Some years ago I gulped down at least 2-3 unflavoured, whey protein shakes a day, while eating multiple chicken breasts. I thought protein was the holy grail when it comes to muscle growth. Yet I didn’t see the results that I truly wanted in the gym. Instead, I was feeling low on energy and bloated.
People training in the gym often consume tons of protein because they expect it to be converted into muscles. Yet the effectiveness of excess protein intake, especially protein shakes has never been scientifically proven. If you drink protein shakes regularly, it’s very likely that you’re taking in more protein than you should.
Will Protein Be Converted To Muscles?
The biggest misconception there is about protein, is that muscles consist entirely of it. This isn’t true.
Muscles consist of protein, yes. But only a fraction of your muscles, approximately 20%, actually is protein. The other 80% are made up of different components, mostly water.
You don’t need to consume as much protein as you think you do. Let me show you that with a simple calculation:
In my multiple years as a trainer, I seldom saw an increase in raw muscles more than 5 kilograms in a year. Even for beginners. This is not because I’m a bad trainer, no, this is just the hard truth for natural athletes. There’s a lot of deceptive marketing out there. Don’t believe it. When I started training in the gym I started to look pretty massive after one year of training and gained multiple kilograms, but it was never, never more than 5 kilograms of raw muscle in a single year.
To continue the math and show you how much protein you would need for that natural muscle gain:
One-fifth of those 5 kilograms is 1 kilogram. 1 kilogram of raw protein that your muscles would actually need. If you divide that one kilogram of protein again through 365 (amount of the days in a year), you get only a few grams. In fact, it is a one-digit figure. This results to only a few grams that you would need to eat extra in a day, to guarantee muscle growth.
You need way less protein than you think you need. All the excess protein that you will consume, will be converted to fat and stored in fat cells.
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
You’re more likely to suffer from protein excess, than deficiency. If you eat sufficient calories in your daily life, you will not be protein deficient.1
I myself strive to consume about 1.3 grams of protein per day. Which might even be too much scientifically speaking, yet moderately higher levels of protein intake are still considered safe.
Unbiased studies recommend consuming about 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per day if you’re an adult. Most people may even need protein intakes of only 0.6 grams of protein per day, but the recommendation’s aim is to cover most of the bell curve. Experienced athletes may even need less than that, according to some studies, as their body is better able to make use of the protein that they actually consume.
Once I’ve made that switch to a lower protein diet, I’ve actually experienced less fatigue and more energy in the gym and in my life.
The Downsides Of Protein Excess
Protein can do more harm than good. I’ve heard this sentence from my mother many times over, back when I was still drinking frequent protein shakes. I ignored it when I was younger and thought my mother was crazy, yet she still had a decent point.
Our current protein-focused diet in the western world is promoting hyperfiltration of your kidneys. This increases the workload of your kidneys and therefore increases the stress that you put on that organ. Too much protein in your diet also diminishes the blood flow of your filtration helper and may even leak protein in your urine.2 Long-term high protein diets may, therefore, lead to kidney problems. There is also a linkage to increased cancer risk, liver malfunction, and worsening of coronary artery disease.3
Your Health Should Be Your First Priority
Not All Protein Is Created Equal
There is a guy training in the fitness center that I’m a fitness manager in. He’s a really friendly guy but suffers from severe kidney problems.
I recently discussed his workout and nutrition regime with him, so I might give him some additional advice on how to better his condition. I advised him on cutting back his protein shakes and animal protein intake as meat and dairy can lead to an inflammatory response in his body.4 He’s consuming a lot of protein on a regular basis.
Sadly he refused to listen to my advice and told me, that his doctors recommended him to keep following his regular diet plan. They told him that altering one’s nutrition doesn’t make a big difference anyway. Tip: If your doctor tells you that, you must change your doctor as soon as possible.
Some weeks later, after our workout session, he told me about his holidays with his family. And how he needed to cancel them at the last minute because he was suffering yet again from intense stomach pains. He had to undergo the operation that same day to ease the pain. It was his second alarming operation this year.5
Focus on a plant-based, unprocessed protein source. Such as beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts in your diet.
What To Do Now
If you drink a protein shake every day, ask yourself: Is this truly working? If not, it may be the time to let go of some of your precious beliefs.
Consume a plant-based protein shake if you actually like the taste of it. If not, throw it away and don’t waste your money on that beverage ever again.6
Don’t stress protein out too much in your diet. If you don’t like gulping down pounds of low fat-quark, don’t do it. The extra protein in that food won’t make your muscles pop out. I’ve been there. I was that weird guy that was eating nearly a kilogram of low-fat quark in the morning at 5 am after going out, to preserve my muscles. It wasn’t worth it.
You should take a sincere look at your protein consumption and ask yourself: Am I truly enjoying the excess protein that I put in my body? If not, you should let it go. It isn’t necessary and may even be unhealthy in the long run.
You have to realize that supplement companies are marketing companies. Ignore those supplements at the beginning and focus on whole foods. Most people in the US are deficient in fiber and antioxidants. A deficiency that can be fatal. It is time to put more fruits and vegetables in your diet and not worry about protein deficiency.
Written by: Florian Wüest Florian Wüest is a certified Fitness Coach, the founder of the plant-based online coaching service QualityGains.com, Co-Founder of the online video course Vegan Shape System, Online Influencer and full-time Fitness Club Manager at one of the biggest fitness brands in Switzerland.