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Bodybuilders & Protein, Part 2

Author: Tom Venuto
Publisher: Fitness Renaissance

In part one of "Bodybuilders & Protein," we talked about the ABC's of protein: what it is, what it is used for, and how it is processed in the body. We also looked at what the scientific literature says about protein needs. From this discussion, we came to five important conclusions:

1. Protein is the only nutrient directly responsible for building muscle.
2. Exercise increases protein needs.
3. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein (.36 grams per pound of body weight) is woefully inadequate if you work out on a regular basis.
4. Studies by the world’s top protein researchers such as Dr. Peter Lemon, have determined that .8 grams per pound of body weight should be your minimum for protein if you exercise regularly (more than double the RDA!)
5. Optimal intakes for hard-training athletes, such as bodybuilders, are still unknown and may be even higher. In one study of Polish weightlifters, 50% of the subjects were still in negative nitrogen balance, even while consuming 250% of the RDA.

Now that we’ve established these facts, that still leaves one burning question: How do you determine the precise amount of protein that is right for you? Read on to find out.

Protein needs by body weight: The one gram per pound of body weight rule

For body builders, one gram per pound of body weight has been a rule of thumb for years - and it's very close to the .8 grams per pound of body weight recommended in the most recent research. However, .8 grams per pound of body weight should be considered a minimum for strength athletes and bodybuilders. When you account for factors such as biochemical individuality, varying metabolic rates and the added protein needed to accommodate for intense training and gaining muscle, adding an extra margin of .2g/lb makes sense. Under certain circumstances, one gram per pound might not even be enough, but we'll talk more about that later.

The one gram per pound rule is the easiest and most commonly used method of calculating your daily protein requirement, but it does have drawbacks. For example, the more body fat you have, the more this method will overestimate your protein needs. It also doesn't take into account whether your goal is to gain or lose weight. Nevertheless, as long you are training regularly and you are within the normal ranges for body composition, then this simple formula is a solid recommendation and a good place to start.

Example 1:
You are female
Your total body weight = 130 lbs.
Your protein requirement = 130 grams per day
If you eat 5 - 6 meals a day (like you should) that’s 22 - 26 grams of protein per meal

Example 2:
You are male
Your total body weight = 190 lbs.
Your protein requirement = 190 grams per day
Spread over 5 - 6 meals per day, that’s 32 - 38 grams of protein per meal

Protein needs as a percentage of total calories

Another way to calculate your daily protein needs is to multiply your total calorie intake for the day by the desired percentage of calories from protein. To do this, you’ll need to know how many calories you’re supposed to take in. There is not enough space to discuss calorie calculations in this article, but you can find all the formulas on my website in the article titled, "Calorie Calculators."

For now, let it suffice to say that exercise physiologists tell us the average maintenance level is 2000-2100 calories per day for women and 2700-2900 per day for men. After you’ve determined your caloric maintenance level, you then adjust it up or down depending on whether you want to gain or lose weight.

30% of total calories should come from protein

The next step is to select the optimal percentage of calories from protein. The percentage you choose must be in line with your goals, activity requirements, body type and metabolic rate. The ideal ratios may vary widely based on these factors, but as a "baseline" I recommend that 30% of your calories come from protein. That leaves 15% from fat and 55% from natural, unrefined complex carbohydrates.

The Baseline Diet:
30% protein
55% carbohydrates
15% fat

Once you’ve selected the proper ratio of calories to come from protein, simply multiply the percentage of calories from protein by the total calories for the day. That will tell you how many calories should come from protein.

The final step is to divide the protein calories by four (there are four calories in each gram of protein) and that will give you how many grams of protein you should eat per day.

Example 1:
You are a female, 130 lbs.
Your optimal calorie intake to lose fat is 1700 calories per day
To determine your protein intake, multiply your caloric intake by 30%
1700 calories per day X .30% = 510 calories from protein
There are 4 calories per gram of protein
510 protein calories divided by 4 calories per gram of protein = 127.5 grams of protein

Example 2:
You are male, 190 lbs.
Your optimal calorie intake to lose fat is 2600 calories per day
To determine your protein intake, multiply your caloric intake by 30%
2600 calories per day X .30% = 780 calories from protein
There are 4 calories per gram of protein
780 protein calories divided by 4 calories per gram of protein = 195 grams of protein

Three times when higher protein is called for

You probably noticed in the example above that using 30% of calories from protein comes out very close to one gram per pound of body weight. However, the percentage of total calories method is more accurate because it accounts for different goals. The examples above were for someone who wanted to lose weight. Obviously your optimal caloric intake, and therefore your protein intake, will vary depending on what you want to achieve. If you want to gain weight, you’re going to need more calories, and a substantial portion of those extra calories should come from protein.

Clearly, there are times when a higher protein intake is necessary. These include:

1) When you are trying to gain muscular body weight
2) When you are using a low carbohydrate diet for fat loss
3) When you are "carbohydrate sensitive"

Protein Intake and Gaining Muscular Body Weight

Let's suppose you're male, you weigh 190 lbs. and you maintain your weight on 3000 calories per day. To gain weight you’ll need to increase your calories. Makes sense, right? Specifically, you’d need about 3500 per day. Now let’s do the math: 30% of 3500 calories is 1050 calories per day. 1050 calories divided by four calories per gram is 262 grams of protein a day. That’s nearly 1.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight!

After everything we’ve discussed so far, you’re probably wondering, "isn’t that entirely too much protein?" True, 1.4 grams per pound of bodyweight seems like a heck of a lot of protein. However, there is a very logical reason for this extra protein, so stay with me for a minute. Granted, there’s no scientific "proof" that high protein intakes this high will grow more muscle, but that’s not the reason for the extra protein. The reason is your protein intake has to go up along with your calories in order to keep your nutrient ratios "balanced."

You need more calories to gain weight, but if you only add the extra calories from fat or carbohydrate, you would probably find yourself getting fat - and fast! As bodybuilders know all too well, excess carbohydrates, especially in the presence of a calorie surplus, can easily cause fat storage. The same goes for dietary fats. A high calorie diet with 70% of the calories from carbohydrates might be ok for a long distance runner, but chances are, a bodybuilder would get as smooth as a baby’s butt eating like that!

Protein intake and low carbohydrate dieting

The second time when more protein is justified is when you are using a low carbohydrate diet. The baseline diet of 55% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 15% fat is without a doubt the healthiest, most balanced way to eat, and most people will lose weight on this diet, as long as calories are below maintenance. However, take a look at the diets of the world's best bodybuilders and fitness competitors and you'll discover that nearly all of them use some variation of the low carbohydrate or moderate carbohydrate diet to achieve the "ripped" look necessary to win competitions.

If you decide to choose the low carbohydrate approach to dieting, the problem is that you can’t just drop out all those carbohydrates and leave the amounts of protein and fat right where they were. If carbohydrates are decreased substantially, the protein (and to some extent, the healthy "good" fats) must be increased correspondingly so the calorie deficit doesn’t become too large.

When your carbohydrates are too low and your calories are also low, the result is almost always muscle loss. Not exactly what a bodybuilder wants, is it? So, to offset the drop in carbohydrates and keep your calories above "starvation level," your protein intake must be increased - sometimes to very high levels. Exactly what ratio of protein to carbohydrate you take in depends entirely on your type of metabolism and can only be determined through trial and error.

Not only does a high protein level fend off muscle loss while on low carbohydrates, but it can also speed up the fat burning process. Protein has the highest "thermic effect" of any food. That means that protein foods speed up your metabolism because your body has to work harder to digest, process and utilize this nutrient compared to fat or carbohydrate. The "thermic" effect of protein is one of the reasons that a higher protein diet is more effective for fat loss than a high fat diet or a high carbohydrate diet. Too much of any food type can be stored as body fat, but protein is less likely to be converted to fat than any other nutrient.

Protein intake for the carbohydrate sensitive or insulin resistant

A high protein, low carbohydrate diet may not be appropriate (or healthy) for year round maintenance, but there is no question that a higher protein diet makes it easier to lose body fat. One reason for this is because of the thermic effect of proteins, but another reason is the effect of moderate or low carbohydrates and high protein on insulin and blood sugar levels. Let me explain:

Some people are very "sensitive" to carbohydrates. This means that when they eat a lot of carbohydrates, they "overreact" and there is an unusually large surge in their blood sugar and insulin levels. Insulin is an important anabolic hormone and is responsible for moving glucose into body cells, but too much is not a good thing. Large concentrations of insulin in the bloodstream activate fat storage enzymes and promote the movement of triglycerides in the bloodstream into fat cells for storage. Too much insulin also inhibits enzymes that promote the breakdown of stored body fat. The only solution to this problem is less carbohydrates and - you guessed it - more protein.

The one gram per pound of bodyweight guideline is good as a general rule of thumb for bodybuilders, and the 30% of total calories guideline is even better. However, it's impossible to set hard and fast rules about protein intakes, because no single rule could possibly apply to everyone. The amount of protein you need depends on how hard you are training and on whether you want to gain, maintain, or lose bodyweight. It also depends on whether you decide to take the high carbohydrate, low fat approach or the high protein, low carbohydrate method. Neither way is right or wrong. What's right is what works for you.

No single diet will work for everyone. Nutrition is a highly individual issue and you must make adjustments to your diet to account for the differences in your metabolism and your body type. If you've tried the conventional, high carbohydrate, low fat diet and it hasn't produced satisfactory results, a diet with moderate or even low carbohydrates might be the answer. If you decide to take the low carbohydrate approach, you're going to have to increase your protein to make up for the lower carbohydrates. If you don't, you'll end up losing your hard-earned muscle. You're also going to have to eat more protein if you want to gain lean body weight.

Even though it flies in the face of conventional wisdom and seems excessive, it's entirely possible that you might need as much as 1.25 grams to 1.5 grams of protein per day - or more - to get optimal results.

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