• The optimal protein intake while dieting should be roughly 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • When not dieting, greater protein doses greater than 1 gram per pound of body weight don’t increase muscle growth.
  • Overfeeding studies with protein have not found additional gains in body fat
  • High protein diets result in greater appetite suppression


Why do you need more protein while dieting? Rates of muscle protein synthesis drop by 27% after only five days of moderate energy restriction.(1) You need more protein to compensate for the reduction in muscle protein synthesis. As your calories and body fat are reduced, your body goes into a conservation mode and uses energy from the most readily available tissues.

In this case, it’s muscle!! Muscle provides 13 calories/per kg/day, whereas fat provides 4.5 calories/per kg/day.(2) This makes muscle an easy target for the body to pull calories from when in a deficit. Most weight loss clinics will often include essential amino acid supplements while following a calorie-restricted diet to maintain protein synthesis while being very low in calories.

Most research studies classify high-protein diets based on grams per kg of body weight (g/kg/bw). The International Society of Sports Nutrition defines “high protein” as anything over 2.2 g/kg/bw per day or 1 gram per pound of body weight. What’s so important about the 2.2 g/kg/bw mark for protein?

Protein and Lean Muscle Mass

In a well-documented study by Tarnopolsky et al., American football players and rugby players performing resistance exercises were assigned to a low protein (0.86 g/kg/day), moderate protein (1.40 g/kg per day), and high protein (2.40 g/kg/day); the lowest protein diet impaired protein synthesis, however, 2.4 g/kg/day did not result in greater increases in protein synthesis.

Leucine oxidation or breakdown increased in the high protein group, indicating the protein was being used as an energy source rather than stored in muscle protein.(3) This study was conducted back in the early 90s using nitrogen balance, but it was a critical step in showing that trained resistance men need more protein.

Keep in mind, these were diets at maintenance levels with adequate calories, but it helps set the optimal protein intake while dieting and to build muscle should be at the 1.4 to 1.7 g/kg/bw will at maintenance levels.

Optimal Protein Intake and the RDA

Protein intake needs to be increased when dieting to retain lean muscle loss with restricted calories. When protein intake exceeds 2.2 g/kg/bw, there are numerous beneficial effects on body composition. Researchers assigned subjects to a 30% caloric restriction while increasing their energy expenditure by 10% but varied the protein content. Subjects either received 0.8 g/kg/be (recommended dietary allowance; RDA), 1.6 g/kg/bw (2×-RDA), and 2.4 (3×-RDA) for 31 days.

Those assigned the higher protein (i.e., 2-3x-RDA) lost less muscle and more fat than the low protein group. In a similar study, athletes were assigned to a 40% reduction in calories, with groups either receiving a low (1.0 g/kg/day) or high protein (2.3 g/kg/day) diet.

The high protein group lost less muscle mass and similar amounts of body fat as the low protein group. Interestingly, the high protein group had more favorable changes in testosterone and growth hormone responses.(4) It’s well established that overfeeding with diets high in carbohydrates and fat results in gains in fat mass.(5) Even when excess calories are provided, greater protein intake does not contribute to fat gains.(6)

diet, protein sources, good sources of protein, good sources of carbs, good carbs, nuts, nut butters, eggs, lean meats, lowfat yogurtThe author concluded, “calories alone account for the increase in fat; protein affected energy expenditure and storage of lean body mass, but not body fat storage.” Studies have shown that when either protein powder or carbohydrate supplements (i.e., 25 grams) are administered to resistance-trained individuals, protein but not carbohydrate increases lean muscle mass.(7)

Optimal Protein Intake and Lean Muscle Mass

Other literature reviews have found that protein supplementation augments lean muscle mass when combined with resistance exercise.(8) Low protein intake drives food intake resulting in overeating. In contrast, high-protein diets activate areas of the brain involved in satiety.(9)

Many studies have found that you can overeat protein and have no or even reduced body fat gain while in a calorie surplus. The caloric surplus has been from +370 to 800 kcal surplus without additional gains in body fat.(10-13)

In a review article by one of the leading experts in protein metabolism, Dr. Jose Antonio, he concluded, “In general, exercise-trained individuals that consume a high-protein diet will likely not experience a change in lean body mass unless there is an accompanying change in their training regimen. However, evidence suggests high protein intake may promote fat mass loss.”(14)

Optimal Protein Intake While Dieting Studies

The evidence supports that higher protein intakes contribute to fat loss; thus, high protein can be considered a weight loss supplement. A review by Hector and Philips suggested that appropriate protein intake ranges for athletes dieting should be 1.6-2.4 g/kg/bw or .7 grams to 1.09 grams per pound of body weight.(15) However, those bodybuilders have used even higher protein diets ranging from 2.3 g/kg/bw to 3.3 g/kg/bw and successfully preserved lean mass while reducing body fat.

In a study of nutritional strategies used by bodybuilders who placed in the top five, protein intake for women who placed top 5 was 2.8 g/kg/bw (1.27 grams per pound of bw), and for men, 3.3 g/kg/bw (1.5 grams per pound of body weight).(16) It should be mentioned that high-protein diets do not have an adverse effect on liver and kidney function, as depicted by the media.

In a study of one year of high protein in subjects that consumed between (2.5 g/kg/bw to 3.32 g/kg/bw), there was no adverse effect on blood lipids, kidney, or liver function.(17) Obese and overweight subjects using a high-protein diet also had no changes in kidney function while using a high-protein diet.(18)

Optimal Protein Intake while Dieting KEY POINTS

  • When not dieting, greater protein doses greater than 1 gram per pound of body weight don’t increase muscle growth.
  • High protein is needed while dieting, around 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight
  • Overfeeding studies with protein have not found additional gains in body fat
  • High protein diets result in greater appetite suppression



1. Areta JL, Burke LM, Camera DM, West DW, Crawshay S, Moore DR, et al. Reduced resting skeletal muscle protein synthesis is rescued by resistance exercise and protein ingestion following short-term energy deficit. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2014;306(8):E989-97.

2. McClave SA, Snider HL. Dissecting the energy needs of the body. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001;4(2):143-7.

3. Tarnopolsky MA, Atkinson SA, MacDougall JD, Chesley A, Phillips S, Schwarcz HP. Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992;73(5):1986-95.

4. Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(2):326-37.

5. Leaf A, Antonio J. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017;10(8):1275-96.

6. Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, Xie H, Rood J, Martin CK, et al. Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial. Jama. 2012;307(1):47-55.

7. Andersen LL, Tufekovic G, Zebis MK, Crameri RM, Verlaan G, Kjaer M, et al. The effect of resistance training combined with timed ingestion of protein on muscle fiber size and muscle strength. Metabolism. 2005;54(2):151-6.


8. Pasiakos SM, McLellan TM, Lieberman HR. The Effects of Protein Supplements on Muscle Mass, Strength, and Aerobic and Anaerobic Power in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. 2015;45(1):111-31.

9. Journel M, Chaumontet C, Darcel N, Fromentin G, Tomé D. Brain Responses to High-Protein Diets. Advances in Nutrition. 2012;3(3):322-9.

10. Antonio J, Candow DG, Forbes SC, Ormsbee MJ, Saracino PG, Roberts J. Effects of Dietary Protein on Body Composition in Exercising Individuals. Nutrients. 2020;12(6).

11. Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, Orris S, Scheiner M, Gonzalez A, et al. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow-up investigation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2015;12(1).

12. Antonio J, Peacock CA, Ellerbroek A, Fromhoff B, Silver T. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2014;11(1):19.

13. Campbell BI, Aguilar D, Conlin L, Vargas A, Schoenfeld BJ, Corson A, et al. Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018;28(6):580-5.


14. Antonio J. High-protein diets in trained individuals. Res Sports Med. 2019;27(2):195-203.

15. Hector AJ, Phillips SM. Protein Recommendations for Weight Loss in Elite Athletes: A Focus on Body Composition and Performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2018;28(2):170-7.

16. Chappell AJ, Simper T, Barker ME. Nutritional strategies of high level natural bodybuilders during competition preparation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2018;15(1).

17. Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, Vargas L, Tamayo A, Buehn R, et al. A High Protein Diet Has No Harmful Effects: A One-Year Crossover Study in Resistance-Trained Males. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2016;2016:1-5.

18. von Loeffelholz C, Birkenfeld A. The Role of Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis in Human Obesity. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Boyce A, Chrousos G, de Herder WW, Dhatariya K, et al., editors. Endotext. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.

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