Go into most gyms and there is one word on everyone’s lips. Protein. Want to get big and muscly? Then protein should be dominating your diet. Right? Bodybuilders and amateur gym goers have often prided themselves on the amount of protein consumed but do you really need huge excess amounts in order to make large scale ‘gains’ (the gaining of muscle)? The answer might surprise you and will probably be different to what protein powder manufacturers will have you believe. As with most things in nutrition, more isn’t always better. So, read on to save your money on protein supplements and eat smarter not just cleaner.
The big protein myth?
It should firstly be noted that eating more protein does go hand in hand with building muscle due to protein being extremely anabolic, allowing muscle growth. Protein also provides the body with the energy it needs to manufacture important substances such as hormones and enzymes. So, consuming protein, one of the most essential nutrients for the body, in order to gain muscle is far from a myth. The question is how much protein do we actually need before the benefits are outweighed by the negatives? According to research, strength athletes (those in the gym building muscle) need about 1.4-1.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight (far less than the often proposed 2.2-2.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight often cited as the optimal amount) and endurance athletes (those more focussed on cardio) about 1.2-1.4g/kg.
This means that going with the centre of these figures (1.6g/kg for strength, 1.4g/kg for endurance) someone of 84.0 kg, the average male weight in the UK, would need 134g protein per day if they were a strength athlete and 109.2g per day as an endurance athlete. The average female weight in the UK is 69.0 kg meaning they would need 110.4g protein per day if they were a strength athlete and 89.7g per day for an endurance athlete. It is important to note that the amount of protein required will also differ with your body type. The International society of sports states that ‘higher protein intakes (2.3–3.1 g/kg) may be required to maximize muscle retention in lean, resistance-trained subjects’ so, as with most things in nutrition, protein intake isn’t a one size fits all approach.
But surely more protein equals more muscle building, right? Sadly not. Excess amounts of protein consumption can cause weight gain and not through muscle building. The thing with excess protein is that the body can’t use it all at once. If the body receives too much from the diet it will convert some of the protein into sugar and then fat, as fat can be more efficiently stored. This can cause a rise in blood sugar level and add fat to your dream body. So make sure you give your body the right amount of protein when it needs it rather than overloading it all at once!
Working harder doesn’t mean more protein
Even if you are the hardest worker in the gym it doesn’t mean you have to be guzzling protein shakes every 15 seconds to keep gaining muscle mass. A study from 1992, which is still largely cited, showed that even bodybuilders training 1.5 hours per day, 6 days per week required just 1.65g of protein per kg of bodyweight to achieve the maximum protein benefits. This figure remains in the bracket of 1.4-1.8g/kg from the previous study and shows that, even for the hardest trainers, there is a limit to how much protein your body needs as those in the study consuming 2.4g/kg showed no further benefit.
But it’s what the pros eat
Without wanting to destroy the bodybuilding illusion some, but not all, bodybuilders use steroids which effects how much protein they can consume. Anabolic steroids, such as Dianabol and Androstenedione, increase protein within cells, especially in skeletal muscles, and will enable you to consume and metabolise far more protein than normal. If following the nutritional programme of someone who is using steroids, therefore, limiting the protein intake in comparison should be something you should consider.
Dangers of excess protein
It’s not just gaining fat excess protein consumers need to be worrying about. There is also some evidence overconsumption of protein can put excess strain put on the kidneys and liver. Although this evidence currently seems limited it can, however, be a problem in patients who already have some form of renal disease or have poorly functioning kidneys. This is because they will have a harder time excreting the excess nitrogen and urea brought about by the higher protein diet. The dangers around excess protein consumption also depends on the source. If you are planning to rely on surplus consumption of red or processed meat beware! High consumptions of these meat types have been linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer, especially in men. Healthier alternatives to red or processed meat include chicken, turkey, fish and seafood or, for those who stick to meat free diets, chickpeas, lentils or kidney beans amongst other things.
Still make sure you get enough!
Nutrition is all about balance and protein intake is a great example of this. Whilst too much protein isn’t always beneficial and can lead to dangers it is important for those physically active types to get adequate amounts. Protein deficiency can lead to muscle loss and fatigue, both of which will likely have a negative impact on you achieving your fitness goals, especially if they are muscle gain. Other benefits were shown in a 2002 study, which concluded higher-protein diets to ‘improve adiposity, blood pressure and triglyceride levels’ and it is still universally accepted that high protein intake, within limits, is essential to muscle building.
If you’re training big, protein can still be the golden ticket! But don’t waste your money
Don’t worry protein lovers. Your macro fave is still crucial to becoming the new Arnie! However, it’s all about consuming the right amounts when crafting your beach body. The recommended daily allowance (RDA), 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, is widely considered insufficient to meet the needs of intense trainers. However, the levels of protein recommended by some of 2-3g/kg of body weight certainly seem over the top and can actually have detrimental effects to your body goals. Instead of throwing your pay check directly into your nearest supplement store, eat smarter! Aim for 1.4-1.8g/kg of protein if you are a strength athlete and 1.2-1.4 if you are an endurance athlete but definitely DON’T miss out on getting your protein fix.