Eat All the Protein You Want, Stay Lean

5.5 Times the RDA With No Added Body Fat

Eating tons of protein won’t do a thing to negatively affect your body fat levels. Here’s why.


Nearly every dietitian will tell you that eating extra protein leads to extra body fat storage, just like it can with excess carbs and fats. After all, a calorie is a calorie.

But it’s hogwash. And it’s probably that belief that’s to blame for so many people failing to make progress. When most people lower calories to lose weight, they also lower their protein intake. They treat protein like just another macronutrient: one that must be reined in to lose fat.

But the truth is, eating a lot of protein, even up to 5.5 times the recommended daily allowance, won’t make you gain any additional fat, even if all that protein adds a ton of calories to your diet. Instead, it seems to have a protective effect against fat during periods of increased calorie intake while also leading to additional muscle mass, provided the circumstances are right.

230 Grams of Protein, No Lifting, 7 Pounds of Lean Mass

Overfeeding carbs and/or fat results in body comp changes that are different from overfeeding on protein. Dietary protein has a protective effect against fat gain during periods of overeating. How protective?

In one study, researchers randomized subjects to partake in one of three diets:

  • Low protein (5%) – Around 47 grams daily
  • Normal protein (15%) – About 140 grams
  • High protein (25%) – Around 230 grams

Randomized subjects were then “force-fed” 140% of their maintenance calories – about an extra 1,000 calories for 8 weeks straight.

Carb intake was kept at about 41-42% between the groups, while dietary fat ranged from 33% in the high protein group to 44% and 52% in the normal and low protein groups, respectively.

After doing their dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) magic, the scientists found that while all subjects gained approximately the same amount of fat (the high protein group gained a little less than the other two groups), the high protein group gained about 6.6 pounds of lean mass.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, all three groups gained the same amount of fat. Where’s this alleged protective effect of protein?”

Slow down. The participants were not resistance-trained. Neither did they perform any exercise during the study. That extra 6.6 pounds of lean mass fell on them like manna from heaven. Clearly, their results showed that excess protein during an overeating phase contributed to lean body mass gains. That throws a high-protein pie in the face of all those dietitians who still insist that a calorie is a calorie.

But what would happen if someone took it one step further and conducted a similar study, but this time with resistance-trained athletes and an even higher protein intake?

5.5 Times the Amount of Protein, This Time with Lifters

Dr. Joey Antonio set about to “determine the effects of a very high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained men and women.”

The study design was simple: Thirty healthy weight-lifting men and women were randomly assigned to a control (CON) group or a high protein (HP) group. The CON group was instructed to maintain their same training and dietary habits over an 8-week period. The HP group was also instructed to maintain their same training and dietary habits (same carb and fat intake), albeit with the added instruction to take in 4.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 5.5 times the RDA).

The math shows that the high-protein group would be ingesting around 800 calories per day more than the control group. These additional calories were all from protein.

Here’s the clincher: After 8 weeks, despite eating about 800 extra calories per day – all of it from protein – the high protein group experienced no changes in body weight, fat mass, or fat-free mass.

You probably have mixed feelings about those results. On one hand, you’re probably elated that all those extra calories from protein didn’t result in any additional tubbiness. However, you’re probably disappointed that it didn’t lead to any additional muscle mass. Read on for a clearer picture.

Some Rationalization

In the first study (Bray, et al.), the untrained subjects gained 6.6 pounds of lean mass just by increasing protein intake to about 230 grams per day. No exercise was involved, so this suggests that they weren’t getting enough protein to begin with, which casts dark aspersions on the U.S. recommended daily amount of protein (about 63 grams for a 175-pound person).

That brings us to Antonio’s study: Why did the high protein group, despite ingesting about 5.5 times the RDA for protein, fail to gain any lean mass, let alone fat mass? In a nutshell, because they were already working out, and it’s very difficult for trained subjects to gain lean body mass without significant changes in their training program, especially in just 8 weeks. Add a few more months and a bodybuilding-focused training plan, and we’d have seen gains in lean body mass.

Why Won’t Protein Turn into Body Fat?

Well, protein can turn into body fat, but it’s unlikely. Biochemically, turning dietary fat into body fat is easy-peasy, and turning carbs into body fat isn’t that much more difficult.

Turning protein into body fat, however, is an entirely different type of challenge. It takes several biochemical and hormonal steps, and it’s monitored closely by the liver, which metes out amino acids according to the body’s metabolic needs (tissue breakdown, tissue synthesis, catabolism, anabolism, etc.)

As such, you can believe, with a high degree of certainty, that protein has a protective effect against fat gain in times of caloric surplus, particularly when combined with lifting.

What to Do with This Info

All this might not be news to you, but it’s something that we need to be reminded of because it’s so contrary to what we used to believe or what many dietitians currently believe.

Here’s what I think you should take with you from this article:

  • Regular, non-training people should probably throw the 0.8 grams of protein 15 per kilogram RDA out the window and strive for at least 50% more.

  • For most lifters who want to add muscle (but repeatedly fail), you likely need to eat more protein; maybe not 5.5 times the RDA, but maybe more than what you’ve previously believed to be adequate. The added calories will not turn to fat.

Lastly, it’s probably impossible to eat that much extra protein from whole food sources. You must, as the subjects in Antonio’s study did, augment whole-food protein choices with a quality protein powder, like MD (on Amazon).

A simple fix? Adopt a protein-first eating strategy: just add two 2-scoop protein shakes to your daily diet and well, the rest pretty much takes care of itself. More info here: The Protein-First Diet Strategy.

MD-Buy-on-Amazon

References

References

  1. Antonio J et al. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 May 12;11:19. PubMed.
  2. Leaf A et al. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017;10(8):1275-1296. PMC.
  3. Bray GA et al. Effect of protein overfeeding on energy expenditure measured in a metabolic chamber. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(3):496-505. PubMed.
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I’ve frequently used the argument that one could put down 1500cals of carbs or fats relatively easily, sometimes in a single meal. But almost no one could manage to eat 1500cals worth of protein in one sitting.

For maths…
12oz chicken breast (raw) = ~106g protein
x4 = 48oz chicken breast = ~424g protein

When in doubt - eat more lean protein!

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I think you’re right, but this extends as well to most highly processed foods. It’s easy to go to a fast-casual restaurant and wolf down 1000 calories before your meal is even served (soda, bloomin’ onion, bread and butter). But, no one does this with real foods, even without protein. Do you know anyone that has ever said “Man, I really wish I didn’t eat all those bananas last night. I can’t believe I ate 16 of them!”. It’s not uncommon, though, for someone to eat an equivalent amount of calories in the form of Goldfish crackers or other processed food in a box.

Not that anyone asked, but my strategy is allow myself as much real food as I want. Plain, full fat yogurt. Raw almonds. Salmon, chicken, steak. Blueberries, apples, strawberries. But avoid highly adultered foods (nonfat dairy, “nutrition” bars, etc, crackers, etc…). Not that I’m 100% compliant, but this is my goal.

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Great article. I only read the Bray abstract, so this is admittedly an ignorant question, but help me with the math:

On the same caloric intake, the high-protein group gained the same fat weight PLUS 3kg of lean weight?

The conclusion appears to point to endpoints around energy expenditure, so maybe it wasn’t powered to look at the above and physics can still exist, but that brings me to my second question:

How can we conclude my energy expenditure increased with protein if I gained more total body weight?

I’m not being purposefully challenging, because your conclusion is not nearly as declarative (nor do I find it controversial, based on what you presented), but I can’t wrap my head around that source article (again, I only saw the abstract, so I’ve got ~10% of the picture)

They gained a bit less fat, and 6 POUNDS not kilos ahah. The subject were not resistance-trained. We can assume that they had a subpar diet as well. I’m guessing they weren’t getting enough proteins to begin with, like most people, and their body comp improved to “baseline human levels”. No resistance training doesn’t mean no activity.

Protein is annoying to storage, compared to fat (95% of adipose tissue comes from fat). They all had the same calories, but others had more carbs and fat to storage. Meaning that the body had “less” available energy. I’m guessing they also felt healthier and moved more, and since they had more lean tissue all of that contributed… Calories can be complicated ahahah

Okay, now I’m doubling my proteins hehe

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Whoops! Edited!

It’s presented as if they gained statistically equivalent fat, or at least similar, and a greater delta of FFM.

I understand this is the hypothesized mechanism, but the math, as I read it, doesn’t hold up. I can’t gain more total weight on the same calories, yet have an increased energy expenditure. If they had eaten the same calories from fat and carbs, and then added protein (as in the second source), I’d buy this.

What I’m thinking now, after reading our response and my own typo, is it’s most likely there was no statistical variance in any measure absent, potentially, the FFM. That would allow us to gain more fat and more total weight within numeric differences, call it equivalent, and leave room for the FFM gain.

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Okay so I read the whole thing. Indeed they gained the same amount of fat, but the higher protein diets induced not only an increase in fat free mass, but also in expenditure.

And it started at day 1 for energy expenditure! Krebs theorized that protein increased energy expenditure through urea synthesis, and protein synthesis. Some tissues and organs are stimulated a lot (kidneys, liver, skin, muscles) and their rate of energy utilization altered.

After 8 weeks, the energy expenditure of skeletal mass and residual mass was lower for the low protein diet, but significantly higher for the other (-10 for the low protein, + 175 for the high protein).

We can guess that all this protein triggered many reactions to create this muscle, utilizing lots of energy. We’ve all seen how untrained individual gain fast. I’m persuaded the average human right now is in a terrible, subpar physical state. The body knows it. It wants to come back to its original state.

Also, it has been theorized that protein takes more energy to be processed, 20-30% of its own energy, compared to 10-20% from carbs, and 0-5% from fat.

Anyway, indded, it’s hard to wrap our mind around this. How can you spend more energy and gain more weight? The answer is probably that they were overfed at 140% of their baseline. It’s like, when you come back from an injury, or begin the gym: you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. I’m guessing that in a overfed state, the body doesn’t utilize everything it ingests.

It certainly holds true for protein: hence why it’s better to have more frequent meals to optimize protein synthesis. Our lame body can’t or won’t storage it

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Where did you find the full article?

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You’re a better man than most of us, Gunga Din!

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Yeah, I know, it’s weird. The group was probably deficient in protein intake in the first place, so the added protein manna from heaven was sucked up by lean body tissue.

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In the references, it’s the third study. Click on the link next to the DOI, just before the Abstract

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Ok, after reading the confidence intervals, I can now accept everything. Arithmetic simply won’t allow me to believe increased energy expenditure resulted in a higher total body weight (which requires increased storage). The individual results, however, can still tell a trending story that overeating protein has a different impact. There is no statistical significance in any group (outside that they still had skeletons), so I’m good to take this as a hypothesis based on numeric trends.

Thanks @TC_Luoma and @aldebaran!

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Excellent piece. I’d add that this research also debunks two other common myths. First, “the body doesn’t store protein.” This might be more correctly stated as “the body doesn’t store protein as fat,” because we have a word for stored protein–it’s “MUSCLE.”

Second, there’s the myth that is common among keto “experts” that excess protein is turned into glucose via gluconeogenesis. The theory is that the body converts “extra” protein into glucose when confronted with a surplus. In fact, the opposite is the case: the body resorts to gluconeogenesis only when glucose is needed and in the absence of other sources, turning either to dietary protein or through catabolic processes that result in muscle loss. In support of this, see: The Ketogenic Diet for Health: If You Eat Excess Protein, Does It Turn Into Excess Glucose?

In any event, I’ll keep pouring on the protein and enjoying the thermic benefits of high consumption, also!

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When the study-flingers argue against the idea that it’s nearly impossible to gain fat from lots of protein, I give them The Chicken Breast Challenge:

Get fat on baked, skinless chicken breasts. That’s it.

While possible on paper, I’ve never seen anyone do it, unless of course their chicken is smothered in ranch dressing and cheese and they forget to mention that part. I discussed this with Will Brink too and he agrees: while it seems possible if someone were really really motivated to take the challenge and prove me wrong, it just doesn’t happen out here in real life.

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I imagine calling this “The Rabbit Starvation Challenge” didn’t fare well with marketing, haha.

Excellent points. Thanks!

Your maths remind me: Someone needs to collect study data on that guy in Philly who ate an entire rotisserie chicken for 40 days straight. Was anyone tracking his gainz? lol.

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About 162 grams of protein in an entire chicken. What a noob.

:slight_smile:

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I was thinking this when i heard it was only 1 chicken per day

Like that’s basically a large meal for me and my fat ass.

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image

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