Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Protein Myth: More Is Not Better

If you go into any supplement shop you'll see protein this and protein that! If you pick up any muscle or fitness magazine, you'll find ads pitching products loaded with protein that promise to build bigger and stronger muscle. Hate to burst their bubble—protein's good, but not that good.

Protein is vital to life. It provides the amino acids needed for building and maintaining your body tissue. There are 20 amino acids. Eleven of these amino acids (dispensable) can be made by the body. Nine of them however (indispensable amino acids), come from a variety of food sources. Foods that are high quality or complete protein sources have all nine of the indispensable amino acids. Animal food sources are complete proteins. Soy is the only plant food source containing complete proteins. Other plant food sources are considered incomplete proteins because they are missing one or more of the indispensable amino acids. Combining plant food sources can create a complete protein such as combining beans and rice or peanut butter and bread.

So, now that you know all about where protein comes from, what do they do for the body? Protein makes up the bulk of muscles, internal organs, brain, nerves, skin, hair, and nails. Protein is also a part regulating substances like enzymes, hormones, and blood plasma. In addition to protein playing a part in tissue building, it also helps regulate energy, water balance, metabolism and the immune system. So, bottom line...protein is important. The question is how much do you need? Will more be better for you?

Well in the case of protein, more is not better. Basically if you are a sedentary person, you only need about .8g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you are an endurance runner you'll need about .8-1.5g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you are a resistance trainer, you'll need 1.5-2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 pounds that's equivalent to ~68kg. If you're a sedentary person at that weight, you'll need 54g of protein per day. If you're an endurance runner at that weight and in heavy training for a marathon you might need the higher end of the .8-1.5g. So you'd need ~102g of protein per day. If you're a heavy resistance trainer you might need the higher end of the 1.5-2g. So you'd need ~136 of protein per day.
This may sound like a lot of protein, but remember you're getting most of this throughout the day from the foods you are eating. That's why supplements may not even be needed. For example, 3oz of white-meat chicken breast contains 26.7 g of protein. 3 oz. of Tuna (canned in water) has 21.7 grams of protein. 2 scrambled eggs have 13.6 grams of protein. So if you had these three food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner you've already eaten 62g of protein. This isn't even counting if you drank milk (8g for 1cup) with your eggs, had Greek yogurt for a mid-morning snack (15g for 8oz), had bread with your tuna to make a sandwich (10g for 2 slices of whole grain bread). Now you're at 95g of protein. And what about the almonds you had for your afternoon snack (6g for 1oz), the corn you ate with your chicken (2g) and the lowfat chips you had with your tuna sandwich (2g)? Now you're at 105 grams of protein! Guess what? If you're an endurance runner in training for a marathon, you've just reached and surpassed your 102 grams of protein for the day without any supplements.

Research has shown that going beyond the 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day has no benefits. Once the body has received it's dietary requirement of protein, any extra protein is deaminated (the nitrogen is removed) and what's left is either stored as fat or used as energy. Protein does not build muscle. Only exercise with the required amount of protein will build muscle. Excess protein can also cause kidney problems because it puts extra work on them in trying to get rid of the excess nitrogen.

As a runner it's more crucial to replace the glycogen supplys with simple carbs shortly after an intense workout rather than load up on protein. Protein may help speed up recovery but you only need a small amount. A good rule of thumb is 4:1 (4 grams of carbs to every 1 gram of protein) some studies say a 7:1 ratio is good too. Taking in too much protein after an intense run can actually slow down the absorption of the water with which you're trying to rehydrate your body.
I'm not bashing protein drinks, shakes, or powders. Just be sure however that when you're using them, that you're not exceeding the .8, 1.5, or 2g per kilogram of body weight per day rule depending on your activity level as well as what you're already getting from regular diet.

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15 comments:

Jamoosh said...

I think one of the focuses on protein is that it helps satiate hunger, so a person would be more apt to eat less. That said, your post shows exactly why well-balanced meals along with exercise are the most important aspect of any diet.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Jamoosh! You're right on the money with protein helping put hunger at bay. I know peanut butter on an English muffin sure holds me longer than just a bowl of cereal!

behindtherabbit said...

nice post! note that 102g of protein for a 150 lb endurance runner is a lot - especially if you're a vegetarian, like me. the protein supplement that I use has only 23g protein per serving, and that far exceeds any of the daily food that I eat.

I think your point about when to eat protein, or more accurately, when not to eat it, is crucial.

it is interesting that Powerbar Recovery, which I use with excellent results after almost every run, has a 7:1 carb:protein ratio.

cheers!

Otto said...

I'm new at vegetarianism. I just started eating only one meal per week of meat, and I'm on my third week of that. And, this two past weeks of not eating meat meant losing around 1 lb. of weight.
For a vegetarian wanna be, do you have recommendations?

behindtherabbit said...

hi Otto - for me, the biggest help in making the switch was incorporating a protein supplement into my diet. I use whey powder (I've tried soy, too), and generally blend it together with fruit and yogurt to make a shake. I also eat more yogurt, peanut butter, and of course, tofu.

I still eat fish, though I'm slowly minimizing that as well.

best of luck!

The Running Bob said...

Running Dude,

Wow, that was a really good article and timely as this last week I thought I may need some supplements. I don't want to fall prey to a marketing campaign for supplements, as I eat pretty healthy, however I have a concern as my training plans are ambitious.

Thanks for the start into my research.

The Running Bob

RunnerDude said...

Hey Behind the rabbit! It does sound like a lot. I'm not a vegetarian so I'm not as familiar with what it takes to get to the required protein levels when not eating animal products but if you're not a vegetarian it's a lot easier than you realize. For example:
3oz of white-meat chicken breast contains 26.7 g of protein. 3 oz. of Tuna (canned in water) has 21.7 grams of protein. 2 scrambled eggs have 13.6 grams of protein. So if you had these three food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner you've already eaten 62g of protein. This isn't even counting if you drank milk (8g for 1cup) with your eggs, had Greek yogurt for a mid-morning snack (15g for 8oz), had bread with your tuna to make a sandwich (10g for 2 slices of whole grain bread). Now you're at 95g of protein. And what about the almonds you had for your afternoon snack (6g for 10z), the corn you ate with your chicken (2g) and the lowfat chips you had with your tuna sandwich (2g)? Now you're at 105 grams of protein! Guess what? If you're an endurance runner in training for a marathon, you've just reached and surpassed your 102 grams of protein for the day without any supplements.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Otto! Like I told Behindtherabbit, I'm not a vegetarian, so I'm a little out of my league. He may be better able to guide you here. I have a close friend that's a vegetarian. I'll ask her what she does.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Otto! Oops! Didn't see that BehindtheRabbit had already responded to you. Thanks BehindtheRabbit!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Running Bob! I added some more info to the post about how to get in the needed protein. When you have a chance go back and see the new info. It may help you some more.

behindtherabbit said...

RunnerDude - wow. I had forgotten how much protein you get from chicken. and I rarely eat tuna, so yep - there go two main sources. soy milk is equivalent to regular milk, so that's not a big deal, and I rarely eat eggs. ouch.

too bad there is no protein in coffee! ;-)

RunnerDude said...

Hey Behindtherabbit! I think you're onto something there! Protein Coffee! We could make millions!!!

Oz Runner said...

great post...i think protein is way over rated....hey, did you announce the winner of the Road ID contest? maybe i missed it...my bday is coming up and that is going on my wish list if i didn't win...thanks.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Behindtherabbit and Otto! The following books may be worth checking out for some of your questions.
The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide by Lisa Dorfman
Vegetarian Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer
The Protein-Powered Vegetarian: From Meat to Vegetable Protein by Bo Sebastian

RunnerDude said...

Hi Oz Runner!
Sorry for the delayed answer. Yes, the winner of the RoadID contest was announced last Sunday and was posted on the right nav of the blog, but I took it down on Tuesday to post the button for the new RunningWarehouse.com contest. James David Dykas was the winner. Be sure to enter the RunningWarehouse.com contest!