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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
March 28, 2022
Protein is the single most important nutrient there is for weightlifting. Pretty much everyone knows that. However, what can be a bit confusing is deciding just how much to eat. It gets even more complex when we talk about how much per serving, or does it even matter? Finding out how much protein to eat per serving is actually quite easy and is done by following some simple math and using a bit of science. This article will lay it all out for you nice and simple.
By the way, how much protein you need per serving will be the same whether you are talking about protein powder or protein from meats and other food sources.
As mentioned, in order to know how much protein to eat per serving, you need to know how much to eat per day. Many people eat too little, as the RDA suggests a measly 0.8g/kg of bodyweight. However, these same people don’t realize that this amount is the minimum you need for basic healthy functioning. When talking about athletes and weightlifters, the needs are increased dramatically.
Many studies have suggested a daily intake of 1.6-2.2g/kg for optimal athletic performance, up to 3x the RDA recommendation. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) also reported a similar number, who recommend 1.4-2.0g/kg.
For example, a person who weighs 80kg would need to eat somewhere between 112g (1.4g/kg) to 176g (2.3g/kg). In fact, certain circumstances may even call for more, but this is fine for most lifters and athletes.
If you want a more in-depth look at daily protein intake and if there is such thing as too much protein, check out this article.
Now that you know how much protein you need per day, you just need to divide that number by the number of times you will eat that day. While the total amount of protein you eat during the day is most important, in order to optimize your protein consumption, spread this out throughout the day. Your protein feedings should be about once every 3-4 hours. Assuming you’re up for 16 hours, this equates to about 4-5 servings per day. You would now just divide your total intake by the number of servings you will eat per day.
For example, if you decided to go with 112g per day, you would want to eat 28g (4 servings/day.) to 22.4g (5 servings/day). It’s important to realize that these numbers don’t need to be exact as long as you follow one small caveat. After complete analysis of all literature, the ISSN concludes that each serving should contain AT LEAST 20g of protein per serving as muscle protein synthesis is maximally stimulated with larger doses. However, keep in mind that 20g is the minimum threshold, with larger MPS being seen in amounts up to 40g per serving.
However, you may want to “save” some of your protein for your post-workout meal as studies show that higher doses of protein can result in larger spikes of muscle protein synthesis. For example, we’ll use the 80kg athletes eating 112g per day in 4 servings of 28g. You could bump up your post-workout to 40g, meaning you would need an extra 12g which you could subtract from the other 3 servings. In the real world it would look like this.
As you see, the daily total is still 112g but this person is eating a large 40g serving post-workout with the other three servings all being above 20g. Perfect.
If you are supplementing with protein powder, it would simply be making up ~1 of your servings. All the same info applies.
One of the prevailing myths with protein is concerned with how much your body can utilize. The argument says that your body can only process a certain amount of protein, generally around 20-25g, and all of the amino acids above this are oxidized. This belief is based on a flawed and oversimplification of how our body operates. Firstly, we can look at massive NFL players who are consuming extraordinary amounts of protein daily. If they were to only eat 25g/serving, they likely would be eating up to 15 servings a day! Obviously this is not the case yet they continue to grow.
To begin with, research has shown there are many factors which affect the metabolism of protein such as protein source, composition of the meal. For example a faster acting protein such as whey protein is processed at a rate of about 10g/hour. However, a slower acting protein, such as eggs, are processed at a rate of just 3g/hr. On top of this, these rates slow down even more so when you add carbs into the mix which mitigates the oxidation of amino acids.
Another factor to consider is exercise intensity. For example, we just saw above where a 40g dose of whey protein produced greater MPS than a 20g dose of whey protein following heavy resistance training. The point being is that it’s theorized that your body is able to utilize more protein during times of need which was proven in this study.
That being said, theoretically you could possibly run the risk of “wasting” protein if all you ate was whey protein in a couple massive doses by itself without any exercise. However, that’s not reality. Still, it does seem that your body can better utilize smaller doses of protein (assuming it’s over the 20g threshold) which is why it’s recommended to space out your total protein into equal doses (other than post-workout feeding) throughout the day.
Still, there is a trend in sports nutrition that suggests that casein protein, a slow-acting protein, could be a better “general use” protein such as in a morning smoothie. Then for post-workout, you can use your whey protein. As mentioned, this is a new area of research but something to consider.
Don’t make this more complicated than this needs to be. Be aware that you don’t need to hit these numbers exactly; if you’re off by 5-10g here and there, it’s not going to kill you. However, we’ll review the few basic guidelines when determining the optimal protein dose per serving.
And that’s it. Be mindful but don’t freak out about how much protein to eat. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be good to go.
If you need help finding an awesome protein powder, check out this article on the best protein powders on the market.
And, check out our article on if you should take protein before bed!
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