Protein needs: Is the one gram per pound of bodyweight formula inaccurate?

Dear Tom,

I keep reading that a common guideline for protein intake is to eat a certain amount of protein per pound of bodyweight (usually one gram per pound). Is this based on lean body mass (LBM) or your total body weight? I would think they mean LBM but I want to make sure.


Most protein and macronutrient recommendations these days are made based on pounds of total bodyweight, not pounds of lean body weight. The common recommendation you hear in bodybuilding and fitness circles is, “Eat one gram per pound of body weight.”

The reason protein recommendations are commonly given in pounds of total body weight is probably because the RDA is based on total bodyweight (kilos, not pounds, but still total bodyweight not lean bodyweight), therefore, giving protein recommendations in grams per pound seems to have become the standard unit of measure by default, not because it’s the superior method

Actually, protein and other macronutrient recommendations would be best based on LEAN weight because the more body fat you carry, the more a total bodyweight formula will overestimate your calorie and macronutrient needs, including protein.

This is why I recommend calculating your calories FIRST using a calorie formula that accounts for your LBM. I prefer the Katch Mcardle calorie formula, because it’s based on LBM. If you don’t know your LBM, the Harris Benedict equation – which is based on total bodyweight and other factors – is uncannily accurate, even without LBM factored in. These calorie formulas are posted on the Fitness Renaissance website here:

Using LBM as your criteria for calorie or protein needs is far more accurate than estimating with the popular formulas like “15-17 calories per pound of bodyweight” or “one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.”

A total body weight formula is generic, so it can never apply to every person in every situation. If you want true individualization, factor your lean body mass into all your calculations. Still, the “one gram per pound of bodyweight” gives a good ballpark figure for people involved in regular exercise and strength training (and it’s a much better recommendation than the RDA).

The RDA for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, which is a measly .36 grams per pound of bodyweight. This has nothing to do with strength-trained athletes or optimum protein levels for body composition improvement. It’s more like a minimum to maintain your health.

For serious bodybuilders, typical protein intakes are 1.25 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight and on low carb, high protein bodybuilding diets, it often goes as high as 1.5 – 1.75 grams per pound.

One thing I found extremely interesting is that the scientists are finally agreeing with what the bodybuilders have been saying all along: That if you strength train, you need more protein than the RDA… much more. In the new book, “Nutrient Timing,” authors Dr. Portman and Dr. Ivy recommend .9 grams per pound of body weight to 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight, and their recommendation was based on an analysis of current peer-reviewed, published research up to 2004.

In all my years in this field this is the FIRST time I have ever heard about Ph.D research scientists recommending a protein intake as high as 1.2 grams per pound of body weight (an intake that mainstream dieticians, nutritionists and scientists have condemned for years as excessive or even unhealthy). This shows that the one gram per pound guideline does have scientific support now. It’s also worth noting that these researchers used grams of protein per pound of total bodyweight and not per pound of lean body weight.

If you want the most individualized recommendation possible, start planning your nutrition program with your calorie calculations based on lean body weight. Then select the macronutrient profile best suited to your goals, body type and training status, whether that’s 50% carb, 30% protein, 20% fat, or 40-40-20, or the “Zone” 40-30-30, or whatever. Then you just multiply your target protein percentage by your target calorie level to get your personal protein requirement in grams.

In conclusion, you’re correct that total bodyweight is not the ideal unit of measurement and lean bodyweight is better. You can’t use a generic guideline like 1 gram per pound of total bodyweight or even 1.2 grams per pound and have it apply to every person in every situation. It’s always better to individualize your nutrition, but science is now verifying that the old standby of “one gram per pound of bodyweight” really gives you a decent ballpark figure if you’re active and your body fat is average or better.