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Protein for Muscle Gain : Benefits & Side Effects

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Protein is probably the most important part of a diet for bodybuilders.

Yeah, vegetables and carbohydrates, and “healthy” fats are also important but it’s the protein that can decide whether you build big muscles or stay small forever. But how much protein should you be taking?

Most Bro Bodybuilders don’t worry about this, they just eat as much protein as they can get their hands on while drinking 5 protein shakes per day.

It may work for them because protein will a) fill you up more than any other macro – making it difficult to overeat, and b) protein raises your metabolism more than any other macro – due to it being the most difficult for the body to break down.

But aren’t there issues with overeating protein? Many people will tell you that too much protein can damage your kidneys, plus if you are following a calorie controlled diet, then wouldn’t too much protein lead to fat gain?

In this article, we will attempt to answer these questions, before giving you an effective and realistic target to aim for. [toc]

What Makes Up Muscle?

Muscles are made from muscle fibres. Also known as muscle cells, which are predominantly made up of two different proteins, actin and myosin.

When you do intensive training to build muscle, you put those muscle fibres under stress. This stress causes the fibres to tear or break.

Your body then works to repair and rebuild those muscle fibres, making them stronger and more durable than before.

This is why training over time not only causes your muscles to become stronger, but also to grow larger because they are adapting and becoming more resistant.

Why is Protein So Important?

Protein forms about 16% of the human body [1]. It is essentially the material that your hair, skin and muscles are made from. Your muscle tissue is made up of fibres formed from interlinked protein filaments.

Every time you participate in intensive training that challenges your muscles and leaves them feeling sore, you have actually stressed and torn the muscle fibres.

The body then sets about rebuilding and repairing them to be stronger and more durable than before. To do this, you need to be fuelling your body with a diet that is high in protein.

It is vital for the production of blood cells and muscle cells. They can also be used as an energy source to fuel the body if other energy sources are low.

The protein you consume in food is formed from chains of amino acids bonded together. These amino acids are the basic foundation of the protein. And protein is one of the building blocks of all body tissue.

When you eat foods that contain protein, your body uses the digestion process to break down the protein into the amino acids. These amino acids are the basic building materials that form the foundation of the human body.

Though there are 20 amino acids within the body. 9 of these cannot be synthesised and must be gained from your diet. These are called the 9 essential amino acids.

It is these amino acids that are used by the body to build and repair damaged muscle fibres.

When you have a good supply of protein, which provides amino acids, you are able to build and repair stressed muscle quickly and in turn, they will become stronger and more resilient than before [2].

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The average adult needs to consume enough protein to make up about 25-35% of their calorie intake. An adult woman would need about 45 grams whereas an adult male needs about 10 grams more per day [3].

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts will need a higher calorie intake. To provide them with the energy to keep going and the fuel to keep building. So their protein intake will also need to be increased.

If you are training hard to build muscle mass, then you need to be consuming about 1-1.25 grams of protein to each pound of body weight.

Eric Helms, Alan Aragon, and Peter Fitschen are probably three of the most well-respected men in the field of nutrition and exercise science.

In 2013 they published a paper that looked to answer the question of what diet a natural bodybuilder should be following while preparing for a competition [4].

Now you might be reading this thinking “I’m never planning on competing” which is a fair point, but it would be fair to say that the macronutrient ratios could be used by anyone, with contest prep bodybuilders making changes to the calorie amount.

According to the study, natural bodybuilders will get the best results from 2.3-3.1g of protein per kg of lean body mass.

This does not mean that a 100kg person should be consuming 230-310 grams of protein though.

Lean body mass is a measure of your body’s weight MINUS your body fat. So if you are a 100kg person who is around 20% body fat your lean body mass would be 80kg rather than 100kg. So that means that your protein target would be between 184g and 248g (depending on whether you used 2.3g or 3.1g per kg).

As you might have noticed, the amount of protein you decide to consume can vary by quite a bit and you’ll still get good results.

A 100kg person with 20% body fat could eat amounts that are 64g apart! Just make sure that your overall calorie intake is either hitting your target if you are looking for weight maintenance, above your target if you are looking to build muscle or below your target if you are aiming for fat loss.

Can You Take Too Much Protein?

Consuming too much protein, without balancing it with exercise, can cause weight gain because the calories are not being used.

Excessive protein consumption has also been linked to damaging the kidneys. This can happen if you are on a high protein, low carb diet and consume an excessive amount of protein, as it can cause a build up of toxic ketones in the body.

This happens when the body resorts to using its own fat cells as fuel due to a lack of carbohydrates available. These ketones can stress the kidneys as they work overtime trying to rid the body of this toxic substance.

If you have a kidney problem, then you are advised to avoid high protein diets as your damaged kidneys find it difficult to process it.

Because of this myth, many people have concluded that protein can damage your kidneys. It can’t. You can’t wear gloves if you’ve had your hands cut off, but wearing gloves doesn’t cause damage to your hands.

Other myths include the belief that there is an upper limit to how much protein your body can process during a meal. With some people saying that anything over 30g is immediately removed from the body. Again, this is wrong.

Quality Over Quantity

It’s not just about the amount of protein you consume, it is also about the quality of the protein you have in your diet.

Making sure that your diet is high in complete proteins, or combinations of incomplete proteins, so that you are getting all 9 of the essential amino acids, is vital to a healthy body.

Opting for low-fat dairy and lean meats will allow you to get the complete proteins you need while minimising fat intake.

If you are a fitness enthusiast, then protein supplements are a great way to ensure that you are getting enough protein in your diet.

If you have just started working out, or have recently increased your workout routine, then the extra protein from supplements will provide you with the fuel to adjust.

Protein supplements also provide a beneficial boost of protein for recovery after a workout and to assist the body to heal after a sports injury.

When considering how much protein to have in your diet, aim for about 35% of your calorie intake.

If you train hard you need to increase your calorie intake. So adjust your protein intake accordingly and utilise protein supplements to gain that extra boost when you need it.

Where Can You Get Protein From?

Different food types contain different combinations of amino acids. Complete proteins contain all the 9 essential amino acids, incomplete protein only contain some of them.

If you are gaining your protein from incomplete protein sources, it is important that you combine them to ensure you are gaining all 9 of the essential amino acids.

Complete proteins are found in foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, tofu, tempeh, soy milk and edamame.

While incomplete protein sources are found in whole grains, legumes, beans, corn, fruits, nuts and seeds.

As your body’s muscles are made up of muscle fibres that are formed from proteins. Your body needs a balanced diet with a healthy protein component. This will ensure that you have enough material and fuel to repair and rebuild the muscle fibres you are damaging when undergoing intensive training.

Make sure you have some healthy protein-rich snacks ready for you to munch on during the day.

Healthy protein-rich snack tips:

  1. Boiling a dozen eggs and keeping them in the refrigerator ready to eat is a great way to boost your protein intake.
  2. Fill a jar full of a mixture of nuts and seeds. for snacking on. And also for adding to your favourite salads.
  3. Drink a cup of low-fat milk in the evening to give yourself an extra protein kick before bed. (Because this is when your body is repairing and building itself!)
  4. Have a plate of cheese pieces and lean sandwich meat in the refrigerator. So that you can snack on these during the day.
  5. Tinned tuna is a fantastic snack to boost your protein intake. It comes in a variety of healthy flavour choices.
  6. Yoghurt is another fantastic way of increasing your protein intake. It goes really well with a sprinkling of nuts and seeds.
  7. Edamame (boiled, salted soybeans) are a delicious, high protein snack choice. Perfect for when you are out and about and can be bought at most sushi stores.

Adding some of these snack suggestions to your day. As well as ensuring your meals are rich in complete proteins and combinations of incomplete proteins. Will increase your protein intake naturally.

For more advice on what to eat when attempting to build muscle check out our bulking guide.

Ways to Increase Your Protein Intake

Protein intake, as we have seen, takes some math.

When starting out, you may feel you are not eating as much protein as you could. This is because you think that ingesting 100 or so grams of protein is not possible in the meals you have on a regular day.

The good news is that it is possible and it only takes a little bit of planning to do so.

Start by incorporating protein into every meal and snack you have throughout the day.

Suppose you weigh 150 pounds and want to preserve your muscles as you work on restricting the number of calories you consume. You should eat as much as 140 g of proteins in this scenario.

Breaking this 140 g of protein into six meals a day might help your protein intake plan better: 23 g for every meal is doable and manageable.

Here are some tips that you can use to help you increase your daily protein intake so that you can train harder and build some more muscle:

Plan Ahead

Just because you are busy all the time doesn’t mean it’s a valid excuse for your lack of a good protein diet.

With just a bit of preparation, you can have access to protein meals consistently and for a longer period of time, say a week.

You can have some meals made up and packed for a start.

There’s no need for you to become a full-on meathead when you can just eat out of Tupperware by way of some tiny snacks and lunches throughout a day.

Eating protein in bits or in one go, it’s totally up to you and your lifestyle requirements.

Go Greek

Do you know what’s packed to the brim with protein goodness? Greek yoghurt, that’s what.

Just one cup of plain Greek yoghurt possesses 23 g of protein, enough for one meal.

So, the next time you are thinking of having your usual daily dairy snack, have a bowl of great Greek yoghurt instead.

This yoghurt has a slightly sour taste and can be used as a great substitute for cream, milk, cream cheese, mayo and sour cream.

Try Different Meat

Meat is a great source of protein. You can keep all your taste buds satisfied and enjoy a great meal with all sorts of meat varieties and flavours.

Consider going for some fish, shrimp and lobster too. They are all great for some lean protein.

Tired of chicken breast? Then perhaps some turkey breast and pork loin will do. Beef and lamb are not bad if you are looking to get some more flavours from your meals. All of these are great protein sources.

Mixing the meats up can help you on those days when you just want something different to eat without disrupting your protein intake.

Supplement with Protein Powder

There are many benefits to taking a protein shake after a workout. Studies have shown that whey protein (the main ingredient in protein shakes) can lead to fat loss when combined with exercise [5].

For many people, getting into the habit of taking the shake immediately after a workout is an easy routine to get into that will help boost daily protein intake.

If you tend to train first thing in the morning (in a fasted state) the post-workout protein shake is essential. This is because your body will immediately require the protein to begin muscle protein synthesis (not an issue if you have had a protein-rich meal beforehand) [6]

Shaking up some protein powder with some milk or water is not the only way to use protein powder, there’s so much more you can do with it.

You can even use it for baking too. Simply scoop some of it into your morning oatmeal and make a chocolate crumb crust out of it.

Protein powder is simple to use and it’s always there when you want to add more flavour to your meals, while also adding additional protein.

Potential Side Effects of Protein Powder?

Often you hear about all the positive effects protein has on the body, such as increased strength and muscle mass, but what happens if you consume too much protein? Does it have negative side effects?

There are several different side effects that protein may be associated [7]. Some of them are connected to the way in which you consume your protein and others are related to the quantities you consume.

Some of these associated side effects include:

Weight Gain

As your body only needs a certain amount of protein each day, relative to your age, sex and the types of exercise you do. Then any extra protein you consume may be stored as fat.

If you are eating a protein-rich diet to gain muscle mass, you need to balance the quantity you eat with the number of calories your burn.

Same goes if you are gaining your protein from a diet rich in fatty meats, this can also cause you to gain weight.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is only an increased risk if you are gaining your protein from an unhealthy diet.

Foods such as fatty meats, cheeses, large quantities of high-fat milk and yoghurt, also contain high levels of cholesterol.

Cholesterol coats your arterial walls and puts excess strain on the heart that can cause heart disease.

Kidney Problems

Some studies indicate that if you are on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet, you are at risk of kidney problems, but the evidence is inconclusive and further research is needed.

Decreased Liver and Brain Function

When the body ingests protein, it causes a toxin called ammonia to be formed.

The ammonia is quickly dealt with by the liver and there is no harm done. However, excessive consumption of protein causes the liver to work overtime and can cause it to become a bit sluggish.

If this happens it allows for an increase of ammonia and other toxins to form in the blood. This, in turn, can be harmful to the functioning of the brain.


Seizures have been linked to excessive protein consumption, but only if the body has not been properly hydrated.

It is important that all protein powders are consumed with the recommended water intake.

Intestinal Irritations

Some people experience digestive disturbances, such as diarrhoea, and gas, due to excessive protein intake.

Another concern with a high protein-focused diet is the possibility of overlooking the other necessary nutrients that you need in your diet. For example carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

To avoid any of the negative side effects of taking too much protein. You should make healthy food choices when planning your diet.

When taking protein supplements, it is important to always follow the instructions provided.

Final Thoughts

Protein is incredibly important if you want to build muscle or lose fat.

While protein powder can help it is not necessary as you can get enough protein through your diet alone.

Of course, a couple of extra protein shakes daily can help supplement your intake.

Some of your decision making should be based around the financial implications. If you are struggling to make ends meet, then half a tub of protein powder and a sirloin steak every day is not going to end well for you!

You can get amazing results with a ratio of 2.1g of protein per kg so don’t feel that you have to hit 3.1g. More isn’t always better!

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