Protein Intake: How Much to Perform at Your Best?

Conversations about nutrition naturally make their way to the topic of protein consumption—most people believe it’s essential, but how much do we really need? Some people believe they’ll get too bulky if they intake more protein; others believe that eating a lot of protein will help them perform at their best. Eric Helms Ph.D., the chief author of The Muscle and Strength Pyramids and research fellow at Auckland University of Technology, had a conversation with the Stark team to discuss all things protein and answer your burning questions!

the head shot of Eric helms, with a wide smile as his company’s hat adds a faint shadow across his face

What’s the Optimal Protein Intake?

Government organizations base their recommended daily allowances (RDA) on the amount of protein a population should consume to prevent malnutrition. In most countries, the recommended protein intake is between .8-1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight.

However, there’s a difference between the minimum amount of protein someone should consume to avoid malnutrition versus the optimal amount for a person’s health and performance. Generally, Dr. Helms suggests that the optimal protein intake for an active person not trying to reduce body weight is somewhere between .7-1 gram per pound. This range is standard for men and women who aren’t on either end of body fat levels. You’ll still make gains if you eat less protein than this suggested amount; your progress will just be a bit slower.

on a cutting board sits various animal protein sources, such as raw chicken, raw steak, whole fish, and pork sausage

Dr. Helms says, “For someone who wants to gain strength and put on muscle mass (and not necessarily try to do that concurrently with substantial weight loss or calorie deficit), the ideal protein intake is .7-1 gram per pound. If you are trying to get leaner while also being active and lifting weights (which is a good idea if you want to make sure the weight you lose isn’t muscle mass), then you probably want to be closer to the top end of that range—maybe even as high as 1.1, 1.2, or 1.3 grams per pound. If you are someone who also falls in that category but is high in body fat, that will produce an unnecessarily high protein intake. You can use roughly your height in centimeters to get a good starting protein intake.”

This protein calculator will determine your body’s optimal protein intake using your age, gender, weight, height, activity levels, and goals.

Can You Consume Too Much Protein?

Dr. Helms recommends getting at least one gram of protein per pound. It’s okay if your intake is a bit higher than that amount, but he doesn’t recommend consuming high amounts of protein if it impacts your carbohydrate and fat consumption. There are health benefits to carbohydrates, fats, and proteins!

Dr. Helms says, “There’s effectively no downside in a healthy person consuming protein from a muscle gaining perspective. It’s not like there’s this systematic effect where if you go too high in protein, it causes an issue; it’s more like a better safe than sorry. Arguably, for most people trying to optimize their health, there are some side benefits of a higher protein intake than even muscle mass gains. The big take-home message is that once you’re going over a gram per pound in protein intake if your goal is to put on muscle mass or get the adaptations and you’re not dieting, there’s probably not going to be any benefit from a strength perspective.”

Dr. Helm’s Three Priorities

While protein intake is necessary to perform at your best, Dr. Helms suggests that it’s not the most significant factor. He argues that not having a large calorie deficit is more important than your protein intake. Here’s his priority list: lifting weights is the most important thing. Ensuring you’re not losing weight too quickly is the second most important thing. He says protein is obviously important, but not as important as those first two priorities.

He ended our conversation with this statement: any time you make substantial changes to your nutrition, you’re making significant changes to your life. To perform at your best, you should have an intentional process of systematic habit change. Focus on the process rather than the outcome. If you focus on creating a lifestyle change, you will perform at your best for the long haul.