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How Much Protein Do We Really Need And When Do We Need It?


As human beings we are naturally gullible creatures. When it comes to research, we tend to believe what we hear without question. After all, who wants to take the time to dig deeper into a study with our busy lives and hectic work schedules? I, like most of you, find it much easier to trust the information at hand and move on with my life, however we must understand that not all research is perfect. Research can be flawed. Research can be outdated. Heck, sometimes it’s just wrong! Research also changes over time. With our advances in technology and improvements in research design, there are always new studies popping up proving a previous study wrong; or at least flawed. That’s why it’s important to always keep up with the latest research. In recent blogs we’ve talked a lot about carbohydrate, but today I’d like to turn our focus toward another macronutrient… Protein. How much do we really need? When do we need it? What are the potential hazards of too much/too little protein? How can everyone benefit from understanding their own protein requirements? The information in this article is derived from the most recent findings of the International Society of Sports Nutrition on protein and exercise.

Currently, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein in healthy adults is 0.8 g/kg body weight/day. But many factors need to be considered when determining an optimal amount of dietary protein for an exercising individual vs. a sedentary individual. These factors include protein quality, total energy intake, carbohydrate intake, mode and intensity of exercise, and the timing of protein intake. There is an abundance of research that indicates those individuals who engage in physical activity (exercise) require higher levels of protein than 0.8 g/kg body weight/day. Actually, it is the position of the International Society of Sport Nutrition that exercising individuals should ingest protein ranging from 1.4 to 2.0 g/kg body weight/day. In addition, there is research supporting some genuine risks of consuming insufficient amounts of protein, especially in the context of exercise. For the general population the most significant risk is increased catabolism (breakdown of muscle protein) and impaired recovery time.

So what are some of the rumors we’ve heard regarding a heightened level of protein consumption? One concern for many people is the suggestion that high protein diets can damage your kidneys. Is there a point at which protein intake is so high that it becomes dangerous? The answer is… probably! But you would not physically be able to consume the amount of protein that would be detrimental to your health. It is often reported by popular media that a chronically high protein intake is unhealthy and may result in unnecessary metabolic strain on the kidneys leading to impaired renal function. Another myth is that high protein diets increase the excretion of calcium thereby increasing the risk for osteoporosis. Both of these concerns are unfounded and there is no substantive evidence that a higher protein intake than the RDA of 0.8 g/kg body weight will have adverse effects in healthy, exercising individuals.

There are some special populations that DO need to keep an eye on their protein levels. While it appears that dietary protein intakes above the RDA are not dangerous for healthy, exercising individuals, those individuals with pre-existing renal insufficiencies need to closely monitor their protein intake. Observational data from epidemiological studies have provided evidence that dietary protein intake may be related to the progression of renal disease, but these cases are few and far between.

We often suggest that clients try a higher protein, lower fat diet. There are a couple of reasons for this. Not only will the higher protein diet ensure decreased catabolism and recovery time, it will also help you feel fuller longer. When someone is losing fat they are in a calorie deficit. When you are in a calorie deficit you feel hungry. Protein contains nitrogen which cannot be broken down and digested by the body. It must be recycled and excreted. Because of this process, protein is a slower digesting macronutrient keeping you full for a longer period of time. The decrease in hunger does not mean you are in less of calorie deficit, it simply means you are able to make your calorie deficit seem more manageable.

Not only should you be focused on getting a necessary amount of dietary protein, you should also be focused on getting it at the right time. Evidence is accumulating that supports the benefits of the timing of protein intake and its effect on gains in lean mass during resistance training. These same studies have also highlighted the positive immune and health-related effects associated with post-exercise protein ingestion.

A previous investigation utilizing 130 U.S. Marine subjects examined the effects of an ingested protein supplement (8 g carbohydrate, 10 g protein, 3 g fat) immediately after exercise on the status of various health markers. These data were compared to 129 subjects ingesting a non-protein supplement and 128 subjects ingesting a placebo tablet. Upon the completion of the 54 day trial, researchers reported that the subjects ingesting the protein supplement had averaged 33% fewer total medical visits, 37% less orthopedic related visits, and 83% less visits due to heat exhaustion. Post-exercise muscle soreness was also significantly reduced in subjects ingesting protein compared to the control groups. This is why you should be consciously ingesting protein around your exercise sessions. Ideally, you would ingest a fast acting protein (whey) in liquid form before, during, and immediately after exercise.

So here’s what you should get out of this article: exercising or not, our bodies NEED protein. If you are an exercising individual you need more dietary protein than your sedentary counterpart. Concerns that higher protein diets will result in a metabolic strain on your kidneys is unfounded. An attempt should be made to obtain protein requirements from whole foods, but supplemental protein intake is a safe and convenient method of ingesting high quality protein, especially around exercise. For more information on nutrient timing follow the link!

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