Guess what? Higher-protein diets aren’t just for athletes and bodybuilders any more. As a matter of fact, the writing is on the wall that higher-protein diets are arguably the most consistently effective nutritional tool to help people of all ages, shapes, and sizes enjoy better health and better bodies. But how much protein do you need? How often should you be eating? Is there a limit on protein intake you can eat at one time? Are certain proteins better at nighttime?
These are just a handful of some of the most frequently asked questions about protein, and we’ll be taking a deep dive into each of them. Enjoy!
How Much Protein Do I Need?
So, if you’re wondering, “How much protein do I need?” Pardon me for being blunt, but you’re asking the wrong question. A better question would be, “How much protein is optimal for reaping all the benefits of higher protein diets?” Benefits such as better health, more strength and muscle, and less body fat.
The answer may surprise you: It depends. And it may depend on a variety of factors, such as:
- How much you weigh
- How much body fat you carry
- How old you are
- How active you are
- What type of exercise you do, if any
- What your goals are (e.g., fat loss, muscle gain)
- What and how much you eat (i.e., diet quality and quantity and macronutrient composition)
- How often you eat
- What sources of protein you consume (e.g., animal- versus plant-based)
And while a personalized protein prescription is always going to be the best medicine, the good news is that we have a pretty good idea of how much protein most people should be consuming. All thanks to the work of some super-clever exercise scientists and sports nutritionists who were interested in this very question.
In a recent systematic review with meta-analysis—which means these researchers basically collected, scoured, and statistically analyzed ALL of the available evidence on protein—a group of highly-respected exercise scientists found a solid protein target for most people (who are exercising regularly) to shoot for is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (1.6 g/kg/day) which translates to about 0.73 grams per pound of bodyweight per day (for those of us in United States who still use the imperial system).1
As an example, this means a 150-pound person who lifts weights a few times a week should consume about 109 grams of protein per day. Since we don’t eat protein per se, but rather, we eat food, you might wonder what that looks like. Well, here’s how that person might hit that protein target:
- 3 whole eggs (18 grams)
- 1 whey protein shake (25 grams)
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (22 grams)
- 1 cup lentils (18 grams)
- 5 ounces salmon (28 grams)
- DAILY TOTAL: 111 grams
Now, keep in mind that there are many factors that may influence how much protein may be ideal for you. Case in point, in the carefully conducted review study mentioned above, the researchers suggested that the ideal protein intake may range from 1.03 – 2.2 g/kg/day. And there’s even some research showing protein intake as high as 4.4 g/kg/day (that’s 2 grams per pound) is not only safe, it may be beneficial.2
Okay, that’s a LOT of numbers, so let’s bring it home. Practically speaking, most people should consume about 0.6 – 1.0 grams of protein per pound per day. While the middle-ish of the range (0.73 g/lb/day) is a good target, here are some reasons you might want to push your protein intake a bit higher:
- You exercise intensely 5 or more times per week.
- Your primary goal is to lose fat while maintaining/building muscle.
- Your primary goal is to gain muscle.
- You are older than 50.
- You are recovering from injury.
Is There a Maximum Protein Intake Per Meal?
Have you ever heard you should never consume more than 30 grams of protein in one meal or sitting because anything beyond that will be wasted? Is that true? It has to be, right? I mean, this is something you often hear throughout the bodybuilding community. And aren’t they pretty knowledgeable about things like eating protein and building muscle? Is there really a maximum protein intake per meal?
I’ll leave it up to Dr. Donald Layman, renowned protein researcher and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, to give you the short answer: “It is one of my biggest pet peeves in the area.”3 To elaborate on Dr. Layman’s frustration, while there may be a limit on how quickly the body can absorb protein, there is no evidence to indicate that 30 grams of protein is the “magic” number that can and should be consumed per meal.
Let’s pretend this 30-gram limit was a thing for a moment. And let’s also suppose we have a 50-year-old 200-pound guy who lifts weights 5 times a week and is shooting for 200 grams of protein per day. If he’s playing by the rule of 30, that would mean he’d have to eat 7 (or more) meals per day!
For most people, that’s not going to happen, especially not consistently. The good news is that studies show us that protein feeding frequency doesn’t matter when protein intake is held constant.4–6 And actually, there’s some research that suggests protein pulse-feeding, where a bulk of the daily protein (80 – 100%) is consumed in a single meal, may be better than spreading it out.7
Also, if you abide by the 30-gram limit, there’s another important question to consider: If you’re not eating protein, what else will you eat?
According to the protein leverage hypothesis, protein is a driving force for appetite. And we are programmed to seek and eat toward a protein target.8 According to Professor Steve Simpson, “If protein in the diet is diluted, even by a small amount of extra fat and carbohydrate, the appetite for protein dominates, and they will keep eating in an attempt to attain their target level of protein.”
Indeed, studies have shown that lower protein intakes are associated with consumption of more snacks between meals and greater overall caloric intake. In general, research has shown that the amount of protein in the diet is negatively associated with caloric intake. In other words, more protein leads to fewer calories consumed.9,10
Is It Good to Eat Every 3 Hours?
Now, just because there isn’t a maximum protein intake per meal doesn’t mean there isn’t a minimum. In fact, you may be wondering if there is an ideal pattern, or timing, of your protein intake. For example, you may be thinking, “Is it good to eat every 3 hours?” This is another strongly held belief among bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts.
Just like the supposed 30-gram limit, there’s no need to eat every 2 – 3 hours to reap the benefits of higher-protein diets—unless, of course, it’s the only way you can hit your protein target.
Having said that, the general consensus is that most folks will probably do best by spreading out their protein intake relatively evenly across 3 – 4 meals per day. This is referred to as a “balanced” protein intake, which runs counter to the typical “skewed” pattern customary for many. That is, most people consume as much as 50% of their daily protein intake at a single meal in the evening (i.e., dinner).11
However, compelling research shows us a “balanced” protein intake appears to be optimal to take advantage of the many benefits protein has to offer. For instance, in a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that balancing protein intake over the course of three meals (about 30 grams of protein per meal) significantly increased muscle protein synthesis (by 25%) when compared to a “skewed” protein intake typical of the American diet.12
In a separate study published in the American Journal of Physiology, researchers from McMaster University discovered equally impressive findings when they compared a balanced to a skewed protein intake combined with calorie restriction (i.e., dieting). In general, reduced-calorie dieting typically leads to muscle loss, which may account for as much as 25% of the weight lost.13,14 Not at all ideal.
In this study, researchers found a skewed protein intake combined with calorie restriction led to significantly greater reductions in muscle protein synthesis. In other words, a balanced protein intake “rescued” much of the normal decline seen in protein synthesis with dieting. Even more, they found that combining resistance training with a balanced protein intake completely rescued the decline in protein synthesis seen with energy restriction and skewed protein intake.15
Research also shows us that consuming high-quality protein at breakfast—the meal typically containing the least protein—can improve appetite control and diet quality. This is also a great strategy for increasing overall protein intake. Research also shows that higher protein diets including around 30 grams of protein per meal improve appetite management, satiety, and weight management.
All that being said, a minimum protein target is roughly 0.4 grams per kilogram (or, 0.18 grams per pound)—which, ironically, is in the neighborhood of 30 grams, the so-called maximum—consumed at 3 – 4 meals per day.16 Even if you can’t hit that target every meal, do it as often as you can. Research shows that more frequent consumption of meals containing 30 – 45 grams of protein led to greater gains in muscle size and strength.17
What Is the Best Type of Protein Before Bed?
Eating all that protein can be tricky, especially if you’ve been led to believe you shouldn’t eat after a certain time at night, let alone just before bed. While it does seem like a good idea to eat most of your food during the daytime/light hours to support circadian rhythms and healthy metabolic function, research shows us that eating before bed doesn’t necessarily make you fat.
In fact, when you eat the “right” foods (hint: it starts with the letter P), a nighttime snack can be highly beneficial for weight management, appetite control, increasing muscle mass, improving recovery from exercise, and increasing strength. Along those lines, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that protein-rich foods sit atop the nighttime feeding menu.
Science is now catching on to something athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts have practiced and endorsed for years: Eating a small, protein-rich snack before bed. For starters, despite common misconceptions, research shows that the digestive tract is fully functional during sleep when food is eaten before bed, resulting in complete digestion and absorption.
Researchers have shown that consumption of 40 grams of casein protein (a “slow-digesting” protein) 30 minutes before sleep is effectively digested and absorbed and helps improve recovery from exercise.18 Even more, when this strategy is combined with a strength-training program for 12 weeks, it results in significant gains in muscle size and strength.19
While slow-digesting protein like casein is thought to be best before sleep for muscle recovery, a recent study showed that consuming either 30 grams of casein and whey (a “fast-digesting” protein) 30 minutes before bed resulted in a significant increase in metabolic rate (i.e., calories burned) the following day.20 In other words, nighttime protein not only promotes overnight recovery, it can also boost metabolism the next day!
What’s more, recent research conducted at Florida State University shows that consumption of 30 grams of casein or whey protein before sleep has beneficial effects on appetite the next morning. And when exercise is added to the equation for 4 weeks, protein consumption before sleep results in noticeable increases in next morning metabolism. Nighttime supplementation with whey or casein combined with resistance training also led to improvements in markers of cardiovascular health such as blood pressure.21–24
Taken together, a small protein-dense (about 30 – 40 grams of protein and < 200 calories) nighttime snack may be an effective strategy for improving appetite control, metabolism, body composition, and performance. In addition to milk-based protein supplements (e.g., whey, casein), high-protein organic dairy foods from pasture-raised cows, such as Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, are good options. If you don’t tolerate dairy well or prefer not to consume it, then organic, pasture-raised animal proteins (e.g., meat, fish, eggs) are also quality options.
Protein FAQ: A Recap
If you’re looking for the CliffsNotes version, here you go:
- How much protein do I need? A good starting point for most people is about 0.75 grams of protein per pound per day. Keep in mind that there are many factors that can influence what’s optimal, such as activity level, goal, age, bodyfat percentage, and food quality and quantity.
- Is there a maximum protein intake per meal? Despite what you’ve heard, your body is completely capable of using more than 20 – 30 grams of protein per meal. In fact, that may be the minimum amount you need per meal.
- Is it good to eat every 3 hours? Despite health and fitness lore, it’s not necessary to eat every 2 – 3 hours. However, it does seem like a good idea to balance out your daily protein intake over the course of 3 – 4 meals. While it might be ideal to space those feedings out every 4 – 5 hours, intermittent fasting studies suggest it’s probably total protein intake that matters most.
- What is the best type of protein before bed? Forget what you’ve been told about eating before bed. It’s not destined to make you fat. Well, at least when you’re eating the “right” foods. The latest research suggests consuming about 30 – 40 grams of protein before bed may help improve appetite control, boost metabolism, and improve body composition. Generally speaking, it seems like a slow-digesting protein (such as casein) may be a good choice.