The Protein Conspiracy

How Much Do You Really Need?

The image appears on the TV screen. The camera is shaky, the angle skewed. Several figures in dark suits sit around a table, their features blurred and choppy. The button camera attached to the spy's lapel is minuscule, virtually undetectable. The price of its covert status is large pixels, it's images grainy and ghostly. Still, the men sitting around the table are recognizable. Joe Weider sits at the helm, flanked by bodyguards bursting forth from Armani suits. To his left is Steve Blechman, curiously tan even though it's December. Next is Dr. Scott Connelly, looking paranoid and a little shifty. Then again, he always looks paranoid and a little shifty.

The sound of a door opening and the shuffling of feet — the camera makes a dizzying turn. Tim Patterson has walked in. One of Weider's guards tries to frisk him, but one look from the new kid tells the burly guard he'd draw back a stump. Patterson takes a seat next to Connelly.

"Let's get this show on the road," beady-eyed Patterson says.

Papa Joe stands. "We are here," he says in his 'Canadian' accent, "to agree on a singular course of action. We must convince bodybuilders and all others that they need to consume an extremely large amount of protein. Protein powder is the core of our respective billion-dollar empires. It has made us rich and powerful." He stops and a grim, ceramic smile spreads across his face. "But not rich enough."

From under the table, the old man produces a Louisville Slugger. Connelly gasps. Patterson stares coldly. Blechman feels a warm trickle run down his leg.

"This must be a team effort. Are we a team, my friends?"

Slowly, the men around the table begin to nod.

"Team!" screams Weider.

"Power!" shouts Connelly.

"Money!" blurts Blechman

"World domination!" chimes Patterson.

Old Joe begins to laugh, but there's no humor in it. "Bwa ha ha ha, bwa ha ha ha!"

The image crackles and becomes dark. The spy's button camera has shorted out in a cold trickle of sweat....

Sorry all you conspiracy theorists out there, but the above scenario didn't take place. Despite this, some people would have you believe that a high-protein diet is a myth made up by supplement manufacturers to separate you from your hard-earned dough. Yeah, either that or the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence supports a high-protein intake for bodybuilders and athletes. Cy Willson, however, prefers to side with science.

Cy also takes umbrage at the concept of protein cycling. Those of you who are long-time Testosterone readers will remember an article about the alleged benefits of protein cycling that appeared many moons ago. Well, frankly, the people who tried it didn't have a great amount of success with it. Cy has some ideas why it didn't work.

What if I were to tell you that I have a super low octane fuel that could boost the efficiency and performance of your sports car? Well, I'd imagine you'd either laugh in my face or become rather intrigued by the idea. Hopefully, though, you'd realize that you rarely get more by putting in less. (Insert your own dirty joke here.)

In effect, this is somewhat analogous to the premise that lowering protein intake will lead to an increase in the efficiency of protein utilization and consequently to an increase in lean-body mass. The proponents of this idea believe that by increasing protein intake, the body simply increases the rate at which it oxidizes it. After being bombarded with amino acids, they say, the body becomes a protein burning furnace. Hogwash!

Personally, I don't believe in the "get more by putting in less" idea of protein utilization. Why someone would advocate a low protein diet for any length of time is beyond me.

There're two things that I'd never cut back on due to the enormous amount of evidence concerning the benefits of high intakes. One is protein. The other also begins with the letter "p" but we'll save that for another time.

I can't see any benefits of intentionally decreasing your protein intake, despite the claims of the "protein cycling" gurus. Will your body become a little more efficient at processing protein if you don't consume much of it? Sure it will. Your body will up-regulate the efficiency of utilization and/or storage of any macronutrient in response to a low intake. This is the rationale behind "carb loading." However, protein is a different story. If you cut your protein intake to below maintenance levels, you'll invariably and very quickly start to lose nitrogen and protein stores.

Okay, here's what gets the protein cycling crowd all hot and bothered. The evidence does show that your body will eventually lower nitrogen and protein excretion, but by then you've lost some muscle tissue! Now that this has happened, your body, which is eternally striving for homeostasis, wants that functional muscle tissue back. By up-regulating the utilization and/or storage of it, your body is able to maintain your present muscle tissue at a low intake. Then, when protein intake once again reaches the higher level, your body replaces the lost tissue with the extra influx of amino acids.

To put it simply, protein cycling is a game of one step backward and one step forward. Where does that awkward little dance ultimately lead? Nowhere! With a continuously high-protein intake, however, there's only a forward progression. Stay with me for a few minutes and at the end of this article I'll take this idea one step further and show you a dramatic way to further your bodybuilding efforts through proper protein usage.

The Lowdown on High Protein Intake

So what are the benefits of a high-protein intake? How about the Golden Two: More muscle and less fat! Now, don't get me wrong here, when I say "high protein intake," I'm not saying you'll need to double your traditional "one gram per pound of bodyweight" regimen. My basic goal here is to reinforce the rule of a high intake of protein around 1 g/lb, maybe slightly less or slightly more depending on your muscle-to-fat ratio.

Now, let's get into the exact benefits of a consistent high protein intake supported by research. We all know about the benefits of a high-protein post-workout shake. This stimulates protein synthesis and inhibits breakdown by raising the intramuscular amino-acid concentrations.(1)

Want some more? One study used fourteen healthy males, eight on a low-protein diet (LP) and six on a high-protein diet (HP) consisting of 2.5 g/kg, or a little more than 1 g/lb. The HP group had a higher fat-utilization rate, despite a lower fat intake! Consequently, fat balance was also significantly lower in the HP group. The HP group contributed 10% more fat as resting energy expenditure and during exercise. Plus, fat usage was 11% higher in the HP group while fasting.(2) So basically, a higher protein intake of this nature leads to an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat. Not only that, but as an interesting tidbit, a higher protein intake has also been shown to increase fasted values of IGF-1.(3)

Tearing Down the Conspiracy

I can already hear some protein cycling fanatic screaming that a continually high protein intake will do nothing but make your body more "efficient" at oxidizing amino acids or disposing of them. Okay, Mr. Big Pants, I guess I'll have to prove to you that this isn't the case at all.

First, let's go over the basic premises of protein intake and metabolism. It's been concluded that the average adult body contains 10 kg of protein and 6 of those are metabolically active. This pool turns over a continuous rate of 3 to 5 g/kg of body weight through synthesis and degradation of protein. This accounts for approximately 20% of the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Most of the amino acids released daily via proteolysis of muscle tissue are cycled back into protein synthesis. It's thought that as much as 50 g of protein are degraded per day, therefore 50 g or 0.8 g/kg is sufficient enough to maintain a neutral balance.(4)

It's also thought that breakdown occurs when intramuscular levels of amino acids reach a low concentration and the body begins to break down additional protein to fulfill these amino acid requirements within the muscle tissue.(1) This is basically the rationale behind post-workout protein intake. By creating muscle tissue damage while lifting, you've consequently created a synthesis response. By ingesting some additional protein after exercise, it selectively inhibits the breakdown by increasing the intramuscular levels and supplies more substrate for synthesis, thus packing a double punch!

Now that I've refreshed your memory (or bored the hell out of you) with that tidbit of info, let's continue and see why a reduction of protein intake just isn't necessary. While it's true that oxidation rates increase in response to a protein "overload," it's not true that the body becomes more efficient at oxidizing it compared to any other amount of protein taken in. Your oxidation rates increase because the other requirements for protein were met. Consequently, your body is using the excess as an energy source, which is better than storing it as fat.

It isn't as if your body says "I kinda like this here oxidization thing, let's keep doing it." There's no adaptive mechanism occurring here. The only time there's a need for worry about oxidation rates is when they're elevated simultaneously with a lowered protein intake (basically a fasting state). It's then that muscle tissue is catabolized extensively.

Besides, if this whole protein-cycling thing were true, wouldn't a continuously high protein intake of around 2.07 g/kg cause an increase in degradation? Well, in one study, it was found that on a scaled protein intake of 0.36 g/kg, 0.77 g/kg, 1.5 g/kg, and 2.07 g/kg, the highest intake revealed the highest protein-synthesis rate and the lowest degradation rate.(3) It was also found that 2.5 g/kg compared to a low protein intake resulted in a higher utilization rate.(2)

In another study, two groups of normal, healthy people were given either 0.9 g/kg (control group) or 2.5 g/kg (high protein group). The results revealed that the high protein group, but not the control, saw a significant retention of nitrogen. Here's the best part. In the control subjects, the rate of nitrogen excretion didn't change in response to fasting. However, leucine oxidation did increase, indicating a state of catabolism. The high-protein group displayed a decrease in nitrogen excretion when fasting! This shouldn't be happening according to the protein-cycling proponents, but it is. (So there!)

Not only that, but oxidation wasn't increased in response to fasting, while leucine rate of appearance increased, indicating that the whole-body protein synthesis was higher in the high-protein group.(5) Basically, the more protein you consume before some type of fast (like bedtime), the less nitrogen you'll excrete and the less leucine will be oxidized. Therefore, less muscle tissue will be broken down.

Hopefully, I've now completely eradicated the idea of lowering protein intake from your noodle. Now I'd like to move on to some ideas on protein timing and patterning, one of which might just change the way you think about post-workout shakes!

It Was a Dark and Spooky Night, Just Like This....

Believe it or not, there's still this scary story being told at bodybuilding campfires about how your body can only utilize a set amount of protein ingested at one time. The usual numbers cited are around 40-60 grams. I don't believe this to be true. In fact, since not many people can point to where these figures originated, I'd say it was a ghost story.

The small intestine has the capacity to absorb 500-700 grams of amino acids.(6) Although the complete digestion and absorption rates do slightly decrease from an overload of protein, it's not that big of a drop. Besides, not every last amino acid will be used for muscle tissue. It also serves as an energy source as well as a key component in important hormones and neurotransmitters. You're better off consuming a higher amount to ensure that there's sufficient amounts of amino acids available for muscle tissue.

Additionally, studies have shown that if you ingest your protein in a gorging manner (80% of total protein intake in one sitting), rather than spreading out intake (say, over four meals), your body will yield a higher nitrogen balance and an increased rate of protein synthesis. Not only this, but subjects in one study lost less fat-free mass when gorging, as well as displaying a 10% higher whole-body protein synthesis rate and an 11% lower rate of breakdown.(7)

So, when would you consume the majority of your daily protein intake? After your workout, of course! This is the time when protein synthesis is up-regulated and blood transport and flow is increased so that the ingested amino acids will quickly be incorporated within muscle tissue to inhibit any further degradation. Hey, we knew that!

So the real question here is exactly how much protein should you suck down after a workout? I'd say that ingesting 50% of your total protein intake for the day should be adequate. So if you're 200 pounds (and don't have an ultra-fast metabolism), then you'd consume 200 g/day. Therefore, 100 grams should be consumed post-workout. The other 100 grams can be spread out with your portions of carbs and fat (which should be spread out evenly) throughout the day.

Two More Issues

Some of you guys and gals out there may be the type that are both cursed and blessed with Mach-III metabolisms. You may not ever get fat, but you have an extremely hard time increasing muscle mass despite increased calorie intake.

For you guys, this is the only situation when more protein may be necessary than the standard of 2.2 g/kg or 1 g/lb. Studies have shown that children and pubescent kids need a larger percentage of protein because of elevated hormone levels and consequently, the metabolism of nutrients.(8) Although the mechanisms at which children and adults with high metabolisms expend energy isn't exactly identical, it serves as a fair comparison in the overall picture.

Since children and kids in puberty need around 4 g/kg,(9) I'd say that a daily intake of around 2.75 g/kg or around 190 grams for a 150-pound "hypertrophy challenged" guy should be sufficient. In addition, there's even some evidence that the higher the protein intake, the less calories derived from carbs and fat need to be consumed in order to maintain nitrogen balance.(10)

As far as real-world effects go, every guy with a fast metabolism that I've trained had no problem gaining lean-body mass once protein was increased to the above levels. Note that they were consuming nearly the same amount of calories previously, but with a much lower protein intake. One guy, in fact, went from 167 pounds at 10% body-fat to 198 at 8% in only 7 months! Not bad, considering he didn't manage to gain half that in his previous two years of training and inconsistent protein intake.

Last issue: How long can you go without ingesting protein before catabolism of muscle tissue is significantly increased? Since the body doesn't rapidly increase glucogenesis until about 12-15 hours of fasting, it could be assumed that you should never go more than 10-12 hours just to be safe, without ingesting some protein.(4) Notice, however, I only said protein. The other macronutrients aren't nearly as important to maintain muscle tissue. However, they can serve as alternate energy sources, slow digestion, and thus preserve protein stores indirectly.

What type of protein should you consume? I'd recommend the one that's the slowest to digest. That's because it can provide a steady supply to muscle tissue while you're sleeping or at rest. The best in this regard is casein. Now, I know you whey fans will start screaming and spitting up your shakes, but as far as muscle tissue preservation goes (especially during sleep) casein is far superior.

In fact, studies show that casein inhibits protein breakdown by 34%, whereas whey protein had no effect. Again, casein also created a more positive leucine balance than whey.(11) This is basically because whey protein is absorbed very rapidly and not in a steady state. (Don't get me wrong though, whey does have beneficial effects as far as immunological effects are concerned.) Most dairy protein sources are rich in casein. So, try eating a cup of cottage cheese before bed. Simple enough, huh?


I hope I've convinced you to never lower your protein intake and possibly to increase it if necessary. Maybe I've also convinced you that protein cycling was an interesting concept, but ultimately faulty. I challenge you to test-drive these recommendations for several months and see if you don't begin to make faster progress in the gym.

In summary:

• Stick to the good old "one gram per pound of bodyweight" rule.

• If you have a super-fast metabolism, use 2.75 grams per kilogram (1.25 grams per pound) of bodyweight.

Consume half your daily intake of protein post-workout. Spread the rest out into three or four more meals.

• Try to incorporate more casein into your diet, as opposed to whey, especially at night.

Like I was saying previously, there're two things that start with a "p" I'd never give up, protein and … peaches! Gotta love that fruit!


1. Mortimore, G.E., et al. "Multiphasic control of protein degradation by regulatory amino acids: general features and hormonal modulation. J. Biol. Chem. 262: 19322-19327, 1987.

2. Forslund AH, et al. "Effect of protein intake and physical activity on 24-h pattern and rate of macronutrient utilization." Am. J. Physiol. May; 276 (5pt1): E 964-76, 1999.

3. Pacy, P.J., Price GM, Halliday P, Quevedo MR, Millward DJ. "Nitrogen homeostasis in man: the diurnal responses of protein synthesis and degradation and amino acid oxidation to diets with increasing protein intakes." Clin Sci (Colch). Jan; 86 (1):103-16, 1994.

4. Berne, Robert M., et al. Physiology. 4 ed. Ref QT 104 P578, 1998.

5. Carraro F, Wolfe RR. "High protein intake alters the response of fasting in normal human subjects." Am J Clin Nutr. May; 55(5):959-62, 1992.

6. Guyton M.D., Arthur C. Human Physiology and Mechanisms of Disease; 1992.

7. Bos C., et al. "Short term protein and energy supplementation activates nitrogen kinetics and accretion in poorly nourished elderly subjects." Am J Clin Nutr. May; 71(5):1129-37, 2000.

8. Beckett PR, Jahoor F, Copeland KC. "The efficiency of dietary protein utilization is increased during puberty." J Clin Endocrinol Metab Aug; 82(8): 2445-9, 1997.

9. Byrne, John H., et al. Essential Medical Physiology-2nd ed. Ref. QT 104 E753, 1998.

10. Rao CN, Naidu AN, Rao BS. "Influence of varying energy intake on nitrogen balance in men on two levels of protein intake." Am J Clin Nutr. Oct;28(10):1116-21, 1975.

11. Boirie Y, et al. "Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion." Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Dec; 1997.