The purpose of this column is tri-fold. Purpose number one is as a "refresher course" for seasoned lifters. Sure, deep down, you may know this stuff, but it's been so long since you first read about it that you've forgotten the rationale behind the subject matter.
Secondly, this column's for those readers who have just graduated from the newsstand mags. Maybe they've been reading nothing but "Muscle and Fitness" for the past few years, and as such, know pretty much nothing about the science of the sport, except for maybe the "science" of Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman's glute training.
Lastly, this column is for the newbie who may have stumbled onto this site and mistakenly thought he'd landed on some weird planet populated by a strange breed of weight lifting rocket scientists who, at times, slip into surfer dialect. By reading this column, the newbie can be acclimated to the rarefied atmosphere, slowly, so he doesn't get the bends.
If, as the adage suggests, I am what I eat, I'm a mass of protein powder, chicken breasts, raw salmon, hard boiled eggs, turkey burgers, and the occasional steak. Instead of hair, I've got strips of beef jerky for hair. Instead of hands, giant ham hocks. My ass? Two hunks of grade A flank steak.
Yep, protein's my main squeeze, my compadre, the Jane to my Dick. While fat and carbs are also important, they're often incidental to my foraging. It's protein content that determines every meal, every choice from the menu, every reach into the fridge or the cupboard.
If it hasn't got an appreciable amount of protein in it, it ain't gonna' have the pleasure of being subjected to peristalsis by my digestive tract.
I'm sure that's the way it pretty much is to all lifters. Protein is King, but like many kings before it, it's misunderstood and rumors abound. Hence this article. It addresses 8 of the most commonly asked questions about protein.
How much protein can I eat at one time?
Read almost any bodybuilding mag or "fitness" mag (the distinction being that bodybuilding mags are targeted to those that look like they work out and fitness mags are targeted toward those that don't look like they work out), and you'll see the one nutrition "truth" that has stood the test of time: You can only digest 30 grams of protein in one sitting.
Eat any more than that and you'll have overloaded your poor digestive system. The intestines will rebel, and the extra protein will be rejected like a wrinkly dollar bill put into a finicky Coke machine. It's an absolute, like the speed of light.
Trouble is, there's absolutely no evidence anywhere to suggest that the 30-gram barrier really exists. Where that number originated is anybody's guess.
The truth is, no one knows what the protein "speed limit" really is. It could be 30 grams, but it could also be 60, or 80, or even 100 grams. Much of it probably depends on things like intestinal transit time (the slower, generally the better), length of the digestive tract, and maybe even enzyme efficiency.
However, for what most of us have seen and experienced, there's no reason to think that your body can't handle amounts of up to 60 grams per sitting, especially if the 60 grams are in a liquid-based drink (which is much easier to digest than a giant hunk of bovine).
Are Protein Bars Good Sources of Protein?
Well, they could be, if bar manufacturers put a little effort and ingenuity into their products.
Most of us grab a protein bar when we're on the run and toting a blender around isn't exactly practical. There are so many choices, though, and our main consideration in choosing what bar to eat is often how much protein the bar contains. In fact, grams of protein has become sort of a space race, each company one-upping the other in its efforts to cram as much protein as possible into each bar.
First there was the 10-gram bar, then the 20, the 30, and even the 40-gram bar. Soon, bars will come with one of those things they used to use to jam gunpowder into the gaping maw of a cannon.
The trouble is, putting protein into a food bar poses something of a problem. It acts like sawdust in that it sucks up moisture, often leaving you with a bar that's very much like what you'd find piled up in the back yard of a negligent dog owner, after it's baked in the sun for a few days.
Sooo, in an effort to get around this problem, bar manufacturers started putting gelatin, often derived from horse hooves, into their bars. It provided moisture, and what's more, the FDA recognizes gelatin as a type of protein!
However, you may have noticed that no one every really got too buff from eating Jell-O. Witness Bill Cosby.
It doesn't contribute to protein synthesis, nor does it prevent protein breakdown, and aside from having a poor amino acid blend in general, it's even missing an amino acid (methionine).
So, if you look at the ingredients wrapper of your favorite food bar, and you see "gelatin" listed as maybe the second, third, or even fourth ingredient, there's a good chance that about 30% of the protein grams in the bar you're eating come from Mr. Ed's feet.
Should I use a Time-Release Protein before Going to Bed?
We used to think that time-release proteins would change the bodybuilding world. Our theory was that by taking one of these puppies before going to bed, you escaped the whole two-steps forward, one-step back tango that occurs during sleep.
The 6-8 hours you spend sleeping with a nocturnal erection represent the longest portion of the day that you're going without food or, more specifically, protein. Let's say you're a good bodybuilder and you've eaten some protein before going to bed. That's great, but about four hours later, the body begins using stored nutrients for energy. Your body starts tapping the liver and muscles for needed glucose and amino acids, and it goes on until you wake up and cram your gullet with breakfast.
So, in our naiveté, we thought that a time-release protein that kept supplying amino acids to the body all night would be a great idea. Well, we were guilty of one-dimensional thinking. Rather than think outside the box, we confined our thinking to a little corner of the box, the one that had a few left over Graham Cracker crumbs lying around.
And so we – along with another company – tried to develop a time-release protein using liposomal technology. We finally did it, but after we did it, we realized we had a White Elephant on our hands.
Something we hadn't thought about changed our thinking. Let's say that you give someone intravenous amino acids for a long time, say 6 hours. Well, protein synthesis increases from the 30-minute mark to about the 2-hour mark. After that, protein synthesis pretty much returns to baseline.
Translation: keeping protein elevated constantly won't lead to increased protein synthesis rates. However, if you have a chunk of protein at zero hour, and then have another chunk four hours later, you get a huge jump in protein synthesis. Second translation: you need large or phasic bursts of protein every few hours to keep protein synthesis chugging along.
While it would be nice to have a time-bomb protein supplement that released a surge of protein 4 hours after ingestion, it isn't currently within the grasps of technology.
So, what's a protein lovin' boy to do? Well, you only really have one choice, and that's to drink a protein drink at bedtime and wake up after 4 or so hours to have another.
But, if that's too much trouble or a tad too anal, you can eat a slow digesting protein like cottage cheese before going to bed or slug down a protein drink that's made from casein and whey. Both will accomplish the same thing as any of the timed-release proteins on the market, only they'll be a lot cheaper.
One thing you definitely should do before going to bed, though, is to make sure you use a good moisturizer, particularly around the elbows to remedy those dry patches that are so gosh darn unsightly.
How much protein should I eat?
The American Dietetics Association says you only need 0.4 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. This recommendation also applies to grasshoppers, toasters, and tree sloths.
As you might guess, we don't buy it. Here's the rub: ADA recommendations, by definition, apply to roughly 97.5% of the population. Given the 280 million or so people in the U.S. alone, that means that there are probably a whole bunch of slobs out there who need more, a lot more, and most of these slobs are called athletes.
However, in what must have been some sort of religious revelation, the ADA has begrudgingly admitted that athletes might need a bit more protein. As such, they've upped the scale. They now suggest that endurance athletes need 0.55 to 0.65 grams per pounds and weight trainers need 0.65 to 0.80 grams per pound.
Well, that ain't bad, but those of us who have been in the biz for any length of time have generally seen profound things happen when you up the protein intake to 1.5 to 2.0 grams per pound. Muscle bellies round out, fat loss increases, financial portfolios increase in value, and shower scum all but disappears. Okay I'm kidding about the last two points, but not about the first two.
Are there any studies that support these decidedly higher end recommendations? Nope. The closest we can come is to some Romanian studies that suggested that 1.6 to 1.8 grams per pound might work for ball busters. Other studies, like those conducted by Tarnopolsky, suggested that endurance athletes – but not bodybuilders – need roughly 1.7 time the U.S. RDA. Keep in mind, though, that what researchers call "bodybuilding" is what you or I might call jerking off. In other words, the three sets of bench press researchers often prescribe as a training protocol doesn't exactly duplicate what most of us do in the gym, and as such doesn't lead to any realistic research results.
Regardless, once you see increased protein intake lead to bigger and better muscles over and over again (like we have), you can't help but come to the conclusion that more – up to a certain point – is better.
Our general recommendation for normal phase of training is at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight and 1.5 to 2.0 grams per pound of bodyweight during heavy-duty training phases where you want progress and you want progress fast.
Should I eat soy protein?
The US Food and Drug Administration thinks you should. They currently allow soy products to make the following claim:
"25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
Unfortunately, what the Food and Drug Administration doesn't know, or knows and doesn't tell you because of really rich and powerful soy conglomerates, is that soy is probably very bad stuff, when consumed in amounts as large as 25 grams per day.
What the claim should say is this:
"25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a crappy lifestyle in general, can lead to a hypoactive thyroid, increased estrogen levels, reduced sperm counts, the death of testicular cells, and lowered Testosterone levels. Eat up!
Oh yeah, that claim about reducing the risk of heart disease? At least one study has shown that it can decrease HDL levels (the "good" cholesterol) and increase lipoprotein levels in healthy men (lipoprotein levels are a "smoking gun" indicator for heart disease).
The key culprits are most likely a couple of isoflavones found in soy protein: daidzein and genistein. Of course, I can't imagine any company undertaking the difficult and expensive task of eliminating these isoflavones from the product. If they did, the product would probably be prohibitively expensive. Besides, as far as soy's anabolic properties, it doesn't hold a candle to whey or casein.
If you're female, and you've just filled out your AARP application, go ahead and eat soy without worrying about it too much. All others should nix it.
What's better, casein or whey?
Well, casein often wins head-to-head competitions in research labs, but it probably doesn't matter all that much which protein you ingest to further your muscle-building efforts.
I've always maintained that if you took 10 clones and had them train and live the same way for a year – the only difference being what protein powder or MRP they ingested – -you wouldn't find all that much difference.
With that said, I'll admit that studies have shown that casein ingestion leads to a greater deposition of protein than whey. It also inhibits protein breakdown to a greater degree than whey. Apparently, when you ingest casein, it forms kind of a gelatinous mass in your stomach, thus taking your system longer to absorb it and ensuring a fairly constant flow of amino acids into the bloodstream.
Conversely, whey protein is emptied pretty quickly from the stomach, which leads to an increase in muscle-protein synthesis without a change in protein breakdown.
Various studies have also shown casein to lead to superior gains in strength over whey, along with having the highest amount of glutamine of all the most commonly consumed proteins.
Still, whey certainly has its place. As mentioned, whey protein is rapidly digested and causes a rapid increase in protein synthesis, thus making it the ideal thing to chug down immediately after a workout.
The best advice we could give is to use both casein and whey in your bodybuilding efforts.
There are so many type of whey protein. Which is best?
The average whey protein consumer is likely to run into three different types of whey, and all have to do with how the protein was processed.
The first type is whey hydrosolates. This just refers to a protein where long chains of amino acids have been broken up either into little-bitty groups of amino acids or freestanding amino acids. When you eat any type of protein, it eventually becomes hydrolyzed in your gut, providing you have the necessary enzymes to do the job.
Taking your proteins in a hydrolyzed state means that a lot of the work's already been done for you. As such, these types of proteins are assimilated much more quickly than other, non-hydrolyzed types.
The second type of commonly found whey protein is whey isolates. These are lonely wheys that spend most of their time locked up in their rooms until they go berserk and end up on a watch tower somewhere with a high-powered rifle. Nah, they're really a type of whey that's been concentrated from various dairy sources. They usually use ceramic filters to isolate the protein and the end result is a high-quality protein that hasn't been subjected to heat. Consequently, it hasn't lost any of its purported immunostimulatory properties.
The third most commonly encountered whey protein is called ion-exchange whey. This is simply a whey that's been purified by controlling the chemical charges of the proteins. They use chemicals to do this so the protein ends up slightly damaged, or denatured, but the final product is the most pure of all the whey proteins.
Does it matter which one you use? Probably not, except in the case of the post-workout period. This is when you'd want a fast-acting, easily digestible protein like a whey hydrosolate.
The girl who gives me pedicures is a nutrition expert. She says that excess protein will cause serious health problems. Is she right?
You know, we hear this all the time from college freshman who are currently taking their first course in nutrition.
Most of the allegations have to do with how high protein intakes can damage the kidneys. Unfortunately, this conclusion was the result of a faulty leap of misguided logic. It's true that high protein diets are rough on patients with kidney disease. However, this is no reason to extrapolate that the same high-protein intake will damage the kidneys of healthy men and women.
Look at it this way, if high-protein diets cause kidney problems, wouldn't you expect to see a high incidence of kidney disease in athletes who started weight training and eating high protein in the 50's, 60's, and 70's? It hasn't happened.
Similarly, high-protein diets are said to cause calcium to leech from bones. That's true. However, drinking a single glass of milk a day (or taking in the calcium equivalent) would provide enough calcium to replace the amount of calcium sacrificed in a high-protein diet.
And lastly, high-protein diets are said to correlate strongly with heart disease. That might have been true in the days before protein powders existed and strength athletes had to rely solely on large amounts of often high-in-saturated-fat animal protein, but it's certainly not the case now.
There are probably a lot more commonly asked questions about protein, but we think we've tackled the biggies. Now go out and squelch the arguments of any feisty first-year nutrition student or Muscle and Fitness reader.