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7 Rules to Optimize Protein Intake

By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, CSCS, Starting Strength Staff, USAW CC, HFS

In general, I am not a fan of rules, dogma, or rigid guidelines. That being said, what follows are what I consider to be the most important variables when it comes to optimizing protein intake for anyone. While there are sure to be inter-individual variability, these “rules” are pretty spot on. Without further ado…..

1) You will eat enough protein each meal. Optimal protein intake per meal will be the amount of protein that yields ~3-4g of leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA). 3-4g of leucine per meal has been shown to maximize muscle protein synthesis. If it’s maximized, it can’t go any higher with additional protein, right? This is also, of course, assuming that the protein you’re consuming either contains all the essential amino acids (like all animal derived proteins do) or you have eaten a protein rich meal within the past 4-6 hours that had all of the EAA’s present in abundant amounts. Just to give an example, whey protein (the KING of all proteins) has ~3g of leucine per 20g serving whereas brown rice protein has 3g of leucine per 40g serving. While these two doses are equivalent in their potential to drive muscle protein synthesis, they are not equivalent in calories, which may be a consideration you wish to make if you’re calorie restricted. (Note: many protein manufacturers have different leucine/serving ratios but this is a fairly accurate estimate based on most protein supplements).
2) You will optimize meal frequency. Somewhere along the line people started espousing the mantra “eat every two hours to stoke the metabolism” or “so you don’t become catabolic”, with catabolism meaning breaking down– in this case skeletal muscle- to use their constituents elsewhere in the body.  Problem with these recommendations with respect to protein intake is that there is a known refractory period to muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which we can think about on a gross level as muscle growth/recovery/building. Every time a large enough dose of protein is ingested, i.e. one that provides enough leucine and EAA’s to push the MPS reaction over the edge, there’s a 3-5 hour refractory period that must transpire before another dose of protein (at a meal/shake/etc) will yield another bout of MPS. This means that if you ate a protein rich breakfast at 8am, then ate again at 10am, the meal at 10 am would contribute nothing to MPS and then, by definition- it would be stored away as energy -either glycogen or fat depending on other variables. Ultimately, we should be waiting longer between protein dosings to optimize our results. MPS is obviously important for the athlete, but it’s also important for the gen pop- particularly the aging population who is at risk for sarcopenia, decreased work capacity, and thus a host of other comorbidities (e.g. diabetes from decreased skeletal muscle buffering of blood glucose). The literature suggests that the aging population actually sees fantastic results with higher protein intakes and they even use whey protein shakes in many of their interventions.

tl;dr-Eat 3-5x per day tops, spread out 3-5 hours.
3) You will determine optimal protein intake by taking rules 1 and 2 into consideration with total calorie intake, age, and gender. It intuits well, given rules 1 and 2, that the optimal protein intake per day is initially based on how much protein a person needs per meal to maximize MPS multiplied by the number of meals they will have per day. Other factors that are taken into consideration to increase or decrease the protein prescription (new book title?) for an individual includes the following modifiers:
a)Gender- The more male someone becomes, the more sensitive to amino acids they are, in general. This would allow a male to need slightly less protein per pound than a weight and age-matched female. That being said, lean body mass weight also plays a role in the amount of leucine needed per meal to maximize MPS, but this is literally a variation of 0.5-1g tops for a range of bodyweights between 100lbs-300lbs, so we don’t take it into consideration and 3-4g is very safe.

b) Age- In general, the more someone ages the less sensitive they become to protein, so protein levels should go up over time slightly.

c) Dietary Preferences- As the quality of protein increases (based on bioavailability, protein digestibility amino acid corrected score, and amino acid profile) the total protein needed to optimize protein intake goes down. Similarly, the more vegan someone is, the more protein they require, i.e. the more calories from protein they require to get the same effect as their meat-eating, bone crushing, bacon frying counterparts. In short, the lower quality your protein sources are (lentils/rice/veggies/wheat/soy) the more protein you require for the same effect. This is an important consideration for those who are calorie restricted/limited.

4) You will not listen to bro’s who tell you that you only need x gram of protein/day. First off, we’re definitively NOT talking about protein needs here. Protein needs refers to what you NEED to not be deficient- not to optimize performance, aesthetics, or health but merely to survive. So yea, not what we’re talking about. Secondly, the amount of protein you actually need is a fairly complex answer based on everything we’ve discussed above. Do you really think the dude with the cut-off tee who maxes out on bench press every Monday and squats high (or more likely-leg presses) has taken all this into consideration before word vomiting his opinion to you while you foam roll? Doesn’t it make more sense that he noticed your new Lululemon yoga pants (if female) or is admiring your handsome combover (if male)? Seems more likely to me…

5) You will not listen to the bros who tell you that you can only absorb x gram of protein/meal. The poor bro, he can’t catch a break. So this oft-repeated nonsense goes around and around and just will not die…until TODAY. Let me be crystal clear, you absorb and use virtually 100% of everything that enters your gastrointestinal tract from your mouth. If you don’t, you’ll know it because you’ll be having watery diarrhea post-prandial (after a meal) since the undigested and unabsorbed food will act osmotically to draw water into the large intestine and then well, you know what happens after that. Look, we’ve done the tracer studies and know that when you eat any amount of protein at a meal it all gets absorbed. All of it. Actually 110-120% of it. Yep, MORE THAN 100%. That’s because the cells the line the  bowel, the enterocytes, make proteins themselves. These are called endogenous (made within the body) proteins and yep, they’re absorbed too. Yes Virginia, if you eat 100g of protein at a meal you’ll absorb it all. Yes, it will take longer than if you only ate 20g, but you’ll absorb the first 20g of protein from the 100g at the same rate as 20g on it’s own provided they have similar total fat content and fiber content within the entire meal. That being said, the time course to which a meal is absorbed matters little to anyone, unless they compete or train multiple times per day.

6) You will not get lured into buying expensive protein with sub optimal amino acid profile. People, if you’re paying more than ~20-25 dollars/lb of protein you’re getting duped, as the manufacturer is preying on your ignorance. Whey is the king protein, period. It’s better than the 100 dollar fish protein from a certain manufacturer who is big in the land of shirtless dudes and Vibram 5 finger clad women. It’s also better than beef protein isolate (which a certain company mysteriously has removed nearly all the leucine from). Why? Because its amino acid profile is better, i.e. it has more BCAAs (leucine/isoleucine/valine) and a higher concentration of essential amino acids. Also, it’s cheaper…so that seems to be a good point in and of itself. Whey trumps casein on satiety, MPS rates, and time that it keeps plasma (blood) amino acid levels elevated. In other words, all the nonsense the bro at GNC regurgitates about casein being a slow digesting protein that is good to take at night because it slowly releases amino acids from the GI tract is BS. Well, to be fair to him (bro) or her (bra?), it [casein] does more slowly release amino acids into the blood stream from the gut, but it’s TOO SLOW to actually raise blood amino acid levels high enough to effectively drive muscle protein synthesis unless you dose it much higher than whey, which is the king of proteins. Also, whey keeps you fuller, longer (satiety) than casein, and it’s CHEAPER. Yep, whey is better than egg protein, beef protein, hemp protein (sucks), rice protein (sucks), pea protein (double sucks), and soy protein (double sucks). Whey protein concentrate is a good, economical protein provided the manufacturer hasn’t screwed it up. If it doesn’t upset your GI tract, then stay there and never look back.  If it does- and it will in some who are sensitive to an amino acid fraction (beta lactalbumin) – switch to whey protein isolate, which has this fraction removed. Additionally, if you find that you can’t source a WPC with a good amino acid profile, a Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) might be preferred. Same thing with what is used to sweeten the protein, e.g. Stevia vs. Sucralose. WPI is easier to sweeten so Stevia works better in that application. Therefore, if WPC upsets your stomach, you want a Stevia sweetened product over a sucralose or aspartame sweetened one, or you can’t find a good BCAA profile in a WPC, you may check out a good WPI. We make one here at Barbell Medicine called GainzZz Whey Protein Isolate. It is available in our shop.

7) You will not fall into the trap of megadosing protein, because gainzZz? So far we’ve described why it’s hard to put a firm number on optimal protein intake based on numerous variables. That being said, there is definitely an upper limit- though not for the reason your doctor will try to justify. Most physicians, PA’s, nurses, etc. will all try to recite the urea cycle and scream stuff about ammonia at you whilst telling you that your kidneys and/or liver will fail with high levels of protein intake. I think every time they do this an angel gets its wings because it occurs too frequently and is so far removed from what actually happens in vivo (in the body) that I assume it’s just a religious ritual that all health care providers learn in school and pay homage to periodically. While I do not have time to layout the entire metabolic pathway for ammonia and urea, the two  toxic byproducts of protein metabolism that supposedly build up an will harm your kidney and/or liver, I will briefly state that in a healthy person- there is no upper limit for protein intake, as the excretion (removal) rate of these toxins is massively upregulated in an adaptive way that is not harmful, but is a response to a hormetic stressor, i.e. something that disrupts our homeostasis. There is no evidence of any kidney or liver damage when the excretion pathways upregulate either. Similarly, in end stage renal disease, those who ate a “very low protein diet” had worse outcomes than those who ate either a “moderate protein” or “low protein” (but higher than very low) diet. This indicates, to me at least, that protein and its metabolism is not harmful to the kidney- even if it’s function is reduced. More data continues to accrue exposing other harmful factors to the kidney, namely elevated blood sugar in those patients who don’t deal with glucose very well….perhaps because they haven’t optimized their protein intake yet 🙂

I say all this sort of tongue-in-cheek, as I do think there is an actual upper limit to useful protein intake, i.e. there is an inflection point where increased protein dosing does not yield improvements in performance, muscle protein synthesis, aesthetics, etc. This point is obviously different for many people, but I could make a pretty strong argument to avoid intakes in excess of 300g or so for anyone who is under 350lbs. Think about the 200lb bro- replete with cut off tank- who eats 400g of protein per day. While only a fraction (maybe half- depending on sources, age, etc.) will actually contribute to MPS, the other half is getting burnt (oxidized) or converted to carbohydrates and/or fat for storage. These processes are all controlled by enzymes, who will adapt (of course) to the stress imposed upon them. If/when these enzymes upregulate, i.e. increase in number and activity, the body becomes more efficient at using protein for fuel (oxidation to yield energy) and/or converting it to carbohydrates and fat. Similarly, such a robust protein intake concomitantly decreases intake of other substrates to a degree, i.e. carbohydrate and fat intake will be lower in a person who eats 400g of protein than if that same person only ate 200g of protein. This all sums to create a situation where a person is very good at breaking down protein as fuel and, God forbid, should his protein level ever significantly drop below 400g for an extended period of time- like if he were to spend a week at the Jersey Shore and only consume 100-150g of protein/day- then theoretically protein turnover would continue to be elevated since the body’s enzymatic ability to break down protein is so upregulated. Just some food for thought.


Join the discussion 45 Comments

  • mark says:

    Bookmarked, cheers Jordan.

  • Konstantinos says:

    Awesome article Jordan!

  • Chase says:

    What reference do you use to find the leucine content of foods?

  • Leonidas says:

    Jordan thanks for the interesting article. I have a question though. I weight 165 lbs right now, and I’m in a slow bulk cycle (around 1.5lbs bw gain/month). From my calculations I’m eating around 250g protein/day (from all sources, but 90% of it from animal protein, milk, whey). I’m thinking that this might be too much for my bw? Also since I’ve been eating this much probably my body has become pretty good at oxidizing it or using it for fuel. So I’m thinking of gradually reducing it with about 10 g every 2 weeks (and shoot for 200g protein per day in the long run) and replacing them with carbs, since I don’t want to lose the caloric suficit. Is this a correct approach?


    Ps. By the way, has the 1-month hiatus from the board helped with progress on the book?

    • thefitcoach says:

      Yea the book is really coming along. Plan on being back on the board Monday. It helps my creativity but I’m just combing through it now making sure I’ve left no stone unturned. That protein strategy sounds fine to me, but I don’t know if it’s very excessive depending on your total calorie/carb/age and training status. It’s certainly not a crazy amount.

  • Muhammad says:

    Nice article, very useful information!

  • Nick says:

    What is your opinion on taking whey (and BCAAs?) ~30mins prior to working out and then having another shake afterwards? It would all be within the 3-5 hour window so would MPS come in to effect? Thanks

    • thefitcoach says:

      I would take one or the other and not recommend doing it pre and post workout unless your workout was very long and thus, spreading the doses of protein out 3-5 hrs.

  • ThaddeusK says:

    Hey Jordan, love the site, just ran across it recently, more specifically your ‘To Be a Beast’ article. I’m new to weight training, especially the dietary side of things, so I may be wrong on this, but does this article represent a change in your thinking visa vis max optimal protein consumption? In ‘To Be a Beast’ you laid out two diets for Johnny the skinny novice, one calling for ~400g and the other ~350g. Would you now say that recommendation is too high, or is the situation of a novice the exception to the guidelines you’ve laid out here? Sorry if this is a dumb question, and thanks for the articles!

  • […] opinion and information on the general physiology of protein use in the body, please refer to 7 Rules to Optimize Protein Intake by Barbell […]

  • Robb says:

    Hi Jordan, great site, thanks for all the great resources you provide. Question about Fiber supplementation and BCAAs. If I am taking 5g BCAAs between my meals to further spike MPS, would it be ok to also mix a fiber supplement in with the BCAA drink? Or would this effect intake and MPS time? I don’t have to take the fiber supplement at this time, but just makes it easier, as long as its not negatively effecting the BCAAs, that is.

    • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

      No, I wouldn’t mix fiber with BCAAs in between meals because it will most certainly slow down the transit of the BCAAs. Their speed is one of the ways they work.

  • Benzo Stanbury says:

    Would you elaborate upon why pea protein double-sucks? I looked into the amino acid profiles of various protein powders. Regarding MPS, I think we agree that leucine is the big-shot amino acid. Whey certainly has the most leucine per serving. But pea protein appears to have almost almost as much leucine – much more than rice protein or soy isolate.

    Pea protein has several apparent advantages over whey:
    1. More arginine for increased NO production and healthy blood vessels,
    2. Less methionine which may raise homocysteine which is in turn a risk factor for cardiovascular disease,
    3. Less expensive than whey, provided you buy wholesale and avoid overpriced brands (I think lots of vegan protein powders like Vega are deliberately overcosted – I think this is called the health halo tax),
    4. Zero cholesterol, which is important for me personally because I am evidently a hyper-responder to dietary cholesterol.
    5. Doesn’t stink up my container like whey does if I forget to wash it out promptly after consumption.

    Does whey have advantages beyond high leucine content that I am unaware of?

    • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

      The amino acid content of a pea protein is going to depend on the manufacturer, but overall the leucine, valine, and isoleucine content does not stack up well compared to whey on a calorie for calorie basis. And MPS tends to be “threshold” limited when it comes to leucine content so “almost doesn’t count”. You can double dose on pea protein if you’re so inclined, but that kind of is a problem for people who are monitoring their calories.

      As for your list of “advantages”:
      1) No it doesn’t and increased NO production via dietary arginine does not appear to matter for health outcomes, certainly not performance outcomes.
      2) Whey protein supplementation does not increase homocysteine levels and the difference is like 50mg per serving. Hardly enough to matter.
      3) By like a dollar? I can get 5lbs of whey for 39 bucks, which is about what I found pea protein for.
      4 and 5 are multifactorial and actually the data on whey supplementation on cholesterol suggests no effect on triglycerides or cholesterol if there are no weight changes.

      • GrosslyInaccurate says:

        Double dose? Whey contains ~25% more leucine and BCAA. That’s completely trivial difference especially when only 5-10% of daily calories come from protein powders.

        • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

          It seems like you’re upset, GrosslyInaccurate, and perhaps this is messing with your reading comprehension. Read it again.

  • Pete Troupos says:

    3) “….It intuits well, given rules 1 and 2, that…”

    Please, please tell me “intuits” was a nod to Couch? 🙂

  • RoBruhhh says:

    Do you have any thoughts on Cold Processed/Grass fed Whey?

  • Aidan says:

    Do doses of protein consumed within the 3-5 hour refractory period interfere with MPS that comes from doses that bookend that window?

    Example: If I consume a whey protein shake after my workout at 5:30pm and have a cup of Greek yogurt before bed at 10:00pm, would having a serving of protein with dinner in between those two meals counteract MPS?

  • Raj says:

    What are some good daily probiotics to take? Would you even recommend taking one or just sticking to good old fashioned yogurt?

  • Sebas says:

    Heya, nice article?
    Whats your opinion on Hydrolysate, considering I often go cycling for many hours (in addition to boxing and strength training).


  • Chuck says:

    Thanks for all the great articles, much appreciated to have more evidence based approach. Do you have a recommended list of key papers or reviews that you could share? I’m particularly interested in the evidence for a refractory period between meals and protein levels required to maximize MPS at a meal? Trying to understand how researchers measure these phenomenon and be able to better overcome the bro science that seems to pop up all the time.

  • Cole says:

    Great article, wish more people knew this about protein. My marathon running sister says protein will destroy your kidneys hahahahaha

  • GrosslyInaccurate says:

    Pure whey protein is roughly 10-11% leucine. Whey protein powder is 80-90% of whey protein. Therefore a 20g serving of whey protein powder provides 1.73 – 1.94g of leucine, that’s nowhere near 3g.

    • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

      Hey GrosslyInaccurate,

      A quick review of the leucine content of any high quality whey protein powder will show you that the leucine content of 20g whey is 2.5-3g with 2.2-2.5g or so being present without any added leucine. Hope this clears things up for you.

  • Matt Wlodarski says:

    Hey Jordan,

    Nice article! I noticed you spent a lot of time discussing whey protein. What about people who choose to simply get their protein from animal sources. Are there any advantages to choosing beef over chicken or fish or vice versa? Or does it not really matter.

  • Marek says:

    Jordan, why does pea protein suck? I have milk protein intolerancy(possibly allergy). And I use pea protein.. do you have any other alternative?

    • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

      It just requires a higher dose to get the same effect as whey. You could use egg or beef protein instead.

  • Ren Zhenghe says:

    good article Jordan, although I can’t say I understand it fully. Take soy protein for example, you say it sucks because it’s, in essense, less effective to drive muscle protein synthesis than whey protein, and not because of it’s ability to affact human hormone level, right?

    • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

      I don’t think soy has any negative effects on human physiology, but as a protein supplement it pales in comparison to whey. 20g a day may be useful for cholesterol lowering in some, however.

  • Kevin says:

    Does drinking coffee interupts the 3-5 hours of fasting between meals?

    Thanks for all the help!

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