Unquestionably, the one “sports supplement” that has been universally used is a protein supplement. Ask people how much creatine, beta-alanine, magic fairy dust, whatever supplement they use and many are not sure or don’t use one. Most people don’t continue to use a specific sports supplement repeatedly, with a few exceptions. Yet, protein is an obsession with not just athletes, but much of the general public as they seek the alchemical formula for weight loss.
Here is a quick rundown on protein. Hopefully all you functionally need to know. The FDA dietary guidelines, which never seem to take into account active people or those wanting to make positive change, have grudgingly increased from less than a gram per pound to accepting that some can use up to 1.8 grams per kilogram. What a wonderful use of public money and scientific resources to confirm what bodybuilders have been saying for generations – one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. There have been studies published recently have concluded that even more protein can be consumed without increasing weight or body fat.
Now, how frequently should one eat? That is not well defined, and the latest push in research and marketing is to compress time periods for feeding, a technique that has been named intermittent fasting. From my personal experience, and nose-in-the books research I’ve done, it really doesn’t seem to matter too much if you eat eight times, three times, or even one time. There are a couple things to consider when deciding how often to eat. One, what works for you? Will you overeat if you eat six times a day because each meal ends up being bigger than you plan? If you try to eat only two meals or within a four hour window daily, will you be starving, grouchy, and spiteful towards anyone who has different dietary habits? I found that I am frequently hungry, and I can either snack or eat something I plan to eat. My wife and I eat six times a day. The protein content is about the same for four of the meals, but the post-workout meal and the shake we drink right before going to sleep contain about 50% more protein than regular meals. Eating 200+ grams of protein a day would also be pretty tedious in one or two meals. So, for bigger people, more meals may be more practical.
Two research papers came out in the last couple years that confuse the issue of dietary protein. One being that consuming over 20 grams of protein in a meal does not result in statistically significant increases in muscle protein synthesis (i.e. muscle building). The other attempted to slay the long-held belief that meal timing matters relative to consuming protein post-workout. Now, other researchers have stated that when a meal contains over 30 grams of protein (using a fast-release protein like whey), that any additional protein is shuttled into oxidative metabolism. In other words, it gets used up as calories like sugars and fat. OK, so if I eat 40 grams of protein in meal, the first 20 or 30 grams become lean tissue, but the remainder becomes partly burned as calories. Yet, some of that additional appears to further augment protein synthesis. So, two issues arise. Where is the sweet spot for protein intake? Depends on how frequently you eat.
If you eat six to eight times a day, limit the protein to 20 – 30 grams (based upon your body weight). If you only eat two or three meals though? Well, obviously you end up eating more. So what can be done? If you eat a huge protein bolus (single serving) that exceeds 30 – 40 grams, make sure that at least half is a slow releasing protein. It can be casein, or better yet, some form of meat of poultry that requires time to be digested and the amino acids released for uptake. If you are eating with a big break ahead, slow proteins are the way to go. I take in a shake with about 60 grams of protein before sleep, half casein, the other half a complete milk protein. It is basically a pudding-like consistency in the shaker, so I know it is gelatinizing and being released over four or six hours as I sleep. If you take in more than 40 grams of hydrolyzed whey in one serving, a fair amount of that is just calories and may as well be carbs to protect against muscle breakdown and increase amino acid uptake into the muscle.
POST WORKOUT PROTEIN
Researchers love to cut down giants, like long-standing habits of successful people. Bodybuilders and athletes build lots of muscle. Nearly all, unless they compete in a weight-restricted sport and are borderline anorexic trying to make weight all the time, use a post-workout shake. Yes, there are times that you might want to avoid eating for an hour or so – say after a cardio session if you are trying to maximize fat loss. However, despite the highly publicized findings of a review that suggests that there is no benefit to post-exercise feeding (the paper made my head hurt because there was so much variability in the papers used to support the idea and a distinct bias in the writing), people do not give up their post-workout meal if they are serious about sports progression or muscle hypertrophy. The fast-acting whey is king here, and this is a time when your body may be able to make use of additional protein as the vascular bed, transporters, etc increase tissue uptake and utilization. Further, the liver will snag some of these amino acids to replenish what has been used during the catabolic condition of vigorous or prolonged exercise.
WHAT KIND OF PROTEIN?
I am not going to take into consideration eating restrictions based upon personal or religious beliefs. I am not familiar enough with them, and scientifically I do not agree with them in this era of relatively safe food production. There were reasons to avoid pork (e.g. parasitic infestation of swine herds), and cattle production is too costly for an impoverished and over-populated region. So, if something in these recommendations does not fit with your personal beliefs, please do not take offense.
Food is the best protein most times. There are nutrients in meat that cannot be duplicated in protein powders. Further, meats have fats that sustain life in the animal which also provide benefit to our health needs. I don’t believe the organic labels, and will tell you that the best meat we have eaten by far was in Mexico as far as salmon, beef, and chicken go. I don’t know what the difference is, but I suspect that there is less use of commercial feed based upon corn and tallow fat compared to grazing, and maybe less use of whatever drugs are pumped into commercial food production animals. We have begun incorporating venison into our diet, as deer is as free-range as you can get.
As far as eggs go, I’ve always eaten eggs and have two daily, sometimes more. Egg white’s don’t count towards that total. I can talk someday on how misled we have been following “official guidelines” but let’s not get distracted. So, every food-based meal should contain protein. The fat content of animal meat is a controversial issue, and processed “meat” is not the same as untreated meat. Processing adds sulfates, nitrates, and other chemicals to delay spoilage. This is necessary to prolong shelf-life, and some people think this is the only option. Well, go for eggs and tuna instead of hot dogs and deli slices. Hard boil your eggs and you can pack them in an insulated lunch bag, and tuna is cheapest in cans but convenient foil pouches that you can eat out of are available, making it highly portable. As a rule of thumb, there are seven grams of protein per ounce of meat, so a four to six ounce serving is a good size for someone eating 6 meals a day. As food protein is slow-released, you can consume more without wasting too much as calories.
As far as protein powders go, when using the protein for an immediate need, say when first waking in the morning or post-workout, a highly hydrolyzed whey is best. Whey protein isolate is also excellent, but as you get into whey concentrates, you are benefiting more from the amino acid profile than a quick release. Still, it is better to get a quality influx of whey concentrate post-workout than an incomplete protein or one poor in BCAA and other EAA (branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids respectively).
Now, there are a lot of single ingredient protein powders out there. However, it may be best to get one that has a blend, high in the component you are looking for. It seems to offer benefits over “straight whey” or “straight casein.” My rule of thumb is a 4:1 ratio. Use my post-workout shake for example, it is about 40 grams of whey isolate and 10 grams of casein. This gives the burst of amino acids that are quickly absorbed, along with a sustained release of amino acids as the muscle continues to recover from the workout.
SOY PROTEIN & BACON
I don’t like soy protein. There, I said it. It does not substitute equivalently for other proteins as a “sports” supplement. Yes, I have seen the research that it is an equivalent performance enhancer as whey, or improves cardiovascular markers, or no animals were harmed in the making of this protein messages. Real life reports and experience do not confirm this to me in healthy athletes striving to improve muscle mass or strength. There are many other components to soy that are beneficial, but the protein content is fine as an additive to another protein source, but not as the sole or primary protein in a blend.
Want me to upset the meat-eaters too? I have never liked bacon. Much of it is processed, and the amount of fat is way too high. Also, the high heat needed to make it crispy increases the production of carcinogens.
NON POST-WORKOUT PROTEIN
During the day, if you are eating a protein supplement, go for some variety. Using whey all the time can lead to problems due to a lack of variety in food source. High BCAA intake chronically can interfere with the uptake of phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan into the brain area. This can affect neurotransmitters and potentially affect alertness, mood, or cognitive processes. Haven’t seen a study, so this is hypothetical at this point. Further, other proteins are higher in certain essential amino acids, or conditionally essential amino acids. Egg is a great protein, as is gelatin. Gelatin has been the red-headed stepchild of protein ever since the term BCAA entered marketing, but it is high in amino acids that can aid in soft tissue repair (e.g. tendons and ligaments, skin, nails, etc). It may also be one of the best proteins to supplement during weight loss, and is possibly the least expensive. Don’t be put off by gelatin. However, don’t use it exclusively or depend on it for muscle growth.
Here’s an example of some meals:
• 5:00 a.m. Cardio session (30 minutes) with 10 grams EAA drink high in BCAA
• 6:30 a.m. Shake consisting of approximately 25 grams of whey isolate, 10 grams peanut protein, and a citrulline peptide. Usually blended with kale, chia seeds and flax seeds. One teaspoon olive oil.
• 9:45 a.m. Whey isolate (25 grams) with citrulline peptide, and one hardboiled egg, and a handful of an almond, cashew, walnut mix. One teaspoon safflower oil also consumed.
• 2:00 p.m. Whole food meal – example – one half turkey burger, one hard-boiled egg, Brussels sprouts, celery. About 20 – 25 grams of protein
• 4:00 p.m. Tuna (25 grams) on cabbage and spinach leaf with sunflower seeds
• 7:00 p.m. Egg scramble with lean beef, peppers, steamed broccoli. (25 – 30 grams protein)
• 9:00 p.m. Pre-sleep shake of casein (25 grams), 10 grams peanut protein, and 25 grams of complete milk peptide.
I realize I eat a lot – and frequently, but you will note that there is not much in the way of simple carbs, or carbs in general. If I were looking to increase my strength, and mass, I would bump that component up more so than increase my protein intake. My goal is maintaining or building lean mass slowly while controlling body fat. Keep that in mind with this meal plan, or any you look at.
Hope this helps, and feel free to comment on anything you would like to question or challenge.
About the Author
Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.