I had someone reach out to me the other day and ask, can you build muscle on a low protein diet?
The truth of the matter is that the fitness industry is obsessed with using protein as the benchmark for building muscle. But is it really the end all be all for building muscle?
In this article, we are going to discuss what it takes to build muscle and if you can build muscle on a low protein diet.
A caloric surplus matters most
If you want to build muscle on a low protein diet, the first thing you will need to do is make sure you are eating at a caloric surplus. A caloric surplus indicates that you are eating more calories than your body can burn on any given day.
You can get your maintenance calorie number, and then start by eating 500 calories per day over that. The first rule of muscle building is that you cannot build muscle in a caloric deficit. You must eat at a caloric surplus.
All you have to do is start by downloading a free app like MyFitnessPal to track your calories.
While protein does play an important role in building muscle, it is not the most important. You can eat double the amount of recommended protein, and you could still be at a caloric deficit. Which means no muscle for you.
It would be difficult to find a diet that is completely void of protein. Therefore you are probably getting more protein than you think. The only way to know for sure is to track every single calorie.
People that are trying to lose weight need to understand that eating at a caloric deficit and working out is the key to losing fat. It’s the opposite for those that want to build muscle.
So, can you build muscle on a low protein diet? Bro science would say that you can’t, but actual science tells us that you can. Maybe not at the same rate as if you are consuming protein, but you will still build muscle if you are weight training and eating at a caloric surplus.
Focus on protein intake next
My first question to you is why are you on a low protein diet? Is it difficult for you to keep down protein? Hard to get protein where you live? Or is it something completely different?
I only ask because I used to struggle with eating enough protein. Chewing lean meat without sides is very difficult for me. But that is why I created a 1000 calorie protein shake recipe. The shake alone has 71 grams of protein and it tastes like a delicious milkshake.
Maybe you are vegetarian and find it difficult to consume enough protein. Whatever the case is, there is always a way to consume more protein.
According to the Mayo Clinic, they recommend .5-.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to gain muscle. So for someone that is 140 pounds, you need at least 70 grams of protein per day.
Now, if you checked out my 1000 calorie protein shake recipe, you will remember that it has 71 grams of protein in one shake. Use that to your advantage.
After making sure you hit all of your protein goals, be sure to fill the rest in with carbs and fats. Don’t buy into the hype that fats are bad. The reason that people become obese is because they eat at a significant caloric surplus everyday for years.
As I mentioned in the first section, I recommend a caloric surplus of 500 calories per day over your maintenance to start. If you don’t gain a pound after 2 weeks, you can increase your calorie consumption.
People who become obese usually eat at a caloric surplus significantly higher than that. Like 1,500+ per day. Remember, focus on protein first, then hitting your overall calorie goal.
Why protein is so important
This whole entire article was written around the fact that yes, you can build muscle on a low protein diet. But, we cannot lose sight of the importance of protein to begin with.
Every single cell in the human body contains protein. Therefore cells need more protein to repair themselves. When we exercise, we disturb our muscles to the point where micro tears appear in our muscles that need to be repaired.
And what repairs those muscles best? Protein.
You would now think that this means that you need to overload your body with protein. This is not the case at all. As I mentioned in the first section, the most important thing you can do is eat at a caloric surplus.
Why? Because if you are not eating at a caloric surplus, your body is going to prioritize your muscles last.
If you are eating at a caloric surplus, your body is going to use those extra calories to repair your muscles rapidly. And if your diet contains protein, your body is going to use that protein to repair your muscles.
There is a massive disconnect between the advice given about protein and advice on total calories. This is mostly because the fitness industry does not want to tell people to eat more.
The truth is, there are more overweight people in the United States than there are people who want to build muscle. This fact unfortunately gets in the way of solid advice when it comes to building muscle.
Here is what we do know. If you want to build muscle, eat at a caloric surplus and lift weights. If you want to lose fat, eat at a caloric deficit, lift weights, and do high intensity interval training.
Main Point: Can you build muscle on a low protein diet?
Our question was simple. Can you build muscle on a low protein diet? The answer is yes, but it may not happen at the same rate as a diet with an adequate protein count.
The question that you need to ask yourself is why are you not getting enough protein? Is it by choice, or is it something outside of your control? There are plenty of ways to consume protein other than just eating lean meats.
Although you can build muscle on a low protein diet, it is going to be in your best interest to hit the muscle building target of .5-.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
I cannot say this enough. The key to putting on weight is eating at a caloric surplus and lifting heavy weights. Protein content is secondary to a caloric surplus. A lot of people might argue with me on this.
But the main reason that protein intake standards are set is because in the fitness industry, being on a diet assumes that you are intent on losing weight. If you eat a low protein diet while in a caloric deficit, you are going to lose muscle mass.
On the other hand, being in a caloric surplus, you aren’t risking your muscle mass because you have enough calories to keep them growing.
So next time you ask yourself, can you build muscle on a low protein diet, be sure to come back here. And of course, I have written countless articles about building muscle and eating right, so be sure to check those out.