What about all of the protein hype?
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear people talking about protein bars and powders is that they probably don’t really know why they are eating them. Sure they want to get stronger and fitter but do they really understand what it takes relative to what they really need. Everyone probably knows someone who is “Pumped up”. In an effort to be more like them, these folks are frequently asked how they train and what ‘they are taking’? The real question should be ‘what kind of genetics do they have in the first place’.
To get the most out of your genetics, you need to train hard, but allow for recovery, because this is where you actually benefit from your training. You also require the proper building blocks to get there. This of course includes protein, but only as part of the whole package of nutrients that includes water, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fibre.
So how much protein do you need to optimize your training efforts?
We need to consider the energy to fuel your activity as well as the protein for recovery/regeneration. During and after activity your energy requirements need to be met by eating carbohydrates. This means you will not have to waste body protein for energy. Following aerobic and muscular exercise you will need protein to help repair damaged body tissues and build new muscle mass. Lack of energy nutrients can become an issue if you are on a long operational or training exercise where activity levels can be very high. Thus it is especially critical to eat adequate carbohydrates during and after long events or training. To optimize your protein use adequate carbohydrates must be eaten.
If you eat a healthy diet, as outlined by Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, consuming enough protein and other nutrients for optimal protein synthesis is not hard. Even if you are a vegetarian you will get enough. A diet that is lacking in proper nutrients for even brief periods (i.e. greater than 24 hours) will slow the production of body proteins.
Depending on your activity level and the intensity level of your training the recommended protein intake levels are:
- 0.8 - 1 g/kg/body weight for sedentary: i.e. 70kg x 0.8 - 1 g/kg/day = 56 - 70g of protein/day
- 1.2 - 1.8 g/kg/body weight for athlete: i.e. 70kg x 1.2 - 1.8 g/kg/day = 84 - 126 g of protein/day
By meeting the recommended servings of each food group (Canada’s Food Guide) you will get the protein you will need while still maintaining a balanced diet. Here are the protein contents of some common foods:
- milk 1 serving 9 g/cup
- meat 1 serving 20-28 g / 3 oz (1 deck of cards)
- egg 1 serving 7 g / large
- broccoli 1 serving 2-3 g / ½ cup
- legumes (beans) 1 serving 7-8 g / ½ cup
- potato 1.5 serving 4 g / large
- pasta 2 servings 5-7 g / cup
- rice 2 servings 4-5 g / cup
- bread 1 serving 2-3 g / slice
Did you know that during the building stage of a strength- training program you only require an additional 28g of protein to meet your body’s needs? The majority of the protein you require is resynthesized from protein that you break down during training
What are the best sources of protein?
All food proteins are not created equal. Proteins are species specific and are made from chains of amino acids. For us humans there are 2 types of amino acids – essential amino acids (ones our bodies cannot make) and non-essential amino acids (ones our bodies can make). Dietary protein can be categorized into two broad groupings depending on their amino acid composition:
- Complete - containing a combination of all essential amino acids, such as meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, many soybean products, and
- Incomplete - lacking or low in one or more essential amino acids.
To meet their bodily requirements, vegetarians need to consume a variety of foods from all food groups to get the essential amino acids needed. An example of this would be combining rice with beans.
What happens to the excess protein that we eat?
Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins are not stored in the body. Your diet must provide all the essential amino acids you require for protein construction. Body proteins that cannot be completed because of missing components are rapidly dismantled and the amino acids are used for other functions. Contrary to popular belief, eating more protein than you require will not build bigger muscles. It is the exercise and training program that stimulates muscle growth. Adequate protein must be in the diet to support muscle growth and repair. However, excess protein is simply converted into body fat and stored.
Supplements - so where do the bars and powders fit in?
Many protein supplements also contain carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and, as such, these products can have a place in situations where perishable food is not an option. In this situation choose a supplemental bar that has a greater carbohydrate content. However, it is important to keep in mind that, in terms of nutrient value, food is a much more economical and nutritious choice. Supplements lack the important extras such as fiber, phytochemicals and the balance of vitamins and minerals that foods have. In addition, many of these supplements provide low quality protein, specifically too much of a single amino acid or too few essential amino acids, resulting in waste and strain on the digestive system. Ingesting protein as a single amino acid can inhibit the absorption of other essential ones as they compete for the same absorption sites in the digestive tract.
Do you recognize any of the following non-essential amino acids from the list of ingredients for drinks, protein bars and other supplements?
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
* high risk of toxicity
Effective bodybuilding requires more nutrients than just protein. Attempting to bulk up by eating only protein and ignoring the other essential nutrients is like trying to spell MUSCLE without using the letters U, C, or L. Remember that when choosing how you are getting your protein think about what other nutrients you are getting with the protein. For example when you eat beans you get fiber AND CARBS as well as protein. Nutrients eaten as food, rather than supplements, are much better absorbed. Choose your protein sources from lower fat foods, i.e. extra lean ground beef, skim or 1% milk.
So, when you are wondering if you ‘should be eating those bars or powders’, ask yourself first if you have had a good dose of the ‘Canada’s Food Guide’. Learning to eat a balanced diet will eliminate any need for supplemental sources. Make your calories count. Enjoying food is part of our culture. Learning to enjoy protein in food is easy and less costly.
For more information contact the CFSU (O) Health Promotion Office 996-4315 or your local dietitian. An excellent source for analysis - SNAC workbook by CAC.
Reference: Understanding Nutrition, Whitney, Hamilton & Rolfes, fifth edition, 1990.
SNAC (Sports Nutrition Advisory Committee) Workbook, Canadian Athletics of Canada, 1991.