Nowadays there are a lot of misconceptions with respect to protein intake. Should one take in 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight? Or is it 1 gram per kilogram? And, to the non-scientist, just how much is that?
Well, before discussing this issue, I think it’s important to explore the difference between protein need and protein optimization. When someone asks the question – how much protein should I eat – they are usually trying to figure out how much protein they need to optimize body composition and performance. But the question, "How much protein does an athlete need?" is a very different one from "How much protein should an athlete consume to improve body composition and athletic performance?"
In the research world, the word need is in no way associated with optimization. Instead it's defined as the minimum amount necessary in order to prevent deficiency. Therefore, in asking how much protein an athlete needs, you're asking the question "What's the minimum amount of protein an athlete can get away with to prevent wasting and eventual death?"
Since most athletes have access to and usually consume enough protein to stave off death, the common protein question about how much protein an athlete needs is a bad one. This question doesn't address the issue of real importance, the one that addresses what an athlete should consume to improve performance and body composition?
So, how much protein do individuals need to optimize performance and body composition? Well, the truth is, I don’t know. Everyone is different. However, what I do know is this – about 85% of all the individuals I’ve ever consulted with have been eating less protein that I recommend. And the first thing I do to stimulate results (usually “results” mean body composition changes) is to increase the protein intake while making a few concomitant changes to carbs and fat intake.
Now, there are a number of reasons why I boost protein intake in most clients so I’d like to outline them in this article.
Increased Thermic Effect of Feeding — While all macronutrients require metabolic processing for digestion, absorption, and storage or oxidation, the thermic effect of protein is significantly higher than that of carbohydrates and fat. In fact, protein requires 25-30% of the energy it provides just for digestion, absorption, and assimilation while carbs only require 6-8% and fat requires 2-3%. That means that eating protein is actually thermogenic and can lead to a higher metabolic rate. This means greater fat loss when dieting and less fat gain during hypercaloric diets.
Increased Glucagon — Protein consumption increases plasma concentrations of the hormone glucagon. Glucagon is responsible for antagonizing the effects of insulin in adipose tissue, leading to greater fat mobilization. In addition, glucagon also decreases the amounts and activities of the enzymes responsible for making and storing fat in adipose and liver cells. Again, this leads to greater fat loss during dieting and less fat gain during overfeeding.
Increased IGF-1 — Protein and amino-acid supplementation has been shown to increase the IGF-1 response to both exercise and feeding. Since IGF-1 is an anabolic hormone that's related to muscle growth, another advantage associated with consuming more protein is more muscle growth when overfeeding and/or muscle sparing when dieting.
Reduction in Cardiovascular Risk — Several studies have shown that increasing the percentage of protein in the diet (from 11% to 23%) while decreasing the percentage of carbohydrate (from 63% to 48%) lowers LDL cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations with concomitant increases in HDL cholesterol concentrations.
Improved Weight-Loss Profile — Research from Layman and colleagues has demonstrated that reducing the carbohydrate ratio from 3.5 - 1 to 1.4 - 1 increases body fat loss, spares muscle mass, reduces triglyceride concentrations, improves satiety, and improves blood glucose management.
Increased Protein Turnover — All tissues of the body, including muscle, go through a regular program of turnover. Since the balance between protein breakdown and protein synthesis governs muscle protein turnover, you need to increase your protein turnover rates in order to best improve your muscle quality. A high protein diet does just this. By increasing both protein synthesis and protein breakdown, a high protein diet helps you get rid of the old muscle more quickly and build up new, more functional muscle to take its place.
Increased Nitrogen Status — Earlier I indicated that a positive nitrogen status means that more protein is entering the body than is leaving the body. High protein diets cause a strong positive protein status and when this increased protein availability is coupled with an exercise program that increases the body's anabolic efficiency, the growth process may be accelerated.
Increased Provision of Auxiliary Nutrients — Although the benefits mentioned above have related specifically to protein and amino acids, it's important to recognize that we don't just eat protein and amino acids — we eat food. Therefore, high protein diets often provide auxiliary nutrients that could enhance performance and/or muscle growth. These nutrients include creatine, branched chain amino acids, conjugated linoleic acids, and/or additional nutrients that are important but remain to be discovered. This illustrates the need to get most of your protein from food, rather than supplements alone.
So, looking over this list of benefits, isn't it clear that for many individuals, an increase in protein intake would be advantageous for most people’s training goals? Since a high protein diet can lead to a better health profile, an increased metabolism, improved body composition, and an improved training response, why would anyone ever try to limit their protein intake to the bare minimum necessary to stave off malnutrition?
It seems to me that whether someone's on a hypoenergetic diet or a hyperenergetic diet, the one macronutrient they would want to be sure to overeat would be protein. Instead, by limiting protein intake, most individuals look for what they consider the bare minimum of protein, and then overeat carbohydrates and fats instead. That's a big performance and body composition mistake.
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