How to Build More Muscle with Less Protein

Research suggests that higher protein meals can help you lose weight, slow aging, and speed recovery. But what if you don't want to—or can't—eat that much protein? Read on for tips on how to get more benefit from less protein.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #448

Why does muscle protein synthesis matter?

Maximizing muscle protein synthesis is not just for body builders and athletes. It’s beneficial for everyone, but it’s particularly critical for three groups of people: those over 50, those who are in the process of losing weight, and those who are recovering from a serious injury, illness, or surgery. All three of these groups are prone to accelerated muscle loss, which makes all three conditions (aging, weight loss, recovery) more challenging.  

Ironically, the groups who have most to gain from maximizing protein synthesis (older adults, those actively losing weight, and those recovering from illness or injury) are all likely to be eating a lot less protein than the average intake of 90 grams per day. They may be taking in fewer calories in general in an effort to lose weight. They may be eating smaller more frequent meals due to smaller appetites. Or, protein foods may simply be less appealing to them.

How to build more muscle with less protein

And this brings us to the question that so many of you have asked: How can you get the most muscle-building benefit if you’re only taking in 50 or 60 grams of protein per day? Are you better off dividing that smaller amount evenly across three meals? What if you eat smaller more frequent meals? Should some be heavy in protein and others lighter or should they all have a little bit of protein?

Analysis done by Wayne Campbell at Purdue University suggests that when it comes to preserving muscle, hitting that 30-gram threshold once a day is better than never hitting it—especially for our three groups at increased risk of muscle loss. Hitting it twice a day is better than hitting it only once.

You can get more protein benefit without eating more protein.

After discussing all of this with Dr. Paddon Jones and Dr. Campbell and applying a little common sense, I’ve come up with the following guidelines for those whofor whatever reasondo not eat 90 grams of protein per day.

Protein intake on a low-protein diet

  1. Max it out at least once a day. If you only eat 50 grams of protein per day, you’re better off eating 30 of it at a single meal than dividing it equally among three or more meals. If you can manage 2 protein-maxed meals per day, even better.

  2. Do what you can. If 30 grams of protein is simply more than you can manage at a single meal, aiming for 20 or 25 grams at a meal is still going to give you more benefit than 5 or 10 grams.

  3. Avoid eating more than 30 grams of protein at a meal. Although that extra protein can be used as fuel (that is: calories), it’s not helping with muscle preservation. Move that protein to a different meal or snack.

  4. Don’t just feed your muscles: Use them. You know what works even better than protein to build new muscle? Exercise. And you know what works better than either exercise or protein alone? Exercise plus protein.  

One final caveat: Most of this research presumes that the protein in question is high-quality protein, namely, lean meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, or whey protein powder. If you’re getting your protein from plant sources such as legumes, nuts, and grains, it may take significantly more than 25 to 30 grams of protein at a meal to maximize protein synthesis.

See also: How to build muscle on a plant-based diet

Thanks to Drs. Paddon Jones and Campbell for all of their work on this important issue and for lending their expertise to our discussion.

If you have a question or topic that you think would make a good topic for a future episode, feel free to email me at nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss a single episode.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.