Hello and welcome to a new episode of Muscle for Life. I am your host, Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today for a shorter episode where I answer a simple question that occurred to me when I was on vacation a couple of months ago. And that is how little protein can I eat consistently for how long?
Without losing muscle and the reason that occurred to me while on vacation is I was in Italy for a couple of weeks and when I’m in Italy, I like to eat a lot more pasta and bread and risotto and so forth than Chicken and steak and fish. Although the fish is very good. I do enjoy the fish, but I am going to eat quite a bit differently than when I’m at home, for obvious reasons.
And so I wondered then, how little protein can we eat without losing muscle, and how does that change given different time frames? So let’s say one to two weeks versus three, four, five, six plus weeks. And what if we add resistance training to the equation? How does that change things? Or does it not change things?
Because, coming back to vacation, it is feasible for most of us to do, let’s say, at least one full body strength training workout per week while on vacation if we want to. If we don’t want to, there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t think that you have to. But if you are so inclined, you probably can figure out at least one full body strength training workout per week, even if it’s in a hotel gym.
So you will be working with, let’s say, just dumbbells and maybe a couple of machines. Even then, you can figure it out. And so all that is what this episode is going to be about. How low can you go with your protein before you start losing muscle? Okay, so before we get into the meat and potatoes of today’s episode, a quick little primer on protein.
Protein is a large molecule made up of chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. Those amino acids are the building blocks of our body. They play a crucial role in many different processes, including building muscle, recovering from training, repairing muscle tissue. Our body can create 12 of the amino acids that it needs from various other substances, but there are 9 that it can’t create and we must get those 9 essential amino acids from food.
This is why we must eat protein to survive and this is why a high protein diet is particularly beneficial when we are doing a lot of strength training or just resistance training of any kind that increases demands for amino acids and those essential amino acids in particular because our body has to repair the damage that we’re causing to our muscles.
And if our training is set up properly, we probably are also going to be gaining muscle. So new muscle proteins must be created. And that of course requires even more. Amino acids then are required to just repair the muscle tissue and retain the muscle tissue that we have and that’s why a large body of scientific evidence shows that something between probably 0.
8 and 1. 2 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day is optimal for those of us who do a fair amount of strength training, a fair amount of resistance training. If we are in a energy deficit, if we are cutting and we already have a fair amount of muscle, something closer to 1. 2 grams per pound of body weight per day is probably better than 0.
8. And if we are in a maintenance phase or a lean bulking phase where our calories are More or less to our energy expenditure that would be maintenance or where they consistently exceed our energy expenditure at least by let’s say five or ten percent that would be lean bulking then we don’t need as much protein 0.
8 grams to probably one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is going to work just as well as 1. 2 grams per pound of body weight. per day. And in the case of lean bulking, if you eat too much protein, it actually can be counterproductive because protein is very filling. And after your first month or two of a consistent calorie surplus, it becomes difficult to just continue eating enough protein.
Food, you have to force yourself to keep eating. It feels like force feeding yourself because you are generally never hungry. Food has generally lost its appeal. Even the foods that you really like to eat, you don’t really enjoy anymore and it becomes a bit of a chore. And so under those circumstances, eating more protein than you need to eat can make it even harder because you are even fuller than you would otherwise be.
And so when lean bulking, most people do better. Test around 0. 8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Now those are some very common talking points about protein intake in the evidence based fitness space. You have almost certainly heard all of that before from me or from others, but something that is less talked about is.
The main topic of today’s episode, and that is how little protein can we eat without losing muscle. And so let’s talk about that. Starting with a few factors that we have to consider. We have to consider our calories. Are we around maintenance calories? Are we in a deficit? Are we consistently in a surplus?
We have to think about training. How often are we training? And we also have to think about. Our training experience, how experienced of a trainee are we? Are we brand new to resistance training or are we several years in or longer? So if you are new to resistance training, so let’s say you are in your first six to maybe even 12 months, but certainly your first six months of strength training studies show that you do not need to eat much protein to retain muscle.
So for example, there was a study that was conducted by scientists at the university of Illinois, whereby people new to strength training trained twice per week and consumed about 0. 4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. And over the course of four months of dieting, so consistently in a calorie.
Deficit, they lost about a pound of muscle on average, but that comes with an asterisk because the scientist determined that with a handheld electrical device that passes an electrical current through your body and measures resistance and then uses some math to determine. body composition based on the amount of electrical resistance.
And those devices can be semi accurate. They can be completely inaccurate. They can be consistently accurate or inaccurate. But regardless, what they cannot do is tell you whether the muscle quote unquote that you lost was actually lean contractile. muscle tissue or was, say, intramuscular fluid like water and glycogen, a form of carbohydrate that’s stored in your muscles that you are going to lose when you are dieting.
And the reason I bring that up is We know that people who are new to strength training can lose fat and gain muscle and strength at the same time quite effectively. And if you are gaining strength in a deficit, you are not losing muscle. You can’t lose muscle and get stronger. And if you are new to strength training and you are gaining strength consistently, you are almost certainly gaining muscle as well, even if you are in a calorie deficit, there are exceptions to that.
Like, for example, in your first month, maybe two months of strength training, you can gain quite a bit of strength, but very little muscle. And that’s primarily because you are learning to do the exercises. You are improving your skill at the exercises. You’re Improving your neurological neuromuscular efficiency, but after your first two months or so, if you are still gaining strength as a new weightlifter, you are gaining muscle, even if you’re in a deficit.
And so in the case of this study that I just mentioned, it would have been nice to see the. Results of the exercise program. How did the participants perform in that program? Did they make progress? Did they get stronger over the course of that four months? Because if they did, then I would bet a lot of money that the pound of muscle they quote unquote lost was not lean muscle.
Tissue, but at any rate, even if we ignored all of that and just took this studies findings at face value losing just a pound or so of muscle over four months of protein underfeeding of eating about half of the low end of what is generally recommended for daily protein intake. Intake gives us some peace of mind then if we plan on eating a relatively small amount of protein for a short period of time, one, two weeks, let’s say it’s a vacation, especially if we are new to strength training and further evidence of that can be found in another study that was conducted by scientists at McMaster University.
And in this study, you had novice strength trainees. who trained twice per week for four weeks. They were in a calorie deficit, so this was a diet phase. And they ate about 0. 55 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. And they gained a little bit of muscle. And so that also supports that 0. 4, maybe 0.
5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day threshold for maintaining muscle, maybe even gaining a little bit of muscle. And in the previous study, these people were only training. twice per week. And I know many people don’t do that on vacation. There’s nothing wrong with that. You are on vacation to have fun first and foremost.
But I’ve heard from many people over the years who like to work out once or twice per week, do a proper strength training workout once or twice per week when on vacation. I’m one of those people. So something else to consider with these studies is that people were in a calorie deficit, which makes for a physiological environment that is conducive to muscle loss, primarily because it impairs muscle protein synthesis and impairs our body’s ability to create new muscle proteins, to repair existing muscle proteins.
And the effect is less pronounced in people who are new to strength training than people who are experienced, but it. Is present nonetheless, and it will be more significant when protein is restricted. And so my point was saying that is if you’re on vacation, let’s say you probably are not consistently in a calorie deficit.
You probably are in a consistent calorie surplus, and that has the opposite effect of the calorie deficit that creates a physiological environment that is anabolic that is conducive to building up. tissues is conducive to recovering from training and repairing muscle tissue and gaining muscle. And so I strongly suspect that somebody new to strength training could eat even less protein, maybe in the range of 0.
3 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, and not lose muscle so long as calories are abundant, so long as they are consistently eating at least at maintenance calories and maybe in a surplus, maybe not every day. But let’s say if you’re on vacation, you’re alternating between a slight surplus, which would be, let’s say it’s very slight, basically maintenance to a larger surplus, you are probably not ranging between a larger deficit and a slight surplus.
That’s more like cutting with the occasional day of overeating. And I would feel even stronger about that if the relatively inexperienced trainee was also doing at least a little bit of training over this period of protein underfeeding. One or two resistance training workouts per week, full body workouts, just to give the muscles a little bit of a stimulus.
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Now, what about those of us who are experienced weightlifters, those of us who have been training for a number of years, who have gained a lot of muscle and strength? How does all of this play out for us? Well, let’s look at a study that was conducted by scientists at the University of Birmingham. And in this case, athletes who were training four to five times per week, that was their normal routine.
They continued it, and they were eating about 0. 45 grams of protein per pound of Body weight per day, and during just a two week diet, they lost about 3. 5 pounds of lean mass, including quite a bit of muscle, so not just intramuscular fluid that was lost there. Another study that lends some perspective was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, and in this case, researchers found that eating about 0.
7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day was enough for experienced weightlifters to maintain their muscle. During a Two week weight loss diet, and that finding is supported by two other studies. In one case, researchers found that 0. 7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day was enough for experienced weightlifters to retain muscle, to not lose muscle during a one week diet period.
In another study, it was that amount of Protein per day experienced weightlifters two weeks of dieting, and it showed an insignificant amount of muscle loss. And so if we consider those studies as well as other studies on the matter that have shown similar results, I think we can confidently say that if you are an experienced weightlifter, if you are muscular, you are strong and you are cutting, you are in a consistent calorie deficit, a significant calorie deficit because you want to lose.
fat you should not eat less than probably about 0. 8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. And if you want to maximize muscle retention, you should almost certainly be eating more something closer to one gram per pound of body weight per day to even 1. 2 grams per pound of body weight per day.
Now what if you are not in a consistent calorie deficit though? What if you are consistently right around your daily energy expenditure? Sometimes it’s a little bit more, sometimes it’s a little bit less. What if you are maintaining? And what if you are in a consistent calorie surplus? What if you are lean bulking only because you are on vacation?
How much protein can you eat without losing muscle? Well, I don’t have any single study I can point to to answer that. However, based on the research that I have shared with you here, as well as other research that we don’t have to get into, I think it’s fair to say that you can probably go as low as 0. 5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
per day and retain your muscle again, so long as you are at maintenance calories or in a consistent calorie surplus. And again, similar to the newbie scenario, I would feel quite confident about that. If we were to also include one to two resistance training workouts per week, ideally just full body workouts work best when you can only train once or twice per week.
I mean, I suppose if you’re going to train twice per week, you could also go for an upper or lower. And. And which one you choose is probably mostly just going to be personal preference. But if we add some resistance training as well, doesn’t have to be a lot, just a few sets per major muscle group per week, or at least the major muscle groups that you care the most about, then I feel even better about that 0.
5 ish to maybe 0. 7 ish grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. for an experienced weightlifter who wants to retain muscle. And something else worth mentioning is I’ve been talking about 1, 2, 3, 4 week periods. What about individual days? Or what about 1 or 2 or maybe 3 days of low protein? How harmful is that going to be?
Well, the good news is it is not going to cause any muscle loss whatsoever. You could safely reduce your protein intake to basically zero for a day without losing any muscle to speak of. And you could eat very little protein for at least a few days. Let’s say anywhere between zero and maybe… 0. 2 or 0. 3 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, and that is going to pose no risk to your muscles.
So, if you have a short weekend trip, for example, and you want to eat a bunch of tasty stuff that provides very little protein, and you don’t want to lose muscle, Enjoy yourself. You’re not going to lose any muscle to speak of, and if you do lose any muscle because you eat literally zero protein, which is basically impossible because even the most delicious foods contain small ish amounts of protein, let’s say you eat very little protein for several days, three, four days, and you do lose a little bit of muscle, and then you’re back in the gym and training, whatever muscle you did lose in that very short period of time, you’re going to more or less instantly regain, so just don’t worry about it.
Thank you. And one final point I want to mention picks up on something I just commented on and that is the residual amount of protein in various foods that are certainly not considered high protein foods. So let’s say you’re on vacation and you’re going to eat a lot of high fat, high carb foods, or maybe you’re not on vacation.
You just want to do this for fun for a few days. So let’s say your breakfast is Half of a baguette and maybe two ounces of full fat cheese and a croissant. That’s your breakfast. And then at lunch, that’s a big bowl of pasta. You have some cream sauce and you have a cup of gelato for dessert. Clearly, we are on vacation in Italy.
And dinner is a large bowl of risotto, cheese. Peas, you eat some breadsticks and you have a chocolate dessert of some kind. So you do all of that and you feel like you ate very little protein. But do you know how much protein you actually ate? Take a guess. It is about a hundred to a hundred and ten grams.
Probably a bit more than You were expecting and so that’s sufficient vacation levels of protein for a 200 pound man, let alone a woman who is probably going to eat smaller portions, but still she could easily get to 50 to 70 grams of protein per day. eating like that. And then we also need to consider the days where our protein intake is higher because we eat some meat, we eat some fish, we eat eggs, we eat some yogurt, maybe even some high protein yogurt.
And so not every day is down there around 0. 4 but maybe we have a couple of days down there, 5 grams of protein per pound body weight. So maybe we have a couple of days down there. And then we have one or two days where it’s up closer to 0. 8. To one gram of protein per pound of body weight. And that’s important to consider because those higher protein days certainly contribute to our overall muscle retention over the period.
Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful. And if you did subscribe to the show, because. it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have, uh, Uh, ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share, shoot me an email, Mike at muscle for life. com muscle F O R life. com and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode and I hope to hear from you soon.