Friday, January 30, 2015

How much protein does one need to be in nitrogen balance?

The figure below, from Brooks et al. (2005), shows a graph relating nitrogen balance and protein intake. A nitrogen balance of zero is a state in which body protein mass is stable; that is, it is neither increasing nor decreasing. It seems that the graph was taken from this classic study by Meredith et al. The participants in the study were endurance exercisers. As you can see, age is not much of a factor for nitrogen balance in this group.

Nitrogen balance is greater than zero (i.e., an anabolic state) for the vast majority of the participants at 1.2 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. To convert lbs to kg, divide by 2.2. A person weighing 100 lbs (45 kg) would need 55 g/d of protein; a person weighing 155 lbs (70 kg) would need 84 g/d; someone weighing 200 lbs (91 kg) would need 109 g/d.

The above numbers are overestimations of the amounts needed by people not doing endurance exercise, because endurance exercise tends to lead to muscle loss more than rest or moderate strength training. One way to understand this is compensatory adaptation; the body adapts to endurance exercise by shedding off muscle, as muscle is more of a hindrance than an asset for this type of exercise.

Total calorie intake has a dramatic effect on protein requirements. The above numbers assume that a person is getting just enough calories from other sources to meet daily caloric needs. If a person is in caloric deficit, protein requirements go up. If in caloric surplus, protein requirements go down. Other factors that increase protein requirements are stress and wasting diseases (e.g., cancer).

But what if you want to gain muscle?

Wilson & Wilson (2006) conducted an extensive review of the literature on protein intake and nitrogen balance. That review suggests that a protein intake beyond 25 percent of what is necessary to achieve a nitrogen balance of zero would have no effect on muscle gain. That would be 69 g/d for a person weighing 100 lbs (45 kg); 105 g/d for a person weighing 155 lbs (70 kg); and 136 g/d for someone weighing 200 lbs (91 kg). For the reasons explained above, these are also overestimations.

What if you go well beyond these numbers?

The excess protein will be used primarily as fuel; that is, it will be oxidized. In fact, a large proportion of all the protein consumed on a daily basis is used as fuel, and does not become muscle. This happens even if you are a gifted bodybuilder that can add 1 lb of protein to muscle tissue per month. So excess protein can make you gain body fat, but not by protein becoming body fat.

Dietary protein does not normally become body fat, but will typically be used in place of dietary fat as fuel. This will allow dietary fat to be stored. Dietary protein also leads to an insulin response, which causes less body fat to be released. In this sense, protein has a fat-sparing effect, preventing it from being used to supply the energy needs of the body. As long as it is available, dietary protein will be favored over dietary or body fat as a fuel source.

Having said that, if you were to overeat anything, the best choice would be protein, in the absence of any disease that would be aggravated by this. Why? Protein contributes fewer calories per gram than carbohydrates; many fewer when compared with dietary fat. Unlike carbohydrates or fat, protein almost never becomes body fat under normal circumstances. Dietary fat is very easily converted to body fat; and carbohydrates become body fat when glycogen stores are full. Finally, protein seems to be the most satiating of all macronutrients, perhaps because natural protein-rich foods are also very nutrient-dense.

It is not very easy to eat a lot of protein without getting also a lot of fat if you get your protein from natural foods; as opposed to things like refined seed/grain products or protein supplements. Exceptions are organ meats and seafood, which generally tend to be quite lean and protein-rich.


Brooks, G.A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise physiology: Human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, J., & Wilson, G.J. (2006). Contemporary issues in protein requirements and consumption for resistance trained athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 3(1), 7-27.