The headline trickled across my newsfeed: High-Protein Diet Raises Cancer Risk As Much As Smoking.
Bang! That’s my jaw hitting the floor. Are you shitting me? Are you actually serious with this clickbait headline?
Now, I get it. Nutrition is complicated. It’s no secret there are a million diets out there. But demonizing one macronutrient as a carcinogen on par with smoking is insane.
So now I’m riled up, heavily caffeinated, and ready to settle the score on protein once and for all.
Is protein an essential piece of a muscle-building, fat-burning diet?
Or, is it a demonic nutrient guaranteed to destroy your kidneys faster than a Conor McGregor punch?
Among the issues:
– How much protein you need to build muscle
– Whether you’ll lose fat faster by eating more protein
– Do you need to guzzle a shake right after training, or is that broscience?
If you’re confused about protein, you’re not alone. This brings us to…
Ted’s Battle and His Dadbod
Ted is a busy guy who just wants to retake control of his health and look good naked. Three weeks into the training and nutrition plan I put together for him, everything was runnin’ smooth.
Ted dropped a few pounds of fat and texted: “I’m getting rid of this Dad-bod.”
Hell, yeah. He was stoked.
Two days later I opened my inbox to a handful of frantic messages.
“Eric, I’m concerned about my diet. After a friend noticed the results I was getting, he started talking about my diet. I told him we increased my protein intake and he said protein gives you cancer. Is this true?”
Scary headlines and everyone suddenly becoming an infographic-generating nutrition expert on Instagram contribute to the confusion. Eating healthily and transforming your body is more complicated than ever.
But you can’t live life in a double-blind study with scientists nit-picking your diet. I’m going to draw on the latest science and my experience as a coach to hundreds of clients to offer the best possible advice.
What Is Protein?
Stick with me, this is some dry #sciencestuff. Still, it’s essential if you’d like to free yourself from the bullshit-spewing clowns who make nutrition so damn confusing.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids. These structures are the building blocks of nearly every structure in your body, from your nails and hair to your cells, veins, and of course, your biceps.
There are complete proteins, those which have all 20 amino acids, like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, quinoa, and soy.
There are incomplete proteins which are missing a handful of amino acids. This is problematic as there are nine essential amino acids that are not processed by your body. If you don’t get them, you’ll have problems with tissue repair and (gulp) muscle loss. Still, you can create complete proteins by combining incomplete protein with certain plant foods combinations like beans and rice.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (fat and carbs are the others) which make up the calorie-containing foods we eat.
And what happens when your diet is devoid of protein, as in cases of malnutrition?
Your body will break down muscle tissue into amino acids to support basic bodily functions to keep you alive.
To paraphrase my friends at Precision Nutrition:
All your enzymes and cell transporters… all your blood transporters…. all your cells’ scaffolding and structures…. 100 percent of your hair and fingernails… much of your muscle, bone, and internal organs… and many hormones…
… are made of mostly protein. Protein enables most bodily functions.
Put simply, you are basically a pile of protein.
High Protein Diet: How Much Protein Do You Need to Survive?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 46 grams daily for women and 56 grams for men.
But here’s the catch.
RDA’s are created to prevent malnutrition so your body doesn’t break itself down…not improve your performance, help you build muscle, and be a strong, jacked, badasses. I’d wager you’re hoping to thrive, not merely survive, right? Read on.
How Much Protein You Need to Build Muscle
If your primary concern is building muscle, losing fat, and looking great then “preventing malnutrition” is far from ideal. It’s clear you need more protein than the commonly prescribed RDA’s if you want to optimize body composition.
But it’s less clear how much protein you actually need.
The most common recommendation is to aim for 1g of protein for 1 lb of body weight every day. Thus, a 180 lb male should have roughly 180g of protein to maximize body composition.
And for most, this is a fine recommendation because it’s simple, straightforward, and easy to calculate without a calculus degree.
But is this more than you need?
More and more the answer appears to be yes.
This study by Hoffman et al. (2006) found no differences in body composition, strength or resting hormonal concentrations in strength athletes consuming either 0.77g/lb or >0.91g/lb over a 3 month period.
It appears .82/g/lb of bodyweight is the upper limit of protein needed to derive maximum protein synthesis, according to this 2011 study by Phillips and Van Loon.
So, why the recommendation of 1g/lb/ of bodyweight?
First, it’s easier to remember. And if you’re going to overeat one macro it’s better to overeat protein than carbs or fat.
Second, research can be a finicky little bitch. Protein peddlers who benefit greatly from the sales of protein pixie dust (kudos to Bryan Krahn for the term) fund private research companies who unsurprisingly conclude “more is better” when it comes to protein consumption. Protein candy bars pack with fat and sugar? Sure! It’s good for you. Because protein.
So, what’s the difference between 1g and .82g?
Using a 180lb jacked bro as an example, 180x.82= 147 g of protein per day. Most protein scoops are 25-30 g per serving. And 147+30? 177g, or damn near 1g of protein per 1/b of bodyweight. Not to play conspiracy theorist, but the slight difference makes you wonder.
Consuming .82 g of protein per 1 lb of bodyweight is probably enough.
But if 1g of protein per 1 lb of bodyweight is working for you, it’s fine to stick with it.
If fat loss is your primary goal, getting more protein than the average person has three huge benefits:
It prevents muscle wasting. Muscle is the most metabolically active tissue. If you’re in a calorie deficit while combining low protein your metabolism can plummet, stopping weight loss in its tracks. Combining a high-protein diet with resistance training is the perfect recipe to stave off muscle loss during a diet. Plus, when you retain muscle while carving away fat you’ll finally show off muscle definition, your #shredz, or (gulp) “tone.”
Protein keeps you full. When calories are low and you want to prevent yourself from giving in and crushing three containers of Ben and Jerry’s, protein is your best friend.
Protein burns more calories during the digestion process, as much as 30% more than carbs or fats. If you’ve ever had the meat sweats, this is why: the thermic effect of food. This means if you have 100 calories of fat (25g of protein, like 1 scoop), then your body will burn 30 calories of this amount by breaking protein into usable amino acids.
In other words, protein retains the muscle you have, keeping your metabolism from dropping and helping you look better once you’re leaner.
Protein keeps you full, helping you stay with your diet. To sweeten the pot, the meat sweats from crushing a lot of protein results in a net consumption of roughly 70% of calories due to the thermic effect of protein breakdown.
So, what does the science say about losing weight and protein?
Longland et al ran a study in 2016 comparing diets of 2.4 g protein/kg of body weight (1g/lb) to a diet containing 1.2 g protein/kg of body weight (.54g/lb).
Those smart dudes in lab coats concluded high protein diets, when combined with resistance training, lead to an increase in lean muscle mass and a decrease in fat mass. In other words, lifting and eating more protein helps you lose fat and build muscle.
My Take on High Protein Diets
Again, calories are king.
I’ve found the greater the caloric deficit (the tougher the diet), the greater the need for more protein.
Eating a high protein diet is generally more satiating, meaning you’ll feel full and satisfied during a fat loss diet. If eating a higher protein diet means you’ll eat fewer refined sugars or calorie-dense fats. You’ll stay in a caloric deficit, then it’s a great idea to eat more protein.
Now, About Those Scary “Protein is Bad For You” Headlines
Here’s where things get interesting.
We’ve all seen the scary headlines lie, “bacon is worse for you than smoking” or steak gives you cancer.
Terrifying headlines. That’s why they gained traction.
But are they full of shit?
I’ll let you decide, but I’ll lead with this 2016 study by Phillips et al which concluded:
“Substantial evidence supports the increased consumption of high-quality protein to achieve optimal health outcomes.
A growing body of research indicates that protein intakes well above the current Recommended Dietary Allowance help to promote healthy aging, appetite regulation, weight management, and goals aligned with athletic performance. Higher protein intakes may help prevent age-related sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass, and strength that predisposes older adults to frailty, disability, and loss of autonomy.
Despite persistent beliefs to the contrary, we can find no evidence-based link between higher protein diets and renal disease or adverse bone health. “
If you want to optimize health and look better naked, eat more protein than the meager RDA’s given.
But really, does protein give you cancer?
This idea arose from the work of Dr. T Colin Campbell, author of the China study and research including work by Cell Metabolism indicating a high protein diet in midlife (50 to 65) is linked to premature death.
So, in the best interest of sensationalism and gathering pageviews, bacon=cancer.
They noted higher protein amounts midlife increased cancer risk 4x, yet was completely erased by consuming plant protein instead. But is this the case?
Again, there are multiple variables at play. You can check out the study for yourself, dig into this excerpt from Examine.com’s analysis of the study (read it here):
The study found:
….“A positive correlation between moderate and high protein intakes and diabetes-related mortality, relative to the lowest intake. This persisted, albeit to a lesser degree, when looking at people over the age of 65.
No relation between higher protein intake with all-cause mortality, cancer-related mortality, or cardiovascular mortality overall. A small increase in risk was seen when looking only at people between the ages of 50-65. This risk was reversed for people above the age of 65, where dietary protein had a protective effect against all forms of mortality (excluding diabetes-related).”
What’s the link researchers are attempting to make?
Stick with me on this one. I’ll make sense of all the jargon.
Protein increases the growth hormone 1GF-1, which increases the growth of all cells…from the ones in your biceps to the cancerous ones roaming all of our bodies. So the belief is more IGF-1 equals more cancer.
But here’s the catch: lower levels of IGF-1, which occur with aging, are one of the reasons people lose muscle and become frail.
It’s been well noted that a loss of muscle mass and frailty lead to a loss of independence, an increase in falls and, as you guessed, earlier death.
While completely eliminating protein may reduce cancer risk and extend life, but it sure doesn’t appear to improve the quality of life.
By reducing your intake of animal protein you may limit your chance of certain cancers. But it’s likely you’ll also lose functional capacity, via muscle loss, which in and of itself limits the quality and duration of life. There seems to be a tradeoff of cancer prevention and quality of life.
At the end of the day, overconsuming anything leads to imbalances in the body. And in this case, eliminating animal protein for the love of IGF-1 can lead to other dietary imbalances equally likely to cause ill health and yes…death.
High Protein Diets and Organ Damage?
There’s a belief too much protein is bad for your kidneys. This stems from research in 1983 when researchers found protein intake increased glomerular filtration rate (GFR), or the amount of blood your kidneys have filtered per minute. Thus, greater GFR means more stress on your kidneys and voila, harm.
Still, an increase in GFR doesn’t necessarily mean your kidneys are being harmed, especially if you’re healthy. Per this study and the previously mentioned study Phillips et al study in 2016, it was found that a high protein diet doesn’t impact kidney function in individuals with healthy kidneys. In fact, the Institute of Medicine concluded, “the protein content of the diet is not responsible for the progressive decline in kidney function with age” (Phillips et al., 2016).
So, what’s the word, big bird?
If you have any organ damage, kidney or otherwise, then talk with your doctor and a nutritionist about the best course of action. I consulted with my obesity doctor main man Spencer Nadolsky for you. He was kind enough to provide this graphic:
Claims of organ damage from protein appear overblown. If you have concerns or a pre-existing condition, you should consult with a doctor and a nutritionist. I am neither, but don’t see an issue for healthy people. If you’re healthy, stick to the recommended .82g/lb or 1/g/lb of protein per your body weight and you’ll be fine.
What About Protein Supplements?
Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on how much muscle and strength you’ll gain.
In this study by Brad Schoenfeld et al analyzed pre- versus post-exercise protein intake and concluded:
“These findings refute the contention of a narrow post-exercise anabolic window to maximize the muscular response and instead lends support to the theory that the interval for protein intake may be as wide as several hours or perhaps more after a training bout depending on when the pre-workout meal was consumed.”
In other words, protein timing doesn’t matter nearly as much as the total amount consumed. There’s no need to sprint shaker-in-hand to fill up your shaker bottle. Protein timing doesn’t make a huge difference.
And do you actually need fancy protein supplements?
This study looked at whether protein supplementation leads to more gains in size and strength.
In short, yes….but not if you have more than 1.6g/kg of protein. This is in line with the .82g/lb recommendation mentioned earlier.
Basically, if you’re not getting enough protein, then a shake will help you make faster gains in the gym.
But if you’re already getting .82g/lb/protein, then extra protein won’t lead to more gains in size and strength.
So NO. You don’t need a shake. But if you’re looking to be an informed consumer and only use quality protein supplements, make sure you grab our No B.S. Supplement Guide to save money, optimize your health, and get faster results in the gym
The Grand Finale on Everything Related to a High Protein Diet
The fitness industry and mainstream media needlessly complicate two simple questions:
(1) Is protein healthy?
(2) if so, how much do you need?
The protein research is not clear-cut. There’s a study to support or cast doubt on most contentions. Anyone who writes about the topic (including me) risks accusations of selective citation.
But here’s the bottom line from where I stand as a coach who simply wants to help you live well and look good naked:
Fitness comes down to science — plus its real-world application within the lives of everyday people like you.
My take? Don’t consider protein in isolation. It’s one factor among many. You also need to consider diet, fitness, and lifestyle options to arrive at a rational decision that works for you.
Make sure you’re eating more veggies, sleeping well, and eating mostly whole foods to begin with. Mix in plant proteins like hemp protein occasionally with your steak and chicken.
And if you want to look good naked?
Then get your protein.
To build muscle aim for .82g/lb/body weight. More is fine if it helps you get the calories needed, but protein itself doesn’t mean more gains.
To lose fat, .82g/lb of bodyweight or 1g/lb is fine. Doing so will preserve lean muscle, help you control hunger, and burn a few more calories.
And if you’re looking for a simple and effective method for looking great naked without living in the gym, be sure to pick up your free copy of the One Hour Body Guide.
High Protein Diet Studies
Will a High-Protein Diet Harm Your Health? The real story on the risks/rewards of eating more protein. (2016, August 30). Retrieved August 24, 2017, from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/will-a-high-protein-diet-harm-your-health
Patel, E. K. (2014, March 06). High-Protein Diets Linked to Cancer: Should You Be Concerned? Retrieved August 24, 2017, from https://examine.com/nutrition/high-protein-diets-linked-to-cancer-should-you-be-concerned/
Schoenfeld, B. J., Aragon, A., Wilborn, C., Urbina, S. L., Hayward, S. E., & Krieger, J. (2017). Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations. PeerJ, 5. doi:10.7717/peerj.2825
Schoenfeld, B., Aragon, A., & Krieger, J. W. (2013). The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 53. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-53
Tang JE, Moore DR, Kujbida GW, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J App Physiol (Bethesda, Md: 1985). 2009;107:987–92.
Lemon PW. Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000;19(5 Suppl):513S–21S.
Hartman JW, Tang JE, Wilkinson SB, Tarnopolsky MA, Lawrence RL, Fullerton AV, et al. Consumption of fat-free fluid milk after resistance exercise promotes greater lean mass accretion than does consumption of soy or carbohydrate in young, novice, male weightlifters. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86(2):373–81.
Campbell WW, Barton ML Jr, Cyr-Campbell D, Davey SL, Beard JL, Parise G, et al. Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70:1032–9.
Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Kang J, Falvo MJ, Faigenbaum AD. Effect of protein intake on strength, body composition and endocrine changes in strength/power athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2006;3:12–18. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-3-2-12. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
Phillips, S. M., Chevalier, S., & Leidy, H. J. (2016). Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: Implications for optimizing health 1. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(999), 1-8.
Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38 (2011). Retrieved August 9, 2017,Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation.
Int. J Sport Nutr Metab.,10(1), 28-38. (2000). Retrieved August 9, 2017, from Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes?
Kim HH1, Kim YJ1, Lee SY2, Jeong DW3, Lee JG1, Yi YH1, Cho YH4, Choi EJ4, Kim HJ5, “Interactive effects of an isocaloric high-protein diet and resistance exercise on body composition, ghrelin, and metabolic and hormonal parameters in untrained young men: A randomized clinical trial.” J Diabetes Investig. 2014 Mar 23;5(2):242-7.
Poortmans, J., & Dellalieux, O. (2000). Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes,10(1), 28-38. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10722779.
Rantanen, T., Masaki, K., He, W., Ross, G. W., Wilcox, B., & White, L. (2012). Midlife Muscle and Human Longevity up to age 100 years: a 44-year prospective study among a decedent cohort. American Aging Association, June(3), 563-570. doi:10.1007/s11357-011-9256-y