It's always struck us as a little counterintuitive that strength athletes and bodybuilders should eat barrels of protein all day, and in some cases, all night long. Although it seems to work in building more muscle over the long run, ya' can't help but wonder if the body gets less efficient at processing all that protein and, as such, needs more and more of it.
Or, maybe it gets more efficient at processing it, and it begins recycling a large percentage of the amino acids in the bloodstream while dumping the excess. With all the uncertainty and confusion, it's enough to make you give up protein all together and subsist solely on kiwi fruit.
But maybe, just maybe, there's a better way to eat protein. Maybe there's a good reason to pulse your protein. In other words, ingest the huge bulk of your daily protein in a relatively short time, thereby taking advantage of diurnal surges in anabolic hormones. And maybe there's even some research to support this notion, and maybe, just maybe, strength coach and T-mag contributor Brian Batcheldor has been trying it with his athletes...
T: Where did you first come up with the idea of pulsed protein ingestion?
BB: Mainly from the studies of a Frenchman named Yves Boirie. His work is probably the most referenced work in the protein literature, but his main field of expertise is endocrinology.
T: What's the connection between protein and endocrinology that we, as bodybuilders or strength athletes, would be most interested in?
BB: Well, Boirie also specializes in protein metabolism and obviously, the endocrine system has a big impact on protein metabolism. If you look at the body's catabolic and anabolic hormones like insulin, they all impact protein metabolism, and Boirie and his team have done studies concerning every single influence on protein metabolism.
They've looked at the influence of feeding times, feeding patterns, the influence of anabolic hormones like IGF-1 and growth hormone; and they've looked at the impact of age on protein metabolism, so they've just about covered everything over the years.
And all their experiments are in vivo experiments; they're done with metabolic tracers where they trace the kinetics of protein – primarily leucine – through the body, and it gives them a pretty accurate indication of how a particular diet or substance has impacted protein metabolism. And they've done... I think it's three studies... looking at in particular this pulse feeding...
T: Tell us about the studies.
BB: Well, the main area that they looked at was improving protein metabolism in elderly people. That's what started the ball rolling because wasting is a big problem in elderly people. And they were trying to find the most efficient protein feeding pattern to control the situation, so they looked at ingesting the majority of the day's protein intake prior to noon, because most of the body's anabolic hormones are produced in the morning.
What they found was that doing these "pulse feeding patterns" yielded superior results in terms of decreased protein breakdown and sustained positive nitrogen balance.
T: Exactly how much of their daily intake were they eating before noon?
BB: Up to 80%. And they used quite a high dosage [of protein], compared to most other studies. They used about 1.8 grams per kilo of bodyweight.
T: How many feedings? All at breakfast? All at breakfast and lunch?
BB: The majority was taken at noon. The other 20% was eaten later in the day. The significant thing was that they also separated out the carbs and the proteins. That meant that up until noon, they had no carbs. And then from noon onward, that's when they took in the day's carbohydrates – spread out through the day.
T: Is there a reason they decided to do that?
BB: I think they wanted to just look at the impact of the protein feeding – its own metabolism, but I think it soon occurred to them that separating out the carbs was possibly what aided the results. The carbs themselves would have a protein sparing effect.
The other thing I should point out was that there was nothing special about this diet, it was just an ordinary French diet. Cheeses and meats.
The people all probably weighed around 60 kilos, so they weren't heavy. And they did another study where they used elderly people, but where they also used another group of young people. But all these studies were with women – there was no deliberate reason for that, but they did choose to see if the results would be the same in young people. And they were.
T: Identical results?
BB: They were slightly better for the elderly people, but obviously because they had inferior protein metabolism in the first place, but with the young women, the pulsed feeding pattern was certainly superior to the spread pattern.
T: Please define a "spread pattern." Does that mean that they were eating every two or three hours?
BB: No, they ate in a conventional, normal-people sense – two or three meals spread out over the day.
But one thing that all of these studies showed was that taking this huge glob of protein, condensed into a short time period, caused a chronic adaptation to protein metabolism – the body had to adjust to it and it did.
So, if you think, even for someone who weighed 60 kilos, 1.8 grams per kilo, that's still a fair amount of protein to take in at one sitting for the body to metabolize efficiently. Yet they were capable of doing it. They were more capable of assimilating that huge amount of protein in one sitting than they were in assimilating it when it was spread out over the day.
T: What's the take home message of all this?
BB: I've tried this pulse feeding method with a few athletes, and most of them are very skeptical to start with – when you've got people that have mentally adjusted to eating protein every two or three hours, it's hard to get them to try something like this, but without exception, everyone made good gains off it. They even improved their appetites, whereas before they had found it hard to put away that amount of protein.
And certainly, that feeding pattern is without a doubt far more suited to natural athletes, because if you look at all the research on high-protein diets, without exception, most of them seem to advise against the amounts of protein most bodybuilders are taking because they say it negatively impacts performance. And it's true. I see it with strength athletes and I see it with track and field athletes. If they're taking 300 grams a day, performance is affected, and we sometimes confuse appearance with performance.
T: How exactly would it interfere with performance?
BB: Because high-protein diets cause metabolic acidosis, so your blood pH is always off...
T: But you can counterbalance that, right?
BB: It's different because a chronic high-protein diet potentially causes all kinds of problems with the competitive athlete. Within a short period after a high-protein meal, your blood ends up in an acidic pH, and if you take into account someone's training as well, which causes a build up of lactic acid, you end up in a very catabolic condition because these acidic blood pH's lower IGF, they lower thyroid hormones, and they elevate cortisol. The situation is a little different – not as much of a drawback – if the athlete is using steroids, but it's still noteworthy.
In any event, when my athletes come off anabolics, I get them to up their carbs and lower their protein to swing their blood pH back to alkaline.
T: What amount of protein per pound of bodyweight do you bring them back to?
BB: They come down to about 2.5 grams per kilo.
T: And how high was their protein intake prior to that?
BB: Round about 3 to 3.2 grams per kilo.
T: Now, 2.5 grams of protein per kilo is not all that low if you're a 100 kilo athlete [roughly 220 pounds]. That would be about 250 grams of protein per day.
BB: But when we're talking about adapting to this pulse feeding method, that is certainly a lot more manageable than when you're going over 300 grams per day.
T: Wait a minute, so what you're saying is to eat 300 grams at lunch????? How could you do that? Let's compare someone who maybe wants to take in 200 grams per day, and someone who wants to take in 400 grams a day.
BB: First of all, I don't think there's any point for any natural athlete taking in 400 grams of protein a day. I firmly believe that they can't gain any benefits from that. I'd say for a natural athlete, 2.5 grams per kilo is good. And that's high. Even the most generous sport scientists would say that was high.
T: Okay, let's take a 100 kilo man, who's taking in 250 grams of protein... how would he incorporate the protein-pulse method of eating?
BB: What I would do is first thing in the morning, upon arising, have them take in a small amount of protein – a short peptide chain protein, easily digestible, with some simple carbs, like maybe a serving of Biotest Surge.
And maybe an hour to an hour and a half later, they would take in around 50 grams of protein. That could be in the form of a protein drink or whole food, and then, about two and a half to three hours later, they would take in about 100 grams of protein, so at that point they'd be up to about 175 grams of protein.
T: This is at noon they'd be eating the hundred grams? And would they have carbohydrates with that?
BB: No they wouldn't.
T: So when would they feed themselves next?
BB: Then they have a balance of about 75 grams of protein to be taken in during the rest of the day. They would take maybe a little amount of protein before they train. I would say that they would probably be better off with a more complex form of protein at that point, like combined casein and whey. If it's pre-workout, like an hour and a half before they train, I would think they'd be better off with the combined protein, and then, post workout, something like Biotest Surge – short peptide chains.
They'd get 50 grams with those two feedings, and then about 25 grams with their evening meal. And that's it.
T: And you have done this and noticed a difference?
BB: Definitely, definitely. They [his athletes] got leaner, they started to lose body fat, they started to make lean mass gains, they have far, far better recovery, and better workouts. I swear by it, absolutely swear by it. With my guys now, when they come off the gear, I wouldn't use any other way.
T: So let's go over it again. Immediately upon arising, you take in a fast-acting protein with some carbs, like Surge – something to get the glucose and the insulin and get the proteins and amino acids shunted where they're supposed to go, right?
Then an hour an a half later or so, you take in about 50 grams without any carbs, and a couple of hours later, at noon, you take your big hit, which is a hundred grams – in chicken breasts and red meat and a protein drink – however they'd prefer to do it.
Some good fats could be used but no...
BB: I would even try to minimize the fats, to tell you the truth.
T: So protein-only feeding?
T: Then about an hour to an hour and half later – between 1:30 and 2:00, they start taking their daily "allotment" of carbohydrates. Then maybe a little casein and whey protein a couple of hours before their workout followed by something like a Biotest Surge, and then an evening meal that contains about 25 grams of protein.
BB: Sure, but if somebody trains in the late afternoon or evening – let's say at 6:00 – then the 25-30 gram protein meal they would have before that would definitely be a combination of short and long chain aminos, most likely a combination of whey and casein.
When I spoke with Boirie, one of the things we discussed was how athletes could best avoid catabolism and we agreed that the post workout intake of short peptide chains was important.
Exercise increases muscle sensitivity to amino acids, so the trained athlete has improved protein synthesis. But one of the other things we discussed, which he felt was also another way of avoiding catabolism, was to take in a slow protein maybe a couple of hours beforehand.
And in fact, he discussed a protocol that's now being experimented with in surgery patients. Most people, when they have surgery, are required to fast beforehand. They don't eat overnight and this, that, and the other because of the anesthesia, but there are now protocols being looked at where they're giving people a large protein feeding a couple of hours before surgery because of the dramatic impact on catabolic hormones.
So it seems to make sense that if you can do the same thing before a workout – positively influence the anabolic response by not allowing you to slip into this catabolic state – you would get great results.
T: Sure. We've discovered pretty much the same thing from the new research on Surge or a Surge-type drink – essentially, a high carb, insulin-producing glucose drink with amino acids and fast-acting proteins taken before a workout.
One group took the drink pre-workout and one group took it post-workout, and I believe that protein synthesis in the pre-workout people was about 70% greater than the post-workout people. So the results seem to favor pre-workout ingestion of proteins. Your example cited taking slow-acting proteins a couple of hours beforehand, but research seems to show that taking a fast-acting protein immediately beforehand might even work better.
BB: I've heard about it. I've seen another one similar to that from Paul Greenhaff where they did a similar thing with a protein/carbohydrate meal pre-workout. I don't know... there are so many variables, including type of exercise, the length of training, the fuel source during training – is it primarily anaerobic or aerobic? Are they experienced athletes?
Most people eat at lunchtime, and they may not eat for three or four hours. The state they get into prior to training probably would necessitate something that's going to make a dynamic and fast response in the body. Sure, short-peptide chains would be the way to go, but most athletes wouldn't go four hours before eating. So, I would believe that pre-workout, a combination of fast and slow proteins would make sense. That aspect probably needs more study, but beyond all that, I think interested athletes might want to experiment with the main tenets of protein-pulse feeding, which is ingesting about 80% of your daily protein intake by noon.
T: Very intriguing stuff, Brian. So, to synopsize once again:
Upon arising: About 25 grams of fast-acting proteins (short chain aminos) with some carbs.
An hour or an hour and a half later: 50 grams of protein (few or no grams of carbs, few or no grams of fat).
Noon: About 100 grams of protein (again, few or no grams of carbs, few or no grams of fat).
Between 1:30 and 2:00 pm: About 25 grams of slow acting proteins (long chain aminos), like a combination of casein and whey, along with carbs and/or fat.
Post workout: Another 25 grams of protein, again using fast-acting proteins.
Dinner: Another 25 grams of protein with carbs and/or fat.
BB: Yes, that's correct.
T: Okay! We'll be experimenting with it. Thanks, Brian!
Editor's note: We're not entirely ready to give an unabashed "thumbs up" to this type of diet plan, but admittedly, it sounds intriguing. No doubt there will be plenty of questions about the protein-pulse method, so send them in and we'll be sure to do a follow-up interview with Brian.