Are you like most people? Do you have a half-empty barrel of protein powder in your pantry that you purchased after watching a mid afternoon special episode of Dr. Oz? Or do you work with a guy that lives off of protein shakes and preaches from the church of the smoothie. They berate your diet for its lack of protein and are always trying to lead you to buy a tub of protein powder…but do you really need this and if so, what’s the deal?
We are going to work to give you the low down on protein basics, the summary of research, and what science says about how much and when.
There is no argument about the fact that essential nutrition is made up of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. The argument begins when discussing how much of each of these nutrients we should be taking in. Of course, the answer is dependent on the individual’s goals, body comp, and training program but I will work to give principles that allow you to make easy decisions for your specific scenario.
As you probably know, entire books are written every year and a multi-billion dollar industry continues to grow around how to successfully eat the right ratio of nutrients to gain or lose weight. Although the key to looking good is to obtain an ideal composition of fat and lean body mass, however the scope of this article is not going to touch on the subject of aesthetics. More so, we will look to clear up a couple of questions regarding the building and conservation of lean mass (muscle) in relation to sports performance and exercise.
A Bit of Science
Most any fitness goals (performance or body comp related) demand a certain amount of stress put on the body for changes to be made. And if your goals have anything to do with increasing lean muscle and burning fat, you best believe that stress should be focused into appropriate strength and conditioning in order to force a change in your body structure. These changes stem from specific break down in the tissue structure and a necessary release of hormones that create an anabolic environment. This environment creates a positive rebuild of tissue and release of hormones dependent on the amount of amino acid available in the body. These amino acids are broken down through dietary protein.
Because the amino acids that make up our proteins are responsible for everything from our structure, to our hormones, to our enzymes, to our immune chemicals, dietary protein is critical. Although our body can make certain amino acids, if we are not getting a diet rich in the essential amino acids, we cease to function.
In addition, without adequate daily protein intake, small daily losses from amino acid breakdown will eventually put us in a negative protein balance. While carbs and fats are pretty well maintained, it’s actually quite difficult to maintain a constant amino acid pool without dietary intervention. Amino acids are constantly lost through various forms (including exercise, diets, and normal bodily functions) and therefore the only way to replenish them is to ingest protein through the diet. If protein intake falls below daily amino acid loss, things like enzymes and structural proteins are cannibalized. If this persists long enough, our bodies vital functions begin to shut down.
Since, I’m pretty sure you’re not interested in that happening, let’s talk about what we can do. First off, we need to talk about how much we need?
The recommended minimum protein intake for sedentary, generally healthy adults is 0.8g of protein per kg of body mass, simply to prevent protein deficiency. This translates to about 55 g of protein per day for a 150 lb individual.
During high intensity training, these needs may be increased to about 1.4 to 2.0 g of protein per kg of body mass. This is between 95 and 135 g of protein per day for a 150 lb individual. Similar increases in protein intake above the 0.8 g/kg baseline are recommended during periods of low energy intake (dieting) or low carb intake.
Some research suggests that higher amounts of protein in the diet may be vital for immune function, metabolism, satiety, weight management and performance. Therefore, many experts recommend around 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight with no negative effects.
Clearly, a high amount of protein is needed to continue our natural processes even without the additional needs for periods of intense exercise. And unless you are keeping boiled chicken at your desk, I can assume that you are not getting these high amounts in your daily routine. In fact, in my 11 years of training athletes and at every age, I can count on my hand, the times that anyone has had an appropriate grasp on their protein intake.
For this reason, we have seen the huge influx of smoothies and shakes becoming a part of everyday popular culture. Drinking your veggies and protein is a convenient way to continue our “on-the-go” lifestyles and get the necessary daily nutrients. In comes, Protein Powders…
There are hundreds of different brands of protein powders from a varied source of proteins. I will highlight and give a quick detail to just a few of the most popular, but recommend the Precision Nutrition article here (http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-protein-powders), written by Ryan Andrews.
Sources of Protein
This argument usually begins with the vegetable protein vs. animal proteins. If you are a vegan and do not want to take in any animal nutrition, then by all means, go vegetable but be careful that you are supplementing with other sources that can give you the essential amino acids that are not found in most vegetable food sources. Most vegetable proteins are blends of different sources of proteins. Make sure that you are reading the label for what types are included and know that this may include genetically modified veggies.
The most researched form of animal protein is definitely cow protein in the form of whey. Whey is shown to be the most bio-available (meaning that a large portion of it can be absorbed and used by the body) and quickest to be digested. The fall back is that some people are intolerant or sensitive to lactose that is contained in whey products.
How the Powder is made?
Other than the source of protein, the process of how the powder is processed is highly important in choosing the right type for your needs. Other than the ones listed below, some others to consider are hydrolyzed, ionized powders. We will only consider the most popular in this article.
Concentrates – these powders are created by using a high heat process to concentrate the protein along with several other additional natural extras from the whole food (fat, cholesterol, lactose) and create an affordable protein powder. It is usual for these powders to have 60-70% protein, by weight.
Isolates – just as it sounds, the process (through alcohol wash, water wash, or ionization) isolates the protein without the other aspects of the whole food, and then goes through a filtration. This can make the powder more expensive, but does not contain the fats, carbs, or cholesterols. These proteins regularly contain 90-95% protein, by weight.
The next consideration of how much to take and what type, is how to ensure that you will be able to absorb and utilize the protein that you are drinking. Bioavailability is the term used in reference to this notion of absorption. In several different research studies (reference: http://www.jissn.com/content/5/1/10) , it has been show that liquid takes about 1.5 hours to pass through the portion of the intestines that actually absorbs the protein for utilization. During this time, protein is maximally absorbed at the rate of 8-10g of protein per hour…so a maximum of 15g of protein is about all we will get out of our protein shake.
The kicker is that there are ways to slow down this liquid passing through the intestine and speeding up the absorption rate. One way to speed up the absorption, in the intestines, is to include digestive enzymes with the protein. This has been shown to increase amino acid levels by 127%, versus 30% without the enzymes.
We have discussed how much, types of protein and how to increase our absorption, but the most important aspect of taking a shake is timing. A missed opportunity or poorly timed shake can mean the vast majority of your drink is never absorbed and your body is stuck looking for other ways to replenish its amino pool. This can be the difference between your body breaking down muscle or your its ability to build/keep your treasured lean mass.
Here are the quick facts about timing as it relates to Working Out according to a review of literature on the subject (http://www.jissn.com/content/10/1/5).
It has been shown that a meal can provide enough anabolic effects for ~5-6 hour after eating. With this being said, it is best to follow these guidelines to take in ~20g of protein in relation to your training…
If you train fasted, in the morning or ~ 5 hours after a meal -> it is best to have your protein shake prior to or during your workout and for best results, you may want to pair that with a carb.
If you have eaten ~3 hours prior to working out -> it is best to have a shake immediately after your workout
If you have eaten 1-2 hours prior to your workout -> you can wait to take in your shake for 1-2 hours after your workout or get to your next meal.
- It is recommended to take in 1-2 grams per kg of bodyweight in protein, per day with recommendations as high as 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
- If you do not have any food sensitivities, consider taking a whey protein isolate source if supplementation is desired, due to the most complete nutritional profile and absorption ability
- Include digestive enzymes with your powder, in order to increase your absorption rate 4-5x the same powder without the enzymes
- Consider the timing of your last meal, in order to most effectively decide when to take your protein shake
Performance Unlimited has created a private label brand of cold filtered whey protein isolate, based on the research presented above. Hormone and Gluten free, extremely high bio-availability due to including digestive enzymes, and never any artificial ingredients.
Source: Berardi J, Andrews R. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. 2014.