Adding protein to your diet has never been easier.
It's a projected $630 million dollar market —and, thanks to our cultural obsession with wellness, everyone from gym rats to busy commuters have protein bars stashed in their bag.
But when everyone in the locker room is comparing notes about powders and meal bars, it's easy to think you're doing the whole "protein thing" absolutely wrong.
We get it. For performance athletes, nothing is scarier than throwing your macronutrients out of whack.
Protein helps you build muscle, replenish amino acids lost during a tough workout, and stay fuller longer—no wonder they call it the building block of nutrition, and no wonder performance athletes are obsessed with finding the right ratio.
So, how much protein do you actually need to fuel your workouts? And how much is too much?
We break everything down for you below, so you can stop worrying about what to eat and start focusing on your lifts.
How Protein Synthesis Works—And How Much You Need to Eat When You Lift
Whether you're trying to bulk up or lose weight, protein is the building block of muscle. It helps keep you fuller, longer, and provides your body with the fuel it needs to transform you from lean and mean to totally jacked.
According to the National Institutes for Health, the average person needs about 0.36 grams of protein per bodyweight per day. Of course, the exact amount depends on other factors, like height, weight, and activity levels.
Performance athletes will always need a higher protein intake than someone who sits behind a computer at their desk job all day, for example. They use up their protein stores by working muscles to failure, and need protein to build and repair muscle.
According to Men's Health, athletes likely require double the amount of protein of a person who doesn't train hard—closer to 0.77 grams of protein per pound per day.
The best way to calculate the amount of protein you need for high performance training is to multiply your weight by 0.77 grams. For example, an 175–pound man needs a little over 134 grams of protein per day, especially if he is in peak training mode.
Mastering the "Anabolic Window"
While there's some debate about how much protein your body can metabolize in any given sitting, at 30 grams of protein, your body triggers protein synthesis.
Consuming more than 30 grams at once won't necessarily hurt you, but your body will store the excess protein as energy.
That means all those dudes in the locker room yammering about 40 gram protein shakes aren't actually making their muscles any bigger—just wasting protein powder!
When you lift to failure, your body uses its stored proteins in order to heal damaged muscle fibers and rebuild.
That's why eating the right amount of protein at the right time is so important for bodybuilders, says Dr. Jeffrey Volek, a nutrition researcher.
"When you work out, your muscles are primed to respond to protein, and you have a window of opportunity to promote muscle growth," Volek explained to Men's Health.
He's referring to the "anabolic window," that period of time right after a workout when your body is ready to start the rebuilding process.
To optimize protein synthesis, make sure you spread your protein consumption throughout the day.
Consume protein about an hour before or an hour after a tough workout to maximize your intake, build bigger and stronger muscles, and speed repair.
Caution: Not All Protein Is Created Equal
But remember—not all protein sources are created equal. Lean proteins, like chicken, fish, and eggs, will always be better choices for bulking up in a healthy way.
Leucine, an amino acid that promotes muscle growth, is found in whey protein—which is why it's a favorite supplement among performance athletes.
What Happens When You Consume Too Much Protein?
Protein is essential if you're trying to bulk up, stay energized, or recover quickly from performance–level workouts. But it's possible to get too much of a good thing, too.
Here are three signs you're consuming too much protein, and that you need to take your foot off the gas pedal:
1. You're Dehydrated
Dehydration is one of the biggest signs that your body is trying to process too much protein—and can't, says Dan DeFigio, a certified personal trainer and nutrition expert.
“Your body has to use more water to flush out the additional nitrogen from excessive protein intake,” DeFigio explained to Muscle & Fitness. “If you don’t drink enough water with a high–protein diet, you can become dehydrated."
Along with all that excess nitrogen, your body flushes out important minerals, too, like magnesium and potassium. That means you're not getting all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
If you notice fatigue, excessive thirst, or dark or infrequent urination, take the time to calculate your protein intake: are you within the range of 0.36 – 0.77 grams per pound of bodyweight per day?
You may have to both decrease your protein intake and increase the amount of water you drink in order to level out again.
For performance athletes, dehydration can be especially scary. It brings fatigue on even faster, putting you at even greater risk of serious injury.
Dehydration symptoms also come with the added frustration of knowing that your body isn't processing all that protein you consumed.
Get more bang for your buck when it comes to supplementing by knowing how much protein your body actually needs—and resisting the temptation to eat more.
2. You're Gaining Weight
In addition to dehydration, some athletes experience weight gain when they consume too much protein and therefore extra calories.
This is because animal proteins contain plenty of fat, and too much of the essential nutrient throws the overall balance of your macronutrients out of whack.
“More protein doesn’t mean you’re going to gain more muscle,” Jim White, the spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, cautioned U.S. News & World Report.
Bodybuilders and competitive lifters who want to bulk up might see additional weight as a positive.
But, as White points out, the weight you put on when you consume too much protein isn't the same as "bulking up," or gaining muscle weight and definition.
Instead, this is weight from protein your body has stored to burn as energy —and that's not necessarily a good thing. You don't want your body to use protein as an energy source—that's what carbs are for!
Remember: You want to fuel your body with the right amount of protein, so it can build the protein into more muscle—not use protein stores for more energy. Keeping an overall energy balance of calories in vs. calories out and just the right amount of proteins, carbs, and fats your body needs is key.
3. You're Noticing Serious Health Complications
In serious cases, research has linked the overconsumption of protein to calcium deficiency and kidney failure—primarily in subjects who already struggled with conditions like osteoporosis or diabetes, for example.
While the risk of illness or death from kidney failure related to excess protein is low, too much protein still puts a strain on your kidneys. Remember: they have to filter all that excess protein out of your system!
You can make things easier on your body by balancing your intake of plant and animal protein, suggests Dr. David Haber, who directs the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.
“The kidneys have to dispose of organic acids from animal protein but not plant protein, so limit animal meats and products to no more than 50% of your protein sources,” Heber told Men's Journal.
Eating more plant protein could help bring your diet further into focus, too. Plant proteins, like beans, quinoa, and nuts, are all part of a balanced diet—and can contribute to the amount of healthy fats and complex carbohydrates you need to stay ripped.