So what do you know about protein? Probably about as much as you've read in the magazine ads promoting the glycomucus-whatevers and ion-exchanged, cross-mutated doohickies. Or maybe isotopically labeled protein tracers aren't your forte and all you really know is that "meat is good." Well, that's okay. Sometimes the science of protein is complicated. The more we talk about it, the more over complicated it gets.
After all, when is the best time to consume protein? How much? What kind? Is soy really that bad? Why is whey supposed to be so good? What's up with the new interest in casein? And finally, do any of these factors make a difference when it comes to getting buff and attracting women?
To help you answer these questions, we've compiled a small panel of very knowledgeable, yet opinionated experts to discuss some hot topic protein issues. We put them in a padded cell, removed all sharp objects, locked the doors and let them go at it.
Like a group of argumentative teenage girls enraged by their "Which member of 'N Sync is the biggest hottie" debate, our experts let the science and the theories fly. When they emerged from the cell a few hours later with tuffs of hair pulled from their heads and all sporting bloody noses and black eyes, we knew we'd found a few answers.
Introducing The Players...
John M. Berardi - Learn More
- John's a regular contributor to T-mag, an exercise biochemist and a supplement researcher. In other words, he bags all the babes. He's contributed to research on anabolic steroids, andro, ribose, vanadyl sulfate, creatine, glutamine, antioxidants, and other ergogenic aids. He even took a crack at research aimed at fixing cardiovascular disease.
John is now studying with the world renowned "godfather of protein requirements," Peter Lemon. Although he may seem a bit nerdy from that perspective, John also happens to be a pretty accomplished competitive bodybuilder with a few NABBA USA trophies on his mantel. Although he hasn't competed in a while, the 5'8" Berardi still maintains a respectable year-round body fat of below 5% at a bodyweight of about 190 pounds.
- Cy Willson is also a regular contributor to T-mag. Although he likes to have his hand in many pots, his general expertise is in the areas of physiology, endocrinology, and pharmacology, and their respective applications to bodybuilding. When he's not chasing coeds, Cy is busting his ass to get into graduate school and plans to make a name for himself in pharmaceutical research.
Although he doesn't compete, he stands 6'2", 230 pounds at 8% body fat. Despite being the youngest contributor to T-mag (and therefore having to wear a beanie around the office with a little propeller on top), Cy is making a name for himself as a balls-to-the-walls nutritional theorist.
- Lonnie is a college nutrition professor, researcher and bodybuilder who's about as traditional in the dietetics world as an Amish TV repairman. His doctorate is in exercise physiology, but he took the nutrition job for the free food and because he likes hearing cute coeds call him Dr. LL Cool J. He too belongs to the "Dr. Lemon family tree" and has thus researched his share of dietary supplements.
For those muscleheads who care less for academia and more for anabolism, Lonnie is 5'8" and weighs in at 210 pounds at about 8% fat. He's competed as a light-heavy twice, but got spanked for being "too smooth at 4% fat". He has thus turned his back on competition, opting for size over starvation. Also, he's probably about the only college prof in the world who enjoys punching-up 500 pound squats between classes.
Now that you know the players, let's get the discussion underway!
The Master Plan - Protein Requirements and Over-Consumption
JB: As the self-appointed moderator of this little soiree, I'd like to say that I think this roundtable is long overdue. Based on the discussions I've overheard in the gym and even from many magazine articles I've read, there seems to be lot of protein myths being perpetuated, as well as a lot of plain old stupidity being tossed around. So let's just get aggressive and clean house starting with protein needs for maximizing muscle mass.
Over the years, the chicks at the American Dietetics Association (ADA) have continually reasserted that the protein requirements of "normal" people are about 0.4 grams per pound of bodyweight (0.4 g/lb).
According to the ADA, this is estimated to meet the needs of 97.5% of the population. Well, ADA, if there are two things that I know, the first is that bodybuilders probably don't fit into that 97.5%. The second is that bodybuilders certainly aren't normal.
Despite these undisputed facts, I can still vividly remember the day my very first nutrition professor laughed at me in front of the whole class when I argued for a higher intake for bodybuilders. Times have changed a little and thankfully the over-fat, undertrained and protein-deficient RDA bureaucrats have adjusted their recommendations based on new research. They currently recognize a protein need of about 0.55 to 0.65 g/lb for endurance trainers and 0.65 to 0.80 g/lb for weight trainers. They also state that the maximum usable amount of protein for adults is 1 g/lb. I guess they're coming around.
Personally, although there are many factors influencing protein needs, I think people striving for muscle growth need at least 1 g/lb. There's even some literature in the famed Romanian weightlifting programs that suggests that 1.6 to 1.8 g/lb might be beneficial for really intensely trained guys.
If I had to make recommendations, though, I'd say that 1 g/lb is a good start for trainees just plugging along with typical year-round training. When the intensity goes up, I'd take the protein up, too. However, I think that going up to or above 2 g/lb might, at the least, be overkill and at the most, be harmful to muscle gains or normal physiology. What do you think, Cy?
CW: Yep, I agree. For a typical bodybuilder, there's no question that a minimum of 1 g/lb is an absolute necessity. I think metabolism has a lot to do with intake so in cases where the person has a fast metabolism, I'd go with 1.25 to 1.50 g/lb.
I've seen guys that had trouble gaining muscle conquer this by simply using that formula. One thing that you didn't mention, though, is that too many guys don't understand that protein intake, along with enough overall calories, is the key determinant of how much muscle you can gain.
You see, the better the calorie balance, the better the protein balance. For people eating lower calories and trying to drop body fat, my rule is that the more you decrease carb and fat intake, the more you should increase protein intake, even if it means going well over 1 g/lb.
Some people make the mistake of reducing protein too much during a calorie-restricted diet because they don't get as full from protein sources or they don't find them as palatable. So, in effect, they end up increasing the amount of fat or carbs in their program.
The thing to remember here is that, although all protein sources aren't that inviting, a higher amount will lead to a further decrease in fat and a better maintenance of protein stores.
LL: Interesting theory regarding metabolic rate, Cy. Now might be a good time to discuss the potential for protein over-consumption. As you both know, there's no consensus (or even a single study to my knowledge) that excess protein (> 0.8 g/kg) does any measurable damage to healthy kidneys. Most of the scare tactics stem from the data on renal patients.
These patients end up with rapid loss of kidney function on normal high protein diets. Interestingly, the very professionals who point out every mistaken extrapolation in the dietary supplement world conveniently forget that they're doing the same "leap of faith" bullshit by applying this patient data to healthy athletes.
Having said that, I think there are real body composition advantages to eating upwards of 1.5 g/ lb. That's right, overfeed protein! First off, overeating protein, within reason, will not make you fat. A calorie is not a calorie! That is, excess protein calories aren't as likely to be stored as body fat compared to carbs and most fats.
This is because protein has to have its nitrogen ripped off in the liver (the urea cycle), which is an energy costly process. To boot, protein kicks up glucagon secretion and glucagon antagonizes the lipogenic (fat storage) effects of insulin.
Carbs don't lend people the same favor; they just jack insulin levels sky high. The net result is that the thermic effect of food is about 30% of the intake for proteins, while it's just 4 to 6% for fats and carbohydrates. This means that for a 100 calorie meal, protein will require a full 30 calories just to process it, compared to a mere 4 to 6 calories expended to process those yummy gut-expanding carbs and fats.
The bottom line is that it appears better to overeat than to under-eat protein when you're trying to add muscle mass while keeping the body fat off.
I'll say it again; you should overfeed protein. You'll piss off a good deal of it, but so what? It won't hurt you unless you've got kidney disease and you'll have the assurance that your ball-busting gym work is getting the required nutritional support. My old classroom quote (much to the chagrin of certain traditional dietetics instructors) is: "By hitting the weights and taking anabolic supplements, you've hired a brick layer. Now you've got to give him some bricks." Of course, as Cy pointed out, you also need some carbs and fat for energy, so we'll call them the "gas" for your bricklayer's equipment. You should vary these according to your glucose tolerance and energy expenditure. To further support my point, check out this data:
JB: Oh hell, the professor is pulling out charts!
LL: Just pay attention, smart ass!
|Subject & Protein Intake||Urinary Nitrogen (Protein Lost)||Net Protein Gained|
|1. Whole foods (78g protein/day)
2. Whole foods plus MRP (175g protein/day)
|12g (75g protein broken down)
27g (169g protein broken down)
|78-75 = 3g per day
175-169 = 6g per day
A comparison of two 170 pound athletes, one who just ate real food versus one who consumed two MRP's per day plus food.
Obviously, although subject #2 lost more nitrogen and protein per day, in the end he still netted the most protein by double the amount!
Soup's On - Protein Intake In A Single Meal
CW: Here's a hot topic for you guys. People often ask me about how much protein can and should be eaten in a single muscle building meal. Although there may not be a single number given that can be applied to everyone because of the variables involved in protein metabolism (LBM, REE, T3-T4 levels, Testosterone, insulin, the list goes on and on), I'll say that based on size, a minimum of 40 grams per sitting should work well for everyone.
It's important that people know that those amino acids do a heck of a lot more than build muscle. You need them to form a lot of various hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as other important constituents in the human body.
A maximum protein intake is much harder to estimate. In the real world, many guys consume amounts in the 60 to 90 gram range. By in large, these same men have all been successful in their bodybuilding efforts. Another thing to consider is the role that timing plays in how much you should consume in one sitting.
Obviously, you should consume the largest amounts when rising and before going to bed. I feel you should also increase the amount of protein directly following a workout. Okay, what do you guys think?
JB: I agree completely on this point. Actually, this topic has been debated in the absence of data for far too long. Just to let you all in on a little secret, I'm aware of a research protocol being designed right now to investigate this very question!
Pretty soon we should have some data that will tell us just how much protein can be absorbed in a single sitting. Exciting, right Lonnie? So
Lonnie, to go one step further with this question, do you know of any good "adjunct" nutrients that may actually help us digest and metabolize even higher levels of daily or "per meal" protein intake?
LL: There's been talk of using bromelain and papain enzymes from pineapples and papaya, respectively, to increase protein digestion. The truth is, digestion of many proteins already averages above 90%, so I doubt they'll help much in this regard.
I will say that when consuming powdered proteins, I personally try to double the fluid volume that most supplement labels recommend. This helps to keep me from continually "assaulting the porcelain," if you know what I mean. Nobody's going to grow with a thick, osmotic nightmare of nutrients dragging out their backside. I also try to eat some solid food with reconstituted protein drinks and MRPs for similar reasons.
Protein, Protein Everywhere, But What Kind Should I Drink?
CW: Thanks for some very vivid and frightening pictures, Lonnie. Moving right along to protein types, from what I've seen, it would be safe to say that in terms of overall muscle tissue increases and decreases of body fat, casein reigns superior. It's been shown to accomplish these feats by increasing anabolism to a moderate extent, but even more importantly, decreasing catabolism to a large degree.
I'm convinced that the sole reason behind this is simply because of its slow digestion and consequently, absorption rates. It provides a steady, slower paced release of amino acids into the blood stream. Casein is therefore the best protein to use before an overnight fast and for breakfast.
whey Whey, while having a higher BV (Biological Value), has been outperformed by casein simply because of its fast rate of digestion and absorption. It increases anabolism quickly and to a large extent, but these effects are short lived.
In fact, it was shown that although amino acid concentrations increased with whey, oxidation rates also increased, creating a steady state metabolism in which there was no change in overall protein balance. It's possible, however, that whey could match casein if you were to combine it with some type of low GI carb and a little fat and continually ingest it every two hours. But, that's a big pain in the ass, as well as the wallet!
That being said, my idea of the perfect type of protein would be a combo of casein and whey. This is because of the fact that whey, while having a greater anabolic response and better BV, lacks the steady absorption rate of casein. Combine the two and pow! you've got one hell of a team! What one lacks, the other compliments.
Soy, on the other hand, is for women. Or maybe for men that want to take on the characteristics of women. Soy may have some health benefits, at least for chicks, but for men it could wreak havoc with your endocrine system, increase body fat, cause water retention, and lower Testosterone.
For me, that isn't worth lowering your LDL by a few points. I don't like soy, as you may have noticed, and I don't think it has any place in a man's diet at all!
JB: But come on, Cy, what about getting in touch with our feminine sides? Actually, although the data is still mixed, whenever I've added any significant amount of soy to my diet (> 15 g/d), I've felt like crap. I've gained fat easier and definitely held more water. So now, whenever I see soy powder, I run with fear!
As far as the other protein sources, I'm sorry, Cy, but I'm not ready to dump my beef and salmon for multiple daily servings cottage cheese just yet. Yuck! Although casein seems to be winning a few battles, it certainly hasn't won the war.
In fact, I just read a study that showed that three months of whey supplementation increased anaerobic muscular performance while casein didn't do squat. I tend to agree with you that casein seems superior for body composition in the few studies that have been done, especially one in which normal diets were supplemented with whey or casein, but remember, the supplement was added to a normal diet. And by "normal," I mean varied.
So adding casein in to your nutritional program seemingly would help pack on some mass. I also think, though, that adding some whey to a normal diet would be beneficial. When it comes to supplementing, this isn't a one or the other question! And notice I say supplement. That is because I think that the mainstay of the diet should be good, old fashioned food that actually requires chewing!
This whole business of consuming nothing but powders all day makes me want to yak. Not only is in boring as hell, but you miss out on a whole variety of nutrients. Bring on the dead animals!
LL: You go, John! Variety is key, both for staying on a diet (without sweating every time you pass a cheeseburger) and for getting the necessary spectrum of nutrients that no protein powder or MRP can provide (at least in correct proportions). Humans evolved to eat animal flesh, not reconstituted powders. I think that meat, egg, casein, whey, and soy are all valuable in their own way.
I'm not sure that I agree soy will turn a guy into a chick. The isoflavones in soy isolates can bind estrogen receptors, inducing a much weaker (even anti-estrogenic) effect than if natural estradiol latched on. (Yes, even T-mag readers have some circulating estrogen!)
Isoflavones seem to affect beta estrogen receptors (in bone, for example), not alpha estrogen receptors. If they do cause water retention and fat accumulation in men, I need to see this data before it's too late! However, I feel compelled to say that I eat soy and I'm a muscular, hairy, balding, lean, grainy-skinned man, baby! Whoo-hoo!
JB: Calm down, Kojak!
LL: Sorry about that; back to protein. I think many people forget that they mix their whey with casein (milk) anyway, getting a pretty cool 3:1 proportion.
After a workout, this could equate to a big 25 to 50 gram bolus of fast acting, anabolic whey right when you need it, with the added benefit of 8 to 16 grams of long-acting, anti-catabolic casein. Of course, I've yet to see data on the combo.
As a final note, in unpublished data by myself and colleagues, we looked at the body comp effects a variety of protein powders have on novice lifters. We compared gel-filtered whey, ion exchange whey, casein, soy and maltodextrin. What did we find? Nada! No reliable differences over a six-week period!
In relative support of Cy, however, the casein group slightly outgrew the other groups in upper arm muscle. But again, the differences weren't statistically significant. The take home message is that no one is blowing passed his training buddy in six weeks just because he eats a different protein!
CW: Interesting data, you soy eating, grainy skinned man! As far as eating food verses powders, I have a different perspective.
In today's fast paced world, many people don't have the time and/or patience to prepare whole food. Yes, whole food should be a staple, but the powders offer a concentrated, cost efficient, source of protein. While we're at it, if you're going to eat whole food, add some cottage cheese. No, that shouldn't be the mainstay of your diet either, but it offers a damn good amount of casein.
If you don't want the fat, opt for the fat free version. As far as the lactose goes, that's just a necessary evil. Hey, I hate the stuff, too! My inability to create enough lactase has caused some horrible occurrences. Let's just say that if you can smell gas in a smoke-filled strip club, it's bad! (Oddly enough, I received a year's supply of lactase enzyme tablets for Christmas last year! Think someone was trying to tell me something?)
As far as the first casein verses whey study I mentioned goes, the proteins were added to calorie restricted diets, which aren't that "normal" anyway.
You Didn't Get The Timing Right!
JB: Now I guess the next issue we deal with should be how and when to incorporate certain proteins into the diet. Your thoughts, Lonnie?
LL: Well, I'm a fan of eating two meals of 50 grams of protein plus 50 grams of high-glycemic carbs at 30 and 90 minutes post-training. The rest of the day I limit carbs to fibrous grains, fruits and vegetables, but I try to get four more meals in of 30 to 50 grams of protein each (meat, eggs, whey, casein, soy). This pattern is used to better manage insulin.
Insulin isn't called the "most anabolic hormone" for nothing. It not only induces protein synthesis and prevents its breakdown, it also swells cells with glycogen (itself anabolic) and frees up Testosterone to do its own anabolic work. But there's a dark side, young Jedi.
Insulin is a "Jekyll and Hyde" hormone. Unlike Testosterone, insulin is under immediate, acute control. This is both good and bad. Simply eat a lot of food and voila, muscle growth! But there's a catch: eat sugar to get this insulin spike and you'll also be providing substrate for lipogenesis (fat building). This is obviously not good, especially later in the day.
Instead, big protein meals (with some low glycemic carbs and monounsaturated fats tossed in for energy) are a better approach. You'll provide plenty of "bricks" (amino acids) for protein synthesis as well as get just enough energy to put them in place (into contractile proteins).
If you train with any volume, this approach will also replenish your glycogen stores without dumping in sugar all at once with overspill into adipose tissue,
JB: As far as timing, I like to make more specific recommendations. I think the most valid recommendation would be to take a big helping of casein at the bedtime meal in order to slowly deliver those amino acids to the muscles and to prevent catabolism over that long, catabolic frenzy called sleep.
Theoretically I'd like to recommend "stacking" the casein with whey protein at this time due to the fact that you could get some pre-bedtime anabolism in addition to all this overnight anti-catabolism, but I'm not so certain it would pan out that way.
As Lonnie pointed out earlier, the research on absorption and metabolism has only looked at individual protein types and not at combos. Who knows, perhaps you wouldn't get the best of both worlds, but the worst. It's kind of like the glycemic index thing.
Individual food GI's can be determined, but once you throw them into a meal the GI of the individual food no longer matters. This could be the case with protein combinations. Again, though, I'm just spankin' the theoretical monkey here. So, for now, until further research sheds some light on this question, I'd suggest adding your whey supplement as a post-workout dose and your casein supplement as your pre-bedtime meal.
CW: Why only use whey as your post-workout meal, John? So you're telling me you don't want to decrease catabolism after a workout, in addition to increasing amino acid concentrations? Whey, by itself is a big pain in the ass! Having to continually ingest 30 to 40 grams every couple of hours sucks. Like the previous study demonstrated, amino acid concentrations return to baseline too quickly with whey.
The quick rise in amino acid concentrations also causes oxidation rates to increase so quickly that no overall increase in protein accretion is seen. So, why not have a slow releasing protein post-workout? It provides a steady amount of amino acids, providing a decrease in catabolism, and an increase in anabolism.
You need to slow the digestion rate down with whey. A faster absorption rate isn't going to equate to more muscle. It's been demonstrated to be just the opposite.
JB: Whoa, big fella. I don't wanna piss you off since you're about 7 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than me, but I'm not sure I agree with you.
In 1997, Biolo showed that an immediate rise in plasma amino acids after exercise was more anabolic than when ingested sometime later. This, to me, means that whey should be ingested immediately after the workout due to its really fast absorption rates. I know that in the study there was more protein oxidation with whey, but the protein wasn't given after a workout. As you know, the physiology is just different.
Researchers think that after a workout catabolism can be prevented and anabolism induced with a hearty portion of quickly delivered amino acids. So, after the workout, I just don't think oxidation would increase with whey because the intramuscular demands for aminos are just too great. Remember that in the study, blood amino acid levels with whey were still greater than casein after two hours.
So by taking a big dose of whey immediately after the workout, you're going to flood the body with aminos and this rise will stay up for about two hours, reaching levels higher than casein can. Then at the two hour mark, if you eat some other protein meal, you're set up for the day. I really think, though, that you need that infusion of aminos that whey can give right after the workout.
The next question is, why not whey and casein together? Well, combining whey and casein might lead to a slowing of whey absorption. In this case you'd be missing out on some of the protein synthesis that you could get otherwise. Personally, I mix up a 50 gram whey shake and bring it to the gym with me. Immediately after my training I drink it down. Then, about 60 to 90 minutes later, I take in about 50 grams of casein (cottage cheese) with a bunch of carbs. Fair enough?
CW: Sounds good to me. I guess I won't have to squash you after all. You could also throw in some whey with the cottage cheese. Since it's not directly post-workout time anymore, the slow absorption wouldn't really hinder anything. The whey by itself for post-workout does make more sense, when you put it in the terms of the anabolic response.
JB: So you wanna hug?
CW: Next topic please!
Cutting Through The Nonsense
JB: At this point, I'd like to talk about some of the craziness that's out there concerning protein manipulation. Some writers have been recommending eating minimal protein for most meals and eating most of your protein (like 60% or more) in one big nitrogen rich feast. Bullshit! This is based on a study that showed elderly women (68 years old) had better overall protein gains with 80% of their protein consumed in one meal.
When this one study was repeated in young women, there was no similar effect! And even if there was, as a researcher buddy of mine said, one study does not a fact make! Well, I'm not an elderly woman. I like eating protein and I'm gonna be chowing down on protein all day long, not just after training.
I think the recommendations in Cy's protein article about eating more than usual after the workout are very reasonable, but I'm not sure if 50% of the day's intake is necessary.
After the workout, the body wants aminos, no doubt, so give it what it wants. Personally, I like to have three really big protein meals a day of about 80 to 100 grams and three smaller protein meals of about 30 to 50 grams. This puts me at about 30% post-workout.
Breakfast, post-workout (the whey shake plus the cottage cheese meal), and bedtime are the big protein feasts. I do this because sometimes big protein doses can force protein synthesis. So perhaps in the morning or before bed we can coax the body to start a little synthesis.
In addition, after a workout, protein synthesis is up for about 24 hours, so I like to provide building blocks all day long. Oh yeah, as Lonnie mentioned earlier, each meal includes some low GI carbs as well as healthy fats.
Now that I've vented, do you guys have any axes to grind with some of the protein theories out there?
CW: As far as axes, the only thing that angers me in terms of protein intake is the misconception of kidney damage. Unfortunately, when talking about increases in protein intake, many people still respond with "Yeah, I know I should eat a lot of protein, but won't that cause kidney damage?"
As Lonnie pointed out earlier, the only time when the kidneys have been damaged or even stressed to a significant degree was in patients experiencing renal failure or severe kidney damage. Now, it may be possible to stress the kidneys in normal humans, but the amount to cause such problems would be completely absurd.
I really don't have any other beefs (no pun intended) to settle. However, there are a few things that should be noted in terms of a high-protein intake.
Just to be safe, always make sure you're consuming enough water since a high-protein intake can potentially cause dehydration. Also, for older lifters and women, it's important to consume additional calcium if eating a high protein diet, as it could lead to a depletion of both blood and bone calcium. This can probably be prevented if you use a daily multivitamin or some type of MRP.
JB: Before we close, I've got one final beef. I think that this sport, by nature, attracts extreme personalities. And at the recommendation of an expert, bodybuilding extremists are very eager to take things to the next level.
In this case, something as simple as one expert saying casein is better than whey can cause such a row that these guys will be sprinkling their whey protein into the Pacific Ocean as if the protein was the cremated ashes of a dearly departed loved one. Chill guys!
Don't forget the eggs, chicken, dairy, lean beef, and fish. These are real foods with all sorts of benefits that supersede the arguably marginal benefits of eating nothing by casein or whey. Bottom line: Mix it up!
Remember, unless you're a big bag of laziness, in which case you won't last very long in this game anyway, you'll be eating five or more meals per day every two or three hours.
Over those five meals you need to divide your protein intake (not necessarily equally) and eat protein from a variety of sources, utilizing the special properties of whey and casein when appropriate. Let's close on that note. In the end, it's all about balance.
Calculate Your Protein Needs:
About The Author
John M Berardi is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of human performance and nutrition. His company, Science Link, provides unique and highly effective training, nutrition, and supplementation programs for high level athletes as well as recreational exercisers. John is a prolific author and a sought after speaker and consultant. Visit www.johnberardi.com for more information about John and his team. Also, check out his new DVD entitled No Nonsense Nutrition.