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So you’ve heard that protein is helpful for weight loss, but you’re wondering exactly how much protein you need to be eating when you’re trying to lose weight.
I’m here to provide you with my advice as a nutrition coach, based on the results I’ve achieved for both myself and my clients.
Protein requirements when losing body fat are higher than when maintaining or gaining weight.
The recommended protein intake when cutting is 1.2 grams per pound of your goal weight, in order to preserve as much muscle mass as possible during a calorie deficit and to assist with managing hunger and cravings.
- The recommended intake of 1.2 grams of protein is still a general guideline; your specific circumstances might require slightly more or slightly less protein (I’ll explain when and how to adjust this target below).
- Eating significantly more protein isn’t necessarily better and won’t yield faster results; it could even sabotage your results.
- There are several ways to easily increase your protein intake during a cut while keeping calories low.
Why Is Protein So Critical While Cutting?
Adequate dietary protein intake is critical while cutting because it encourages your body to retain muscle mass as you lose weight.
Additionally, protein is very satiating as it takes longer to digest and can suppress hunger hormones for longer periods, which helps to manage appetite and cravings.
Lean muscle mass burns a lot more calories than fat mass (about 6 times more), even when you’re resting. This is why muscle tissue is called “metabolically costly.”
It’s also why lean, muscular people can eat more calories while maintaining their weight compared to someone of the same weight who has more body fat and less muscle.
During a calorie deficit, the body will sense that it is not getting enough energy (calories) to sustain its mass, and so it will naturally want to get rid of the tissues that need the most calories: your muscles.
You’ve worked hard to build those muscles, so naturally you don’t want that to happen – you’d rather lose body fat to improve your body composition.
To protect your lean muscle tissue, it’s essential to eat enough protein to provide amino acids (the building blocks of muscle tissue) to stay in a positive “protein balance” and encourage your body to retain muscle.
The extra protein is required because when the body senses it’s not getting enough calories from its preferred fuel sources of carbs and fats, it will even start using protein to meet its needs by turning protein into glucose (a form of sugar that normally comes from carbohydrates) in a process called gluconeogenesis.
By consuming enough protein, your body could use the dietary protein for energy rather than breaking down your muscles for energy.
Eating a lot of protein is also very helpful when it comes to sticking to a calorie deficit. Eating fewer calories than your body needs can result in increased hunger and cravings, so eating satiating foods like protein can help you feel full and reduce cravings.
Factors That Determine Your Protein Intake During A Cut
The following 6 factors will influence your protein intake while cutting:
1. Current & Goal Bodyweights
One of the main determinants of your protein intake is your body weight, both your starting body weight and your goal body weight.
Normally, the recommendation of 1.2 grams of protein is based on your goal body weight.
But, if your goal body weight means losing more than 20% of your current body weight, base your target intake on an interim goal of that first 20%.
2. Body Fat Percentage
A more accurate metric than total body weight is to base your protein intake on your lean body mass (total mass – fat mass = lean mass).
Extremely lean, muscular individuals have higher protein requirements than individuals with more fat mass because it will require more effort for them to retain their current muscle mass as they don’t have as much fat to sacrifice.
If you are a female at or below 15% body fat, increase your protein intake to 1.5 grams per pound of goal body weight.
If you are a male at or below 10% body fat, increase your protein intake to 1.5 grams per pound of goal body weight.
If you don’t know your body fat percentage (many people don’t), then stick to the weight guidelines outlined above.
3. Resistance Training
Resistance training (i.e. weightlifting) is one of the single best forms of a stimulus for “anabolism”, which is the process of building new tissue (specifically lean muscle tissue).
Building new muscle tissue is called muscle protein synthesis, and muscle protein synthesis requires a positive protein balance: eating more protein than your body is breaking down from the demands placed upon it during exercise.
So, engaging in resistance training means that you’ll need higher amounts of protein.
If you don’t engage in any resistance training or if you have only 1-2 sessions per week, then decrease your protein intake to 1.0 grams per pound of goal body weight (but I highly suggest you start/increase resistance training during your cut, since it’s shown to spare lean mass during a calorie deficit).
On the other hand, if you have more than 5 resistance training sessions per week, increase your protein intake to 1.5 grams per pound of goal body weight.
For 3-5 sessions per week, 1.2 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight is appropriate, unless you fall into the “very lean” categories described above, in which case stick to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight.
4. Rate Of Loss
The faster your rate of weight loss, the higher the risk of losing lean muscle mass. For this reason, you should aim to lose no more than 0.5 to 1% of your body weight each week to maximize muscle retention.
If your rate of loss is at (or targeted to be at) the higher end of this range, eat 1.5 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight instead of 1.2 grams.
5. Protein Quality
When I talk about protein “quality,” I’m talking about two key elements: leucine content and amino acid profile.
Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid (a building block of protein) and one of the nine essential amino acids. Leucine content is considered to be the limiting factor when it comes to muscle growth and retention, so the higher the leucine content in a given source of protein, the better.
You can get the same muscle-protecting benefits from plant-based sources if you match the leucine content of animal sources, but you will need a larger serving size of the plant-based source to get the same amount of leucine, meaning you will be ingesting more calories (something to keep in mind when you’re trying to achieve a calorie deficit).
Expect to eat up to 25-33% more plant-based protein to get the same amount of leucine as animal sources of protein. If your diet is exclusively plant-based, eat 1.5 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight instead of 1.2 grams.
Amino Acid Profile
Animal products and protein powders made from animal products (like whey protein) are complete proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids. Most plant-based sources of protein are incomplete proteins (except for soy, and a few others).
Your body needs all nine essential amino acids (they are called “essential” because your body cannot make them on its own), so it’s important to either eat animal sources of protein or choose plant-based blends that combine multiple plant-based sources to create a complete protein.
- Related Article: How To Get Enough Protein On A Plant-Based Diet
You might be surprised to see age at the very end of the list because many people incorrectly think that age plays a more important role than it actually does when it comes to metabolism and protein requirements.
Age is often used as a proxy for muscle mass, with the generally accepted idea that as you get older, your metabolism is slower. This isn’t exactly true: metabolism is much more closely tied to the amount of lean muscle mass you have than to your age.
Many people have less muscle mass as they get older, but this is not a direct result of getting older (it’s not causational); it’s merely correlational because many people don’t train as hard or as often as they age, due to other life commitments like career or family.
Up until about age 60, metabolism and protein requirements are best predicted by the amount of lean tissue you have, so focus on the first five factors in this list. If you’re over age 60, then increase your protein target to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight.
6 Steps For Calculating Your Protein Intake While Cutting
Based on the six factors above, here are six steps to follow when calculating your protein intake while cutting.
Step 1: Adjust For Weight
Start with 1.2 grams of protein per pound of goal body weight.
If your goal body weight is more than 20% less than your current weight, base your target on an interim goal weight representing 20% loss.
After losing the first 10% of starting body weight, the target can be adjusted to a new goal weight (again, no more than 20% loss from the new starting point).
Step 2: Adjust For Body Fat
If you are a female with less than 15% body fat, use 1.5 grams of protein.
If you are a male at less than 10% body fat, use 1.5 grams of protein.
Step 3: Adjust For Resistance Training
If you engage in resistance training less than 3 times per week, use 1.0 grams of protein.
If you engage in resistance training more than 5 times per week, use 1.5 grams of protein.
Step 4: Adjust For Rate Of Loss
If your goal is time-sensitive and requires losing more than 1% of your current body weight each week, use 1.5 grams of protein.
Step 5: Adjust For Plant-Based Protein
If you are eating only plant-based sources of protein, use 1.5 grams of protein.
Step 6: Adjust For Age
If you are over the age of 60, use 1.5 grams of protein.
Can You Eat More Protein Than Recommended? Is More Protein Better?
You can eat more protein than is recommended while cutting, but this isn’t necessarily better and won’t get you results more quickly.
Eating too much protein could actually increase your risk of micronutrient deficiencies because you would have to decrease your intake of carbs and fats to stay within your calorie deficit and this would decrease the variety of micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) in your diet.
“Micronutrient deficiencies can cause visible and dangerous health conditions, but they can also lead to less clinically notable reductions in energy level, mental clarity and overall capacity.”
Why Do You Eat More Protein When Cutting vs. Bulking?
When you’re cutting, you are not eating enough total calories to meet your body’s energy needs, so there is a greater risk that some of your dietary protein will be used to meet energy needs and NOT used to preserve lean muscle tissue. When you’re bulking you are eating enough calories to “spare” protein.
It might surprise you to hear that protein intake is actually higher when you are trying to lose body fat (cutting), compared to when you are trying to add muscle mass (bulking) since protein contains the building blocks (amino acids) for building new muscle tissue.
Even though it seems counterintuitive at first, this is not true. This is because when you are eating in a calorie surplus to add muscle mass, your total daily calorie intake is more than sufficient to meet your needs.
Once you meet your baseline target for protein intake, eating more protein won’t help you grow muscles faster. And in a surplus, there is no risk that your body will use the protein that you eat to meet its energy needs because you are eating more than enough calories from carbs and fat.
This is called a “protein-sparing” effect; eating carbs and fat means the protein can be set aside (“spared”) for building muscle.
This protein-sparing effect does not occur when cutting because your carbs and fats are reduced to help you achieve a calorie deficit. So, to ensure that you have enough protein to preserve lean muscle tissue AND to help meet your energy requirements, it’s important to eat MORE protein while cutting than bulking.
Does The Timing Of Your Protein Intake Matter While Cutting?
The most important aspect of protein intake is making sure your overall total daily intake matches your target, but, research does suggest that muscle protein synthesis occurs more often when you spread your protein intake evenly over the course of the day so this could optimize your results.
Aim for no more than 0.4-0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight at each meal.
If you want to take this even further you can learn more about nutrient timing as it relates to your protein intake.
This involves having the fastest-digesting sources of protein (hydrolyzed whey protein powder is at the top of the list) immediately after your workouts when they are needed to replenish your body, and the slowest-digesting sources of protein (like the casein in cottage cheese) before bed to provide a steady stream of amino acids while you sleep.
- Related Article: How Long Does Whey Protein Take To Digest + Why It Matters
Does Your Protein Intake Change During The Course Of Your Cut?
Yes, sometimes your protein intake may need to change during the course of your cut, depending on the length of the cut and how much bodyweight you lose (and the rate at which you lose it).
As I described in the 6 Steps above, protein intake can change as a person gets closer to their goal body weight. After losing some weight, their smaller body might have lower protein requirements.
On the other hand, some individuals will reduce body fat over the course of the cut and end up so lean (<15% body fat for women or <10% body fat for men) that they require more protein.
Another reason to increase protein intake over the course of the cut would be if the number of resistance training sessions goes up, or if the rate of loss starts to speed up (this is common if there is a time-sensitive aspect to the cut, such as needing to “make weight” for a competition, or dropping body fat for a bodybuilding stage show on a set date).
5 Tips For Increasing Your Protein Intake While Cutting
There are lots of tips and tricks for increasing your protein intake while keeping your calorie intake low enough to achieve a calorie deficit.
Here are my top five tips:
1. Pick Leaner Protein Sources
Meat, fish, and poultry are all great whole food sources of protein, but they can come with a lot of additional calories from fat if you pick fattier options like marbled steak, fatty fish, or poultry with the skin on.
- Related Article: How To Increase Protein Intake Without Increasing Fat
2. Choose Nonfat Or Low-Fat Dairy Products
Dairy products are another animal-based source of protein that can be high in fat and pack a lot of additional calories if you get regular or full-fat options.
So, choose low-fat (1%) or nonfat (0%) dairy products to save grams of fat and calories.
But, don’t make the mistake of getting flavored options that add extra calories in the form of sugar (carbs). Flavored nonfat yogurt instead of plain adds at least 9 grams of carbs and 30-40 calories for each ¾ cup serving.
- Related Article: 30 Yogurt Brands With The Most Protein (Complete List)
3. Choose High Protein Grains Or Legumes For Your Carbs
You still need carbs when you’re cutting, but you can make your carbohydrate choices do “double-duty” by providing both carbohydrates AND protein if you focus on legumes (like chickpeas or kidney beans) or the highest-protein whole grains (kamut, teff, and amaranth).
These options will have more protein and fiber than refined grains, which makes them more filling. These options will help keep you more satiated and help you stick to your calorie deficit to lose body fat.
- Related Article: 14 Grains With The Most Protein (Complete List)
4. Make High Protein Substitutions
Many people are realizing the benefits of eating more protein, so there are a ton of higher-protein versions of your favorite foods on the market these days.
Look for products that have more protein with the same or fewer calories than the original. This will allow you to increase your protein intake while keeping your calories low.
Here are some examples:
- High-protein mac & cheese
- High-protein cereal
- High-protein ice cream
- High-protein chips
- High-protein bread & wraps
- High-protein pasta
5. Bake With Protein Powder
You can usually replace ¼ cup out of each 1 cup of flour in a recipe with 1 scoop (~30 grams) of protein powder. This will add about 22 grams of protein to the recipe, and reduce the carbs by roughly the same amount (22 grams).
For example, if your recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, use 1½ cups of flour + ½ cup of protein powder (2 scoops), instead.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Protein Should Come From Protein Powder During A Cut?
During a cut, I recommend that my clients limit protein intake from protein powder to no more than 20% of total protein because protein from protein powder is less satiating than eating whole food sources of protein, and it’s important to feel full to adhere to a calorie deficit.
Will I Lose Muscle If I Don’t Eat Enough Protein While Cutting?
Yes, you can lose muscle if you don’t eat enough protein while cutting. You also need to ensure that you are doing appropriately challenging resistance training to provide a stimulus to your body to retain lean muscle mass. In a calorie deficit, your body will only keep the muscle mass it absolutely needs.
When Cutting, Is Protein More Important Than Calories?
No, protein is not more important than calories. A successful cut requires a calorie deficit, so it’s more important to hit your calories than your protein if hitting your protein target means that you will go over your calories. That said, it is more important to hit your protein target than your carb or fat target.
- Related Article: Is It Better To Hit Your Macros or Calories?
What Percentage Of Calories Should Come From Protein While Cutting?
We recommend that 30-35% of calories come from protein while cutting. This will maximize the satiety from eating slow-digesting protein-rich foods while allowing you to get the micronutrients you need from foods that provide carbs and fat. Eating more than 35% of calories from protein can have negative impacts.
Can I Get Enough Protein From Plant-Based Sources During A Cutting Cycle?
Yes, you can get enough protein from plant-based sources during a cutting cycle if you plan carefully. Plant-based sources of protein have more carbohydrates than animal-based sources of protein, so adjust your macros for higher carbs & lower fat to create an overall deficit. Using plant-based protein powders can help.
How Should I Adjust My Protein Intake If I Am Not Seeing Results While Cutting?
If you’re not seeing results (on the scale or in the mirror) during a cut, it means that your calorie intake is still too high to create a deficit needed for fat loss. If this is the case, try cutting carbs or fat by an additional 10% while keeping protein the same.
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About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.