Monday, September 03, 2007

How Much Protein Do We Really Need To Eat?

Protein could be one of the most popular and controversial topics in all of nutrition. It's become the golden child of muscle building and fat loss. Wanna build big muscles? Eat your protein. Wanna lose fat and look like a fitness model? Eat your protein. After all, everyone knows you need to eat a minimum of 30 grams of protein every two to three hours.

Back in my earlier years, I drank my protein shakes and ate my protein bars. I would constantly keep my protein intake up around 250 grams per day. Why? Because I thought it scientifically PROVEN that more protein equaled more muscle.

But now I'm not so sure.

Let's take a look at one of the research studies that the super-high protein advocates always use to 'prove' that eating protein after a workout makes you build muscle.

If you were in this study, this is how your day would have gone...

You would show up at a research lab around 10 PM, and you would go to sleep (no eating). The researchers would wake you up around 6 AM and start poking and probing you (again no eating). After a bunch of weighing and measurements, you would start working out around 9 still haven't eaten yet.

This would be one of the toughest workouts you have ever done. Most likely you would do 10 sets of 8 reps on the leg press machine, followed by 8 sets of 8 reps on the leg extension machine. All of your reps would be done at 80% of your one rep max. Like I said, one brutal workout. It's about 10am now, still haven't eaten.

After your workout you would be given a drink that contains 3 to 6 grams of essential amino acids (the same amount of amino acids found in a glass of milk).

After that, the researchers would take measurements for the next 4 hours and measure your rate of 'protein synthesis'.

This is pretty much the standard protocol for these types of studies.

And guess what they found? An increase in protein synthesis over those four hours.
So what does this prove? It proves that if you haven't eaten since 10 PM the night before, do a brutal workout at 9 AM the next morning, and drink a glass of milk, you will increase your protein synthesis for four hours!

So much for needing 30 grams of protein, and so much for needing protein every couple hours.
You know what else? The only reason I say protein synthesis increases for 4 hours is because after 4 hours the researchers stopped measuring. Who knows how long you would have stayed in a muscle building state. Some researchers have estimated that a single workout can put you into 'muscle building mode' for as long as 48 hours after your workout!

Even more interesting is that researchers have found similar results when they made people drink the amino acids before their workout, and even when they made them wait and drink the amino acids a couple hours after their workout!

Here's another example, for you to consider.

In a research trial conducted on people who were over 50 years old and had chronic renal insufficiency (real bad kidneys) researchers explored the idea that resistance training could counteract the low protein diets that these people had to be on because of their medical condition.

On average these subject were eating under 0.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight. To put that into perspective, a 180 pound man would be eating about 50 grams of protein per day! For 12 weeks!

So what the researchers were thinking was 'since these people were on such low protein diets, for extended periods of time, muscle loss is definitely a risk. However, maybe if we made them weight train, we could prevent this from happening'.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

At the end of the study, the subject working out 3 times per week maintained there body weight, while the group that was not lifting weights lost about 7 pounds.

The group lifting weights also saw increases in muscle strength and muscle size. While the group not weight training lost some muscle and a little bit of strength.

This study is a great example of people actually gaining muscle size on a low protein diet as a result of resistance training.

Now, I realize the study was done on people who were over 50, and had a medical condition, but regardless, they gained muscle size.

This research shows that you can build a significant amount of muscle with relatively low protein intakes (the amount you get from your food in the average north american diet) as long as you are lifting weights.

Protein has a role in every one's nutrition plan, and it is an essential nutrient that is important for building and repairing muscles. From my understanding of the research I think it makes sense to try and consume a small amount of protein somewhere around the time you workout. I just don't think we need to be paying good money for tubs and tubs of the stuff, if the amount we get in our diets will serve our purposes just fine.

Scientists have not yet been able to determine if large amounts of protein have any extra effect on muscle gain. The massive amounts of protein that bodybuilders eat might work, but no scientists have been able to prove it so far.

Bottom line: if your goal is muscle building you most likely do not necessarily need to eat any extra protein. You can if you like, however I cannot find a good scientific reason to so far.


One last note - Very little research is done on people who are on anabolic steroids. I cannot discount the idea that, in these individuals, extreme amounts of protein may help the muscle building process due to the fact that this process is enhanced by the use of steroids.

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billy said...

What about carbs? Would you discount any benefit from consuming a quickly assimilating protein/carb mix in the post-workout window? John Berardi talks a lot about this. Check out this article (not by JB but he refers to it.)

billy said...


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Billy,

Sorry about the lack of response. I have some awesome data I'm reviewing on the very topic, but it will probably take me another week or so to get through it all.

Quick answer is no, I wouldnt discount it, I think there is definetly some benefit.

Long answer, there may be some tricks to this whole 'timing' thing..I'm lookin further into it.


billy said...

No worries BP, take your time ;) Sorry to always make extra work for you!

Israel said...

Damn Brad, now you have me questioning my protein intake levels. Ugh. I long time ago I lost weight and muscle.I did not any protein. Just what was in my food. I actually didnt even know about protein then. So now that I am on a mission to lose weight again, i decided to take protein so that I dont lose the muscle I have.

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Anonymous said...

where can i find a study of which you speak. 64 reps of your 80% 1RM ... that doesn't make any sense because that is physically and logically impossible

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Anon,

That is the typical protocol that you find in research by Drs Tipton, Wolfe and Rennie.

I think a pubmed search on any one of them would allow you to find a trial with that design.