Protein: Fact and Fiction

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Protein, protein, protein…we’ve all heard a lot about the importance of protein in our diet. Protein bars, protein shakes, whole diets based around protein – we are inundated on a daily basis with information about how good protein is for us. But how much protein we need, how much is too much, and where we should get that protein from are often confusing propositions for most people. This article will explore some facts and fictions surrounding protein, discuss its role in exercise-based adaptations, and provide recommendations of good quality protein sources.

Fact or Fiction? – There are no established norms for protein intake for a healthy, adult population.

Fiction. Several groups, such as the Food and Nutrition Board, the American Dietetic Association, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), and others, provide recommendations for dietary protein intake. When these recommendations are made, they are typically made using one of two methods: either as a percent of total calories consumed or on a gram per unit of body weight basis (i.e. consume Xg of protein per pound of body weight).

Which method is most appropriate (percent of total calories or gram/unit weight) really depends on your current body composition goals. If your goal is loss of fat mass, then the percent of total calories is more appropriate. This ensures your overall calorie deficit is still the primary emphasis in your diet, because you are using your calorie goal as a means to determine your protein intake. If your goal is weight maintenance, muscle gain, or performance enhancement, using the gram/unit of body weight method is more appropriate. In that case, you are allowing your body’s actual biological need for protein, rather than your calorie goal, to dictate your intake.

Fact or Fiction – There is a consensus among nutritional experts on protein intake.

Fiction. Depending on the body of research you read, protein intake recommendations can range anywhere from 0.4 to 0.9grams/lb of body weight (for a 175 pound person, that’s a range of 70-160g of protein)! With this broad of a range, everyone can’t be right, can they? Well, sort of. The appropriate recommendation really depends on your protein need, which is dictated by your activity level and exercise.

The current recommended daily allowance for protein is the above-mentioned 0.4g/lb, and although this amount of protein might be adequate for a sedentary and inactive population, it is very likely inadequate for an active/exercising population. A position-stand published the foremost experts in the field of exercise nutrition found a much higher protein intake is required for individuals who are exercising regularly (JISSN, 2007). Their recommendation falls closer to the 0.9g/lb end of the spectrum. Those experts cite an abundance of physiological evidence to support the claim that since all exercise adaptations are essentially protein-based, individuals who exercise have higher protein needs.

Fact or Fiction – Higher protein intake is not safe.

Fiction. Not one ounce of peer-reviewed research has ever come close to suggesting that protein is unhealthy when consumed in high amounts (even upwards of four grams per pound of body weight!!). Any reports of high protein being unsafe come from the media, which knows little of the true research published in academic journals. When those journals are searched for evidence of kidney or liver dysfunction (which some contend are linked to high protein intake), a couple of studies surface, involving animals, where higher protein intake caused a decline in kidney function in lab rats who already had kidney disease. Not only were these rats in kidney failure but they were fed between 8-10times their body weight in grams of protein per day (for an average person that would equate to over 6000 calories just from protein)! There is absolutely no evidence suggesting such an effect on healthy humans. In fact, the research involving high protein intake in humans only suggests health benefits, not health detriment.

Fact or Fiction – You should always get your protein from whole-food sources.

Fiction. For the most part, you should try to get your daily protein from whole-food sources, but there are certain times that a protein supplement is more beneficial from an exercise adaptation perspective. These times include the before, during, and after exercise windows, where whole-food protein sources take too long to digest and absorb. In this situation, consuming fast-acting whey protein is a much better choice than trying to consume a chicken breast or a steak (mainly because those protein sources won’t digest in time to be of any use).

Fact or Fiction – I only need protein if I’m trying to build muscle.

Fiction. All exercise adaptations are protein-based. The connection to muscle gain is obvious: muscle is made of protein; therefore, you need protein to build it up. What is less obvious is the relationship protein has to other exercise adaptations. For individuals looking to lose body fat, protein actually requires more energy to breakdown than fat or carbohydrate, so protein increases metabolic rate by its mere breakdown. Protein can also act as an anti-catabolic agent, preventing breakdown of muscle tissue during exercise and reducing stress hormone secretions to aid in body fat reduction. Even the enzyme-based (and other cellular) adaptations necessary to improve endurance performance are dependent on protein.

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So what’s the take home message here? First and foremost, if you are exercising, you need protein, regardless of what you’re training for. Second, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding protein that simply aren’t true. Finally, most of us – unless we’re conscious of it – don’t consume nearly enough protein to meet our body’s needs when we are exercising. If you follow these four tips, you’ll be sure to get the protein you need to get the most from your workout:

Tip 1. Calculate your protein needs:

If your goal is weight loss, use the percent of total calorie method. For weight loss strive for a goal of 40% of your total calories coming from protein. To calculate this, multiply your calorie intake by 0.4, and then divide that number by four – this is your protein need in grams per day ([(1400 calories x 0.4)/4] = 140g/d).

If your goal is weight maintenance, muscle gain, or performance, multiply your body weight by 0.75-0.9 – this is your protein need in grams per day (175lbs x 0.8 = 140g/d)

Tip 2. Consume 6-12 grams of whey protein before, during, and/or after exercise.

Tip 3. Try to consume lean beef, poultry, or fish for the majority of your protein, as these are complete protein sources that provide EAA.

Tip 4. Keep a rough tally of your protein consumption (either in your head or on paper) to be sure you hit your protein goal at the end of the day.

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Michael Stack, AFS Founder and Exercise Physiologist

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