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Protein: What You Need to Know
All Things Protein
Protein seems to be a nutrient that is wildly misunderstood and shrouded with a ton of myths and bad information.
Recently, last weekend, some dork wrote a thread on why protein is killing you. Ironic that the people with this stance look utterly unhealthy and the high protein crowd generally looks/feels very good.
This is nonsensical—any minor benefit of lower protein will be outweighed by the positive benefits of improved body composition, more muscle mass, maintaining strength etc.
While I acknowledge in a mental gymnastics way they could have a point in terms of mTor, IGF-1, etc being fuel pathways for certain illness, this is missing the forest for the trees.
Sure it could have some marginal, benefit, but we’re talking very minor and likely not relevant to most people. Whereas, maintaining a healthy weight, improving muscle mass, and improving strength, all that are correlated to lower all cause mortality, will VASTLY outweigh these niche, potential benefits—and it’s not even very close.
Protein is so important in fact, that I am going to list the reasons why you should base your diet around protein and give the true facts, backed by actual science, about this important macronutrient.
What Exactly Is Protein
Protein is what is known as a “macronutrient”—this is a group of nutrients that your body needs in large amounts. The 3 main macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fat.
The word protein comes from the Greek word “proteios” which translates roughly to “primary” or “in the lead”. This lends to what the ancients thought about the importance of protein.
Protein itself is simply a long chain of amino acids, which are the building block of protein (save this in the back of your head).
Protein is responsible for a plethora of activities within the body—it is not solely limited to muscle growth—it is needed for growth and maintenance of for most cells in the body. When broken down into amino acids, protein is used to create coenzymes, hormones, immune response, cellular repair, blood cells, and other molecules essential for life.
In short, protein is the building block for nearly everything in the body.
Benefits Of Protein
We all know that protein is the building block of muscle mass1. I could go on and on and talk about protein from a total health approach and make arguments all day that it is the most important macronutrient, meaning we need the most of it, and that a high protein diet is superior for most aspects of health.
However, what I’m going to focus on is the benefits of protein in it’s application for muscle growth, fat loss, recovery, and general fitness.
We have to not only look at the direct benefits of protein, but also indirect and downstream effects of eating a high protein diet.
Something that I frequently mentioned is the Thermic Effect of Protein.
25-35% of the calories from the protein we eat are burned during digestion2. This is a rather significant number when compared to fat (2-3%) and carbohydrates (6-8%). If you’ve been reading me for awhile you know protein is 4 calories per gram (same as carbs, but as mentioned, protein has a higher thermal effect). Whereas, fat is 9 calories per gram.
If we think about our meals and appetites, this is where things start to click. We can only eat so much food a day and protein is highly satiating. If we would eat a little more protein, we’d be more full meaning we’d eat less carbs and fat. In turn, this means we burn more calories from digestion, and this would help us lose weight to a better degree simply from this small change in food selection.
Of course calories in vs calories out still matters, but this effectively increases our calories out as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is a part of our total metabolism.
As we know, protein is the main pillar behind muscle growth. When we eat protein, it is broken down into amino acids which are then used for repairing cells across the body.
When we train, we are signaling to the body that the muscles need to be repaired from the microtrauma and grow to overcome the stimulus and adapt. Our body then sends these amino acids to accomplish this job.
This also applies to our recovery process - as the cells are being repaired, our recovery process is deployed. Supplying our bodies with sufficient protein will be pertinent to our recovery process.
This is where protein comes in for muscle growth—it is the raw building material for muscle.
Other General Fitness Benefits
Though for the majority of us, our main focus for protein will be muscle growth, other benefits come with a high-protein diet:
Can improve lipid profile by lowering LDL and triglycerides.
Improves insulin sensitivity - protein has an insulinotropic effect that promotes insulin secretion. This process, in turn, enhances the glucose clearance from blood.
Lowers Blood Pressure - lower body fat % has its place here, but those with a high-protein diet are found 40% less likely to have high blood pressure issues than those with lower protein intake.
Overall, our health is immensely improved by a simple change in diet (more protein).
The general recommendation for protein intake is .8-1g per pound of body weight and numerous studies have shown this number is sufficient for muscle growth.
If one is severely overweight in terms of body fat, it is wise to focus on getting 1 gram of protein per pound of estimated lean body mass3; however, if we look at the fat loss section above, it might make sense to have more protein to increase satiation without affecting fat gain.
We do not need to worry about excess protein in the diet—this is simply a myth and unless you have rare, extreme kidney issues, this will not be an issue4.
There have been numerous studies giving people 1.5g to even 2g of protein per pound of body weight. None of these people had any adverse health effects.
*A key point in these studies is also that muscle growth was not improved by the higher amounts of protein, but even more interesting, body fat did not increase either (again leading back to the thermogenic effect of protein).
From all the available literature, experience, and evidence I have, the 1 gram per pound of bodyweight recommendation is a very solid recommendation with only upside and no downside.
Overall, during the day, the total amount of protein is the biggest determining factor in determining muscle growth.
However, there are more intelligent ways we can space out protein intake during the day.
There are both physiological reasons for spreading out protein as well as psychological/preference reasons why it makes sense.
First reason comes down to something known as MPS or Muscle Protein Synthesis. As you know from my post on MPS, MPS is essentially what is responsible for new muscle growth. It is the rate that muscle is being repaired/grown vs the rate it is being broken down (MPB or Muscle Protein Breakdown).
If you want to grow, MPS MUST be greater than MPB to create a positive nitrogen balance (i.e muscle growth).
To achieve MPS, what we need is 25-40g of protein5. What then happens is once we have stimulated MPS, we have to wait 90-120 minutes to be able to achieve MPS as the muscle is in a sense “full” and cannot maintain these elevated levels of MPS.
This is why it is common practice for many athletes to eat every 2-3 hours. Ultimately, meal timing is designed to optimize MPS.6
Another consideration for spreading out meals is simply - it makes it easier to stay full and get our total protein for the day without trying to do it in 1-3 meals as this would be 1-2 even 2.5lbs of lean meat to get the average man’s protein intake for the day.
My general recommendation here is to take your daily total and divide it by no less than 4 meals as this will provide adequate feedings to promote optimal muscle growth. Breaking your meals up this way will also ensure you have a steady stream of amino acids throughout the day for growth and repair. This applies to adherence and sticking to your diet - we will be less likely to binge eat and will have more success with our goals (which will also give us mental satisfaction and keep us determined to stay compliant).
A lot of people like to do the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner then have something like a protein shake after their workouts. This works fine and will promote quality muscle growth.
Sources of Protein - Complete & Incomplete EAAs
There seems to be some confusion around what kind of protein source is the best protein source. The key difference in animal vs plant-based proteins is their amino acid profiles.
The reality is most animal protein sources are complete amino acids sources, meaning they have everything we need for muscle growth + the other functions protein contributes to. They are also more bioavailable as they are closely related to our protein makeup—in turn, more readily available for protein synthesizing.
One thing to note is that some plant-based protein is not a complete amino acid source and this will ultimately cause issues as we try to build muscle. *Depending on how your plant-based protein is processed, it can lack important nutrients (become anti-nutritional and supply us with lower quality protein) that animal protein will provide us7.
This does not mean “avoid eating plant-based protein” completely as it provides nutritional value as well8, but opt for more complete sources (animal protein).
A key compound we need to focus on is leucine. Leucine (found mostly in animal protein) is an EAA used in the biosynthesis of proteins - it is a non-polar, hydrophobic aliphatic acid. It has also been suggested to be the most potent in stimulating protein synthesis.9 This is because it directly stimulates myofibrillar MPS by serving as a substrate for the synthesis of new proteins (as mentioned above, signals an adaption to new stimulus).
*You want leucine-rich protein in your diet to avoid possible fatigue, weight gain, and poor muscle growth.*
Poultry - Eggs, Chicken, Turkey, etc.
Lean Beef - Steak (highest concentration of leucine), Ground Beef, etc.
Fish - Tuna, Salmon, etc.
Dairy - Cottage Cheese, Milk, Greek Yogurt, etc.
*Less protein profile compared to animal protein.*
Having a leucine rich diet can - enhance muscle growth, control blood glucose levels, aid in weight loss, improve skin health and aid our overall development.
Going off what is written above, if we are struggling, especially those on plant based diets, do get complete amino profiles—we can always add some BCAA/EAA’s to our meals to supplement the extra leucine we need for MPS.
Typically, I do not suggest BCAA’s, but when we are adding it in addition to a meal, then they have their benefits as the other Essential Amino Acids are present.
We need 2.5g of leucine to spike MPS, so something simple like a scoop of BCAA/EAA with your meals, if it is an issue, can provide benefit.
EAA’s also make sense in times we won’t have access to food or can’t eat whole food because digestion reasons (cardio, lifting, etc.).
For this reason, it makes sense to consume EAA’s during the time, I suggest 10-15g prior to cardio and during our lifts. There is mixed evidence on this, but some anecdotal experiments done by bodybuilders have shown you can completely ditch protein and consume EAA’s and still maintain muscle or even grow.
Now I 100% DO NOT suggest this route, but it goes to show how potent EAA’s can be for creating an anabolic environment.
Anytime we do cardio, it is a great reason to take EAA’s if we are in a fasted state. Yes, the EAA’s will effectively break the fast but will not add any caloric load to our diets.
As previously mentioned in an article, if we do fasted cardio with the absence of any amino acids in the bloodstream, we will use stored amino acids for fuel—directly from the muscle—not good.
When we combine EAA’s and Carbohydrates during our workouts, we directly see better muscle growth by limiting the rate of muscle protein breakdown. Doing this will help you recover better and grow.
When it comes to actual protein supplementation, I get a lot of questions on if you need to do it or how much is too much.
If you can reach your protein requirements from food then you do not need to supplement protein. Protein supplementation provides nearly no edge for building muscle—it is just a tool to help you reach your protein goals for the day.
While there is no limit on how much protein you can supplement a day, I would not make protein powder the bulk of your total protein for the day. This will likely cause digestive issues and you will be missing out on key nutrients from real food.
My suggestion is to limit protein supplementation to 1-2 protein shakes a day or no more than half of your meals.
For my protein powder I use Centenarius Whey Isolate, as it is the cleanest/highest quality protein on the market. I have 2 servings after my workout for the convenience and rapid digestion of whey protein—this helps kick off the recovery process quicker.
For EAA’s I buy in bulk from TrueNutrition.com and this lasts me for months.
Code “BowTiedOx” saves you money on both companies—I only partner with the best/highest quality companies.
Putting It All Together
Protein is important - this article should’ve ended there. It is the building block for nearly everything in the body.
In terms of fat loss, protein is a highly satiating source of food. More protein in our diet = less hunger = eating less carbs & fats. We also have the Thermic Effect of Protein which states 25-35% of the calories from the protein we eat are burned during digestion (again, the highest thermal effect of all the macronutrients). Meaning, it is nearly impossible for us to store protein as fat.
As we train, we break down the muscles - this signals to the body that the muscles need to be repaired to overcome the stimulus and adapt. This is when EAAs are deployed and our recovery process is initiated.
This ties into MPS - if our goal is muscle growth, MPS MUST be greater than MPB. Here, we need 25-40g of protein to achieve optimal MPS. After MPS is stimulated, we have to wait 90-120 minutes to be able to achieve MPS again - per recommendation to eat every 2-3 hours (to maximize MPS).
It is important to choose quality sources of protein to ensure we are providing the body its necessities. You want leucine-rich protein in your diet to avoid possible fatigue, weight gain, and poor muscle growth.
Key points to remember (should be refresher from previous posts):
1g per lb of body weight of protein intake.
20g-50g of protein per meal.
Eating meals every 2-3 hr (preferably 4-6 meals total).
Peri/workout - eat whole protein sources (lean beef, chicken, turkey, etc). *accompanied with a carb source (if permissible in your diet).
Pre-bed - slow digesting (casein) protein accompanied with a fat source before bed.
Overall, we can conclude that protein is essential, it is safe, and we need it. High-protein diets are beneficial in many aspects, and there is little to NO evidence that states “high-protein diets are killing us”.
As always, DYOR, but this should clear up any misconceptions surrounding protein.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.