Jackie is scheduled for a hip replacement next month. To prepare for that, her surgeon wants her to target a fairly high level of protein consumption. To be sure she’s hitting it, Jackie has been tracking her protein consumption, and as long as Jackie was doing so, it was easy for me to do so as well. The results have been kind of interesting.
I did a bit of quick research, and determined that 0.7 g of protein per pound of bodyweight (1.54 g per kg of bodyweight) was a reasonable target. I got that figure from How to Build Strong & Lean Bodyweight Muscle by Anthony Arvanitakis, but I cross-checked that with the latest scientific, evidence-based recommendations, which say:
For building muscle mass and for maintaining muscle mass through a positive muscle protein balance, an overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day (g/kg/d) is sufficient for most exercising individuals, a value that falls in line within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range published by the Institute of Medicine for protein.International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise
I had not been tracking my protein previously. Instead, after I started lifting pretty seriously 18 months ago, I had simply added a protein shake with around 25 g of protein after my workouts. My thinking was something along the lines of, “I’m healthy, so I must be eating enough protein, so adding 25 g after each workout will surely add up to enough protein to build some muscle.”
I’ve been kind of frustrated for pretty much that whole 18 months that, although I increased my strength a good bit, I did not actually build any muscle to speak of. And yet, until Jackie’s surgeon suggested that she increase her protein consumption, I hadn’t gone to the trouble of tracking my own. So, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t getting as much protein as I’d assumed.
By the formula, I ought to aim to consume right around 100 g of protein.
The first day I actually did the tracking, I only ate 88 g, even though I included a 25 g protein shake and 10 g of essential amino acids from another workout beverage, a discovery that was kind of daunting. It meant that on non-workout days I was probably only consuming 55–60 g of protein. Enough for basic health (almost exactly the RDA for protein for a sedentary person of my weight), but clearly not enough to build muscle.
So, I stepped up my protein consumption.
Hitting my target generally required:
- A somewhat more protein rich breakfast—either adding some meat to my usual 2-egg-plus-cheese omelet, or else eating a couple of big bowls of Magic Spoon cereal (not an affiliate link—I don’t eat nearly enough cereal to qualify for their affiliates program),
- My protein shake,
- A main meal of the day with lots of meat or lots of salmon,
- And then some extra peanut butter or cottage cheese, or something.
Doing that I found it easy enough to hit about 96–97 g of protein per day, although I actually only hit my 100 g target when my main meal included a larger-than-usual serving of meat or salmon.
That much food—enough to get close to 100 g of protein from actual food—ends up being really, really filling. I was probably only getting 55–60 g of protein per day from actual food. Now that I’m adding some extra peanut butter and cottage cheese, I’m probably hitting 75–80 g, but I can’t see hitting 100 without including that protein shake.
Getting a quarter of my protein from industrially produced edible substances (aka my protein shake) rather goes against my dietary rule number 1 (eat food), but I’m willing to let that rule slide with regard to a quarter of my protein as an experiment.
And as an experiment, as I say, it’s been kind of interesting.
The first interesting thing, as I’ve just described was how much I was falling short of my target, even adding a protein supplement.
The second interesting thing is how much better I’ve felt since upping my protein consumption by 15% or so. (That is, by 15% on days that I workout, when I was already drinking my protein shake. On days that I didn’t workout, and hence didn’t drink a protein shake, I wasn’t getting much more than 55–60 g of protein, so hitting 100 g on those days amounts to a 60–70% increase.)
After just a few days I noticed that I was feeling better, that I was recovering better from workouts (requiring fewer rest days), and that I seemed to be mentally sharper. Of course any of those things could be just the placebo effect, and in any case this is just an anecdotal report. But, since it is my anecdotal report, I’m taking it seriously, and am continuing to try to hit my 100 g per day.
All of which brings me to the title of this post.
If you’re familiar with bodybuilding, you’re aware that bodybuilders go through alternate phases of “bulking,” where they eat a caloric surplus to support building muscle, followed by “cutting,” where they eat a caloric deficit to lose fat and reveal the muscle they’ve built. This has always seemed unwise to me. Given my history of excess weight, I’m never going to do this on purpose. But getting 100 g of protein has proven to be quite difficult to do without eating a caloric surplus.
Because I track my weight as well, I’m able to look back over the past 19 days and see that my weight gain implies a daily surplus of 302 calories. That’s not untenable in the short term, but it’s not something I’m going to be willing to tolerate for long. It is, however, right in line with the bro-science recommendations for how to do a “clean bulk” (where you aim for just barely enough extra calories to build muscle.)
Still, it does give me an opportunity for some other experiments. My LDL cholesterol was a bit high at my recent physical, and I’m sure I could get it down by eating less fat. But since I was already limiting my carbs for other reasons, cutting fat as well would have put me into a caloric deficit. But now, with all this extra protein, maybe I can make modest cuts to my fat consumption, and bring my total calories into balance with neither excess carbs nor excess fat. In fact, I’m sure I could do that; the question is whether I can do that and still eat food (rather than industrially produced food-like edible substances).
I’m something of a tracker by nature, always interested in tracking and optimizing everything that I do. But even for me this seems rather a lot. I don’t think I can face actually trying to get the math right, to hit my protein target, keep my carbs low, and cut my fat enough to bring my calorie consumption in at a level that maintains my weight where I want it to be, all while eating food.
Currently I’m hoping that, if I keep eating lots of protein, and then try to limit my fats just a bit, I’ll get lucky and it’ll all just work out.
I’ll keep you posted.