Protein: how much should you consume when in a calorie deficit?

Updated: Jan 26


This is a question that you may have asked yourself during a fat loss phase or 'diet'. If you do a quick google search you will find thousands of articles and citations dictating what is optimal, including details like how to track your macronutrients or match them with carbohydrates and fat intake. The abundance of information can be quite overwhelming.


On top of all that, you have the media and magazines coming out with their arbitrary statements such as: "If you follow [fill in the blank] diet, you will lose X amount of pounds in [a very short amount of time]." Sound familiar? It's no wonder many people feel defeated before they even get started! Being over-stimulated by an excess of information and options can make anyone's motivation disappear. It also becomes more challenging to make concise decisions.


For today’s article, I want to bring you some clarity when it comes to protein. In future articles, I will discuss parameters for the other macronutrients (fats and carbohydrates), but for today the focus will remain on protein.


Let's start with the very basics. When an individual is looking to lose fat mass, in most scenarios, there needs to be a caloric deficit. For example, let’s say subject A needs 2500 calories per day to maintain daily bodily functions and normal activities (their basal metabolic rate). A drop in consumption of calories, as well as prescribed fitness, is recommended for faster fat-loss and preservation of muscle mass. For a healthy deficit the individual should reduce calories between 10-20%. Once the math equation is out of the way, the individual should then allocate those calories to fats, carbohydrates and protein. Which is a great segway to the meat of this article (pun intended).


Let's dissect some research and answer some key questions:


1) What is ideal protein intake for individuals in a deficit and performing resistance training?

The recommendation for protein intake is of 1.6-2.4 g/kg per day for athletes during periods of energy restriction.


2) How does this affect my work out routine?

A typical workout routine talked about in gym circles, is how eccentric training or “negatives” is a great strategy to signal muscle damage which can elicit a muscle growth response. There is research out there that supports this statement. And an argument can be made, due to the increase in muscle protein breakdown or muscle damage, that a higher consumption of protein Is required to mitigate negative protein turnover ratio in the system. However, this may not result in a net decrease in the amount of protein required to sustain lean mass. Therefore, no extra amount of protein, as recommended, is required to maintain lean muscle mass.


3) How many meals should I eat in a day to mitigate muscle loses?

This is a topic that started especially in the body building world, back in the golden era. Body builders would eat 5-8 meals per day to not lose any muscle mass. Over the years research has concluded that this extreme approach is not necessary. Three meals per day minimum, with a protein source in each, can suffice as long as the total protein intake is reached. Also, for most people it is very impractical to consume more than 4 meals per day. Individual circumstances require consideration such as life factors, schedules, and social events. Insiders tip: a slow digesting protein source at night, such as casein protein powder before bedtime, helps maintain levels of muscle protein elevated overnight.


4) Can you have too much of a good thing?

Simple answer- yes. It’s been noted that any more than 3g/kg can lead to less consumption of other essential macronutrients. This can lead to negative biological markers. For example, if there is a low consumption of fat athletes will have difficulty absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, potentially causing hormonal alterations, sleep disturbances, reduction in training quantity and quality. This in turn could lead to greater lean mass loss than any perceived benefit of higher protein intake.


Applications

A protein intake of 1.6-2.4 g/kg per day is recommended for resistance-trained individuals on a caloric deficit. A spread of 3-4 meals per day have a positive effect on maintaining lean muscle mass. I would advise against consuming more than 3g/kg of protein, due to intake of carbs and fats potentially being too low.


Happy consuming, friends!

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