein synthesis at optimal levels.*
*The only caveat to this is if you’re eating the flesh of your dead enemies after slaying them on the field of battle.
Truth be told, I’ve never actually been to Amarillo, even though I’m from Texas. There’s not much to do in Amarillo, and it’s not exactly a crossroads, or a destination. But you better believe that I plan on going to The Big Texan at some point in my life and getting myself a free steak. If you think you’ve got it what it takes, then let me know. I would love to have a cadre of protein enthusiasts to take down a 4.5lb steak with.