Why I stand with one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (sometimes)
Gee, my explore page has substantially changed since Instagram got in trouble for ruining teens' lives! Plus, good squat guides and a Sha'Carri documentary. This is Links 30.
If you’ve gotten into lifting any time in the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard the Golden Ratio of Protein Intake for building strength or muscle: one gram per pound of bodyweight that you weigh (so if I weigh 160lb, 160g of protein a day)1.
But if you stayed into lifting over the last year or so, you’ve probably also seen some of your trusted sources go on the warpath against this figure. Even some of my own favs were recently coming out against 1g/lb of bodyweight, saying that there are no appreciable benefits beyond getting 0.82g/lb of bodyweight. Some even go so far as to call the Golden Ratio a “myth.”
As best I can tell, nothing in particular rocked everyone’s world this most recent time around; it’s just that every once in a while, someone re-unearths this 2011 study that found no benefits to protein intake over 0.82g/lb of bodyweight.
At the risk of being an iconoclast, I still stick to 1g/lb, in some scenarios. Here is my reasoning.
I tried it the other way; it did not work
It may be hard to believe now, but I was once a moon-faced youth, the wind at my back, the world at my feet, the gains arriving in the form of adding a steady 5 pounds to each of my lifts every session. Like so many who start to lift and want to get strong, I ran the numbers on my protein intake, and then tracked my food for a single day on MyFitnessPal, and said, “How the fuck am I going to get an additional 100 grams of protein EVERY DAY for the REMAINDER OF MY DAYS?” I tweaked my foods and serving sizes in MFP, adding chicken breasts and cheese snacks and broccoli and glasses of milk as if it were a little nutrition simulator, until I arrived at the right protein number. It was still a lot of foods that were not that much fun to eat, or less fun than cereal and pasta.
My first natural reaction was to try not eating that much protein. Technically, I’d read that the effective window was 0.7-1g/lb of body weight, so what if I simply... did less? When I dipped down to 0.7-0.8g/lb, the result was that my gym sessions were palpably worse and my progress faltered. I went up to 1g—slowly, falteringly, being generous to myself and leaving emotional room for less than perfection—and that problem went away.
In this way I learned to respect the 1g/lb number. To be fair, I am not everyone, and different things could work for different people. But I ran the experiment, and for me, it failed.
1g/lb is less a hard rule than a helpful margin of error
Perhaps the effective protein intake ratio really is 0.82g/lb of bodyweight.
But the following scenario happens to me a lot: I am trucking along, mangia this, bon appetit that, when suddenly I find myself getting dinner at a restaurant with a friend. At this restaurant, no matter how many dishes we order, none come with more than a sliver of the protein that headlines the plate. “Ceviche” that is one tablespoon of fish and a cup of onions and cilantro. “Hanger steak” that is two slices of meat buried in a jungle of sauced greens. A “half chicken” that is so petite it can only have been actually a pigeon. Before my eyes, the protein empire I have built turns to dust around me.
Not so fast: Because I was shooting for my 1g/lb, I had a tidy 40g protein breakfast, a 30g protein lunch, a 15g protein snack, a 30g protein shake after my workout. I’m already sitting at 115 grams for the day—pretty close to my 0.82g/lb figure of 130g. This rip-off of a fancy restaurant will not totally ruin me, even if it contributes no grams of protein. If I’d been aiming for 125g of protein, I might have only had 90-95g so far that day, and suddenly have a much bigger shortfall.
Maybe you have no uncertain terrain to navigate and can hit your 0.82 like clockwork every single day. But for the rest of us, surprises happen. When they do, they are not as wounding when you were shooting for 1g/lb anyway.
It’s worth bearing in mind also that more protein, at least within the margin of error we are talking about, is not bad for you. In fact, this margin-of-error situation is probably why most recommendations round up to a nice and tidy figure like 1g/lb; 0.82 is hard math, and most people aren’t going to be able to hit that figure with precision every single day. To me, 0.82g/lb would be a number to stress about; 1g/lb is a “shoot for the moon and you will land among the stars” approach that I like.
I like and appreciate the 0.82g/lb figure because it lets me know that in situations like this, I don’t need to go home from the restaurant and gnaw on my meal-prepped reserves of cold chicken breast in order to not be sore the next day. But shooting for 1g/lb as a rule saves me from that, too.
We aren’t doing this forever
Sometimes this gets a bit lost in the communication around food and strength, but 1g/lb of bodyweight has a fairly specific set of use cases:
- You are deliberately building strength or muscle (bulking or recomping)
- You’re at a higher body fat level (>20% for men, >25% for women), lifting weights, aiming to lose body fat, and are aiming for a higher intake because it has been shown to optimize the fat loss process
- You’re cutting, or maybe even are a bodybuilder nearing the end of a stage shred, and are trying to hold onto all the muscle you can, and maybe find slightly higher protein helps with feeling fuller longer
That’s kind of it. If you are only maintaining your current body composition and/or strength, or even maybe just getting your footing with the gym and not trying to make any progress yet, you can land more in the 0.5g/lb-0.75g/lb range and be fine. You can ramp up.
Let me be clear: There is no jail time for working out and not hitting 1g/lb. You might be putting a little more margin of error on the side of muscle loss, but not anything that can’t be regained in the grand scheme, if you want.
If you aren’t actively trying to get stronger or bigger, you can play around with your protein intake all day. In fact, there is no jail time for experimenting with any of this; there is strong evidence that some of it depends on your personal biology. Maybe you can go to IPF Worlds on 0.7g/lb; I won’t be the one to stop you from trying. You can figure this out by just keeping track of what you’re doing and how you feel. I just try to bear in mind that, if nothing is happening and everything feels bad, sometimes more protein is, in fact, that answer.
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For people with higher body fat (>20% for men, <25% for women), the recommended figure is usually more like 1g/lb of lean body mass, as the 1g/lb rule gets prohibitive at higher body weights without any appreciable benefit; so e.g., if your body fat is around 25%, your protein intake would be 0.75g/lb. As we will soon see in this post, these are all more like guidelines than rules, but just noting this for posterity. ↩