Myths that Just Won't Die: Protein! (1)
By Will Brink, author of:
Muscle Gaining Diet, Training Routines by Charles Poliquin
& Bodybuilding Supplement Review
When it comes to the topic of sports nutrition there are
many myths and fallacies that float around like some specter
in the shadows. They pop up when you least expect them and
throw a monkey wrench into the best laid plans of the hard
training athlete trying to make some headway. Of all the
myths that surface from time to time, the protein myth seems
to be the most deep rooted and pervasive.
It just won't
go away. The problem is, exactly who, or which group, is
perpetuating the "myth" cant be easily identified.
You see, the conservative nutritional/medical community
thinks it is the bodybuilders who perpetuate the myth that
athletes need more protein and we of the bodybuilding community
think it is them (the mainstream nutritional community)
that is perpetuating the myth that athletes don't need additional
protein! Who is right?
The conservative medical/nutritional community is an odd
group. They make up the rules as they go along and maintain
what I refer to as the "nutritional double standard."
If for example you speak about taking in additional vitamin
C to possibly prevent cancer, heart disease, colds, and
other afflictions, they will come back with "there
is still not enough data to support the use of vitamin C
as a preventative measure for these diseases," when
in fact there are literary hundreds of studies showing the
many benefits of this vitamin for the prevention and treatment
of said diseases.
And of course, if you tell them you are on a high protein
diet because you are an athlete they will tell you, "oh
you don't want to do that, you don't need it and it will
lead to kidney disease" without a single decent study
to back up their claim! You see they too are susceptible
to the skulking myth specter that spreads lies and confusion.
In this article I want to address once and for all (hopefully)
the protein myth as it applies to what the average person
is told when they tell their doctor or some anemic "all
you need are the RDAs" spouting nutritionist that he
or she is following a high protein diet.
Myth #1 "Athletes don't need extra
I figured we should start this myth destroying article
off with the most annoying myth first. Lord, when will this
one go away? Now the average reader person is probably thinking
"who in the world still believes that ridiculous statement?"
The answer is a great deal of people, even well educated
medical professionals and scientists who should know better,
still believe this to be true. Don't forget, the high carb,
low fat, low protein diet recommendations are alive and
well with the average nutritionist, doctor, and of course
the "don't confuse us with the facts" media following
For the past half century or so scientists using crude
methods and poor study design with sedentary people have
held firm to the belief that bodybuilders, strength athletes
of various types, runners, and other highly active people
did not require any more protein than Mr. Potato Head.....err,
I mean the average couch potato. However, In the past few
decades researchers using better study designs and methods
with real live athletes have come to a different conclusion
altogether, a conclusion hard training bodybuilders have
known for years. The fact that active people do indeed require
far more protein than the RDA to keep from losing hard earned
muscle tissue when dieting or increasing muscle tissue during
the off season.
In a recent review paper on the subject one of the top
researchers in the field (Dr. Peter Lemon) states "...These
data suggest that the RDA for those engaged in regular endurance
exercise should be about 1.2-1.4 grams of protein/kilogram
of body mass (150%-175% of the current RDA) and 1.7 - 1.8
grams of protein/kilogram of body mass per day (212%-225%
of the current RDA) for strength exercisers."
Another group of researchers in the field of protein metabolism
have come to similar conclusions repeatedly. They found
that strength training athletes eating approximately the
RDA/RNI for protein showed a decreased whole body protein
synthesis (losing muscle jack!) on a protein intake of 0.86
grams per kilogram of bodyweight. They came to an almost
identical conclusion as that of Dr. Lemon in recommending
at least 1.76g per kilogram of bodyweight per day for strength
training athletes for staying in positive nitrogen balance/increases
in whole body protein synthesis.
This same group found in later research that endurance
athletes also need far more protein than the RDA/RNI and
that men catabolize (break down) more protein than women
during endurance exercise.
They concluded "In summary, protein requirements for
athletes performing strength training are greater than sedentary
individuals and are above the current Canadian and US recommended
daily protein intake requirements for young healthy males."
All I can say to that is, no sh%# Sherlock?!
Now my intention of presenting the above quotes from the
current research is not necessarily to convince the average
athlete that they need more protein than Joe shmoe couch
potato, but rather to bring to the readers attention some
of the figures presented by this current research. How does
this information relate to the eating habits of the average
athlete and the advice that has been found in the lay bodybuilding
literature years before this research ever existed? With
some variation, the most common advice on protein intakes
that could be-and can be- found in the bodybuilding magazines
by the various writers, coaches, bodybuilders, etc., is
one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
So for a 200 pound guy that would be 200 grams of protein
per day. No sweat. So how does this advice fair with the
above current research findings? Well let's see. Being scientists
like to work in kilograms (don't ask me why) we have to
do some converting. A kilogram weighs 2.2lbs. So, 200 divided
by 2.2 gives us 90.9. Multiply that times 1.8 (the high
end of Dr. Lemon's research) and you get 163.6 grams of
protein per day. What about the nutritionists, doctors,
and others who call(ed) us "protein pushers" all
the while recommending the RDA as being adequate for athletes?
Lets see. The current RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram
of bodyweight: 200 divided by 2.2 x 0.8 = 73 grams of protein
per day for a 200lb person. So who was closer, the bodybuilders
or the arm chair scientists? Well lets see! 200g (what bodybuilders
have recommended for a 200lb athlete) - 163g ( the high
end of the current research recommendations for a 200lb
person) = 37 grams (the difference between what bodybuilders
think they should eat and the current research).
How do the RDA pushers fair? Hey, if they get to call us
"protein pushers" than we get to call them "RDA
pushers!" Anyway, 163g - 73g = (drum role) 90 grams!
So it would appear that the bodybuilding community has been
a great deal more accurate about the protein needs of strength
athletes than the average nutritionist and I don't think
this comes as any surprise to any of us. So should the average
bodybuilder reduce his protein intake a bit from this data?
No, and I will explain why. As with vitamins and other nutrients,
you identify what looks to be the precise amount of the
compound needed for the effect you want (in this case positive
nitrogen balance, increased protein synthesis, etc) and
add a margin of safety to account for the biochemical individuality
of different people, the fact that there are low grade protein
sources the person might be eating, and other variables.
So the current recommendation by the majority of bodybuilders,
writers, coaches, and others of one gram per pound of bodyweight
does a good job of taking into account the current research
and adding a margin of safety. One things for sure, a little
too much protein is far less detrimental to the athletes
goal(s) of increasing muscle mass than too little protein,
and this makes the RDA pushers advice just that much more....
moronic, for lack of a better word.
There are a few other points I think are important to look
at when we recommend additional protein in the diet of athletes,
especially strength training athletes. In the off season,
the strength training athletes needs not only adequate protein
but adequate calories. Assuming our friend (the 200lb bodybuilder)
wants to eat approximately 3500 calories a day, how is he
supposed to split his calories up? Again, this is where
the bodybuilding community and the conservative nutritional/medical
community are going to have a parting of the ways... again.
The conservative types would say "that's an easy one,
just tell the bodybuilder he should make up the majority
of his calories from carbohydrates."
Now lets assume the bodybuilder does not want to eat so
many carbs. Now the high carb issue is an entirely different
fight and article, so I am just not going to go into great
depth on the topic here. Suffice it to say, anyone who regularly
reads articles, books, etc, >from people such as Dan
Duchaine, Dr. Mauro Dipasquale, Barry Sears PhD, Udo Erasmus
PhD, yours truly, and others know why the high carb diet
bites the big one for losing fat and gaining muscle (In
fact, there is recent research that suggests that carbohydrate
restriction, not calorie restriction per se, is what's responsible
for mobilizing fat stores). So for arguments sake and lack
of space, let's just assume our 200lb bodybuilder friend
does not want to eat a high carb diet for his own reasons,
whatever they may be.
What else can he eat? He is only left with fat and protein.
If he splits up his diet into say 30% protein, 30 % fat,
and 40% carbs, he will be eating 1050 calories as protein
(3500x30% = 1050) and 262.5g of protein a day (1050 divided
by 4 = 262.5). So what we have is an amount (262.5g) that
meets the current research, has an added margin of safety,
and an added component for energy/calorie needs of people
who don't want to follow a high carb diet, hich is a large
percentage of the bodybuilding/strength training community.
here are other reasons for a high protein intake such as
hormonal effects (i.e. effects on IGF-1, GH, thyroid ),
thermic effects, etc., but I think I have made the appropriate
point. So is there a time when the bodybuilder might want
to go even higher in his percent of calories >from protein
than 30%? Sure, when he is dieting.
It is well established that carbs are "protein sparing"
and so more protein is required as percent of calories when
one reduces calories. Also, dieting is a time that preserving
lean mass (muscle) is at a premium. Finally, as calories
decrease the quality and quantity of protein in the diet
is the most important variable for maintaining muscle tissue
(as it applies to nutritional factors), and of course protein
is the least likely nutrient to be converted to bodyfat.
In my view, the above information bodes well for the high
protein diet. If you tell the average RDA pusher you are
eating 40% protein while on a diet, they will tell you that
40% is far too much protein. But is it? Say our 200lb friend
has reduced his calories to 2000 in attempt to reduce his
bodyfat for a competition, summer time at the beach, or
what ever. Lets do the math. 40% x 2000 = 800 calories from
protein or 200g (800 divided by 4). So as you can see, he
is actually eating less protein per day than in the off
season but is still in the range of the current research
with the margin of safety/current bodybuilding recommendations
Bottom line? High protein diets are far better for reducing
bodyfat, increasing muscle mass, and helping the hard training
bodybuilder achieve his (or her!) goals, and it is obvious
that endurance athletes will also benefit from diets higher
in protein than the worthless and outdated RDAs.
to part 2
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1 Lemon, PW, "Is increased dietary
protein necessary or beneficial for individuals with a physically
active life style?" Nutr. Rev. 54:S169-175, 1996.
2 Lemon, PW, "Do athletes need more
dietary protein and amino acids?" International J.
Sports Nutri. S39-61, 1995.
3 Tarnopolsky, MA, "Evaluation of
protein requirements for trained strength athletes."
J. Applied. Phys. 73(5): 1986-1995, 1992
4 Phillips, SM, "Gender differences
in leucine kinetics and nitrogen balance in endurance athletes."
J. Applied Phys. 75(5): 2134-2141, 1993.
5 Tarnopolsky, MA, 1992.
6 Carroll, RM, "Effects of energy
compared with carbohydrate restriction on the lipolytic
response to epinephrine." Am. J. Clin. Nutri. 62:757-760,
7 Bounus, G., Gold, P. "The biological
activity of undenatured whey proteins: role of glutathione."
Clin. Invest. Med. 14:4, 296-309, 1991
8 Bounus, G. "Dietary whey protein
inhibits the development of dimethylhydrazine induced malignancy."
Clin. Invest. Med. 12: 213-217, 1988