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Protein Series Part IV: Perfection and Practicality

With meal minimums and maximums met, you can train confidently, knowing you're giving your body optimal levels of growth and recovery potential, and probably a little more for good measure. That's my kind of groove.
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The Final Lap

The performance nutrition industry is growing up. There's even enough protein research to study trends and context. Perhaps a downside is that age creates wrinkles. Grooves on the landscape of fitness culture are deepening and different populations choose to follow different nuances. And isn't that how the brain works? We don't often look for new evidence to change our minds; we make up our minds and then embrace only the information that matches our view. The rest is discarded. Don't be that guy -- let's enjoy the exploration. Is there really a stopping point, ever? Today's science is tomorrow's mythology. Be open.

We've looked at the questions of how much protein is necessary and helpful for unique populations per the recommendations of top science agencies. We discussed how often protein should be consumed in the context of meal timing. And we tried to scratch the surface of objectivity when considering what kind of protein might be higher quality. Today we're wrapping it up by synthesizing all this content into meal content to maximize your efforts.

The Experts Disagree -- of Course

The only thing that will entice bloggers to drop their swords when debating how much protein we need per day is an invitation to a bare-knuckle brawl over the amount of protein we should eat per meal. The arguments are endless as people carve out a position based on the latest single study. Science isn't decided in one lab with one paper. Grooves, people, grooves. We need time, reproducibility, and many angles of inquiry.

Let's start with Dr. Oz, just for fun. He says that everyone should have at least 25 grams of protein at each of three meals to finish the day at 75 total grams. Why? Who knows -- he's a cardiologist. Maybe he just likes symmetry and round numbers. Opinions are like...

Protein in How Many Meals?

The three-protein-meals-per-day advice of our celebrity physician might actually be meaningful. Research has concluded that multiple-meal protein ingestion per day is better than one. Frequency might even affect the minimum and maximum thresholds for effectiveness. Dr. Jeremy Loenneke recently concluded that if subjects consumed two meals per day, which contained 50 percent more protein than their baseline minimum need per meal, a bigger anabolic response occurred compared to just one such meal. Could consuming more protein per meal cause the body to use it more effectively? Maybe. We'll see if future studies deepen that groove or if it's just an acute response.

Other researchers have concluded the opposite. Many often-quoted studies interpret data to claim that about 20 grams of protein per meal is the limit of usefulness, and more at one time offers no evidence of increased muscle gain or performance improvement. One such study even showed that dividing meals into three or six protein-containing increments per day didn't change outcomes.

But I Still Want More!

Despite the evidence that maximum usefulness levels exist, some authors still advise that more can be better. John Berardi, PhD, notes that protein is useful beyond muscle gain. Listing a physiology laundry list of amino acid uses, he stated despite maximum-need studies, his advice remains that women consume 20 to 30 grams of protein with each meal and men 40 to 60 grams every few hours. If meal frequency isn't as high, he instructs to eat even more protein per meal.

Why?

Because what if all the studies are wrong and we can add one more pound to our squat, or an extra eighth of an inch to our shoulder girth? Some would argue it's worth a shot. More is always better, right?

Is There a Danger to More Protein Per Meal?

Another controversy. High-protein proponents have conducted multiple literature reviews and conclude no links exist between kidney damage and excessive protein intake. But, oddly, or not so, they never seem to include the studies that actually do show health risks linked to protein consumption, like increased risk of certain cancers, kidney stones, and easily-traced physiological stress due to higher nitrogen content. If you're healthy, if you're training hard, if you're drinking enough water, if you have no pre-existing conditions that warrant less protein, I'll stay neutral. There is evidence that too much protein carries risks; there is evidence that once you meet max-need thresholds, calories could be better used in the form of carbs or fat.

The Perfect Plan... for You

Based on all the research contained in this series, 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass (slightly more than twice the RDA), appears safe and most effective for athletic goals. Some studies show favorable results up to 3.0 grams. For a 170-pound male, like yours truly, that is 154 grams of protein per day -- about what I consume now, or up to 230 grams per day -- about what I used to ingest when pursuing maximum performance. One case study adds only a single hash mark to the ledger of science, but even the higher levels never elevated liver or nephrology markers out of normal ranges. Maybe 2.0 grams is enough; it's certainly more practical. But perhaps 3.0 grams was more optimal for my goals at the time. What if the difference was statistically insignificant? The best scientific conclusions still have to pass through the grid of individual context and genetics. Your body is the ultimate lab.

Whether you consume the RDA levels, twice, or three times that amount, research currently concludes that a minimum of 20 grams per meal, and as much as 30 to 45 grams per meal, should be consumed 3 to 4 times per day for maximum metabolic and anabolic needs. Higher body mass would indicate a need for more (relative to percent of lean body mass), and faster metabolic rates would justify more frequent meals. Paying attention to the timing issues addressed in Parts II and III of the series can enhance impact. With meal minimums and maximums met, you can train confidently, knowing you're giving your body optimal levels of growth and recovery potential, and probably a little more for good measure. That's my kind of groove.