High Protein Intake is Overrated

Opinion has gone every which way on both carbohydrates and fats over the years, but protein has seemingly always been revered and is hardly ever scrutinized. New weight room trainees inevitably hear the one-gram-per-pound mantra, then many follow it with religious devotion – even if it means choking down plain tuna and chugging scoop after scoop of expensive powder in order to meet that coveted daily minimum.

Eating high protein is especially hard to do while dieting since your caloric window is restricted, yet the dogma calls for even more protein intake while in a calorie deficit, else your body will panic, enter catabolic mayhem, and eat your gainz to death.

I’ve always found hitting the 1g per lb daily target to be a real pain in the ass, especially with restricted calorie intake during a cut. Rubbery lean meat, chalky shakes, flavorless low fat dairy, and anemic egg whites get old. Taste issues aside, these kinds of food often leave me feeling bloated and gassy.

I eventually questioned the necessity of eating so much protein, and it turns out that it might not be all that advantageous or even necessary.

How Much Protein Do We Actually Need?

There is a minimal requirement for protein, of course, and the minimum is going higher for people who are active and train, obviously, but pertinent research suggests that it’s probably not as high as you think it is.

Menno Henselmans wrote a great article that summarizes said research, stating:

Based on … sound research, many review papers have concluded 0.82g/lb is the upper limit at which protein intake benefits body composition. This recommendation often includes a double 95% confidence level, meaning they took the highest mean intake at which benefits were still observed and then added two standard deviations to that level to make absolutely sure all possible benefits from additional protein intake are utilized. As such, this is already overdoing it and consuming 1g/lb “to be safe” doesn’t make any sense. 0.82g/lb is already very safe.

The (Not So) Impressive Metabolic Advantage of Protein

Aside from ensuring maximum possible gainz, the other reason high protein intake is commonly advocated for is that it purportedly offers a “metabolic advantage” over both carbs and fat, which can enhance weight loss. Is that true?

Yes it is, actually – several calorie controlled studies show weight loss with higher protein intake (ref,ref,ref,ref,ref), and this is a generally accepted trend.

But…

One thing that low carb fanatics never seem to do is actually quantify this advantage. So lets do some actual accounting – how much advantage does one get from higher protein intake?

The answer is not a lot. The explanation for such studies’ results and the “metabolic advantage” of protein is simply that it’s metabolized ~20% less efficiently than either carbs or fat. That means you can get away with eating ~20% more calories worth of protein. That may sound exciting, but some quick arithmetic will demonstrate that this benefit is not practically significant:

Let’s take a 175 pound male who normally eats 150g protein/day then decides to up his intake to 225g per day. That’s 75g extra protein per day, or 300 calories more of his daily intake that’s partitioned to protein. If we apply the 20% metabolic “tax” to that 300 calories, the caloric yield becomes 240. That’s a 60 calorie “advantage” over what he would get if that 300 calorie intake were to instead come from more efficiently metabolized carbs or fat.

I’m not exactly excited to start scarfing down canned tuna to capitalize on a metabolic advantage that’s unlikely to ever exceed, per the results of the linked to studies above, 100-200 calories per day.

But Isn’t Protein More Satiating Than Fat or Carbs?

Yes to that as well – there is research to support this claim.

But…

Satiation is a subjective an unavoidably vague metric. Moreover, there are other factors of it such as food volume, fiber, etc. If the choice for satiation is between, say, a vegetable salad and a protein shake, I think most people would understandably choose the salad. And speaking of subjective preference, the salad just sound more appetizing, which conveniently leads us to the next point…

Sustainability Requires a Diet That is Maximally Flexible and Doesn’t Taste Like S!*t

At the end of the day, any diet is only ever as useful as one’s willingness or ability to actually stick to it.

The problem with an ostensibly high protein target is that it imposes unnecessary restriction by forcing someone to choose rubbery lean meats, anemic egg whites, pasty canned fish, or other such foods that, at least in my opinion, taste lousy. This often causes people to give up and get no results, when all the while they could have gotten results – and results that were just as good for that matter – with a less restrictive diet.

Another Under Discussed Point Regarding Sustainability

Even if we did assume that lower protein detracted from optimal results by, lets say 5%…

I’d honestly accept that in exchange for getting to eat the foods I like and keeping my calorie intake under control (which is primarily important by the way). Sometimes sacrificing optimization in exchange for simplicity and/or flexibility is actually a very worthwhile trade. Just some low protein food for thought.

This is especially true in the context of the day to day short term – it’s not like your muscles are going to fall off if your protein intake is a tad low on one off days (assuming intake is sufficient on average, of course).

The One Sentence Conclusion

The available evidence shows that .6-.8g of daily protein per lb of body weight seems to be perfectly sufficient, so I don’t see any reason to force yourself to eat more if you don’t want to.