Fitness Nutrition 101: Protein

Lets get something straight buddy boy (or girl), if you want to maintain a lean and fit physique, then dietary protein needs to be the cornerstone of your nutrition plan. It doesn’t need to be excessive as some hardcore bodybuilders would have you believe, but it certainly needs to be the central piece of your fitness nutrition puzzle. And it certainly needs to be more than the RDA recommends, which isn’t even sufficient for couch potatoes.

PROTEIN AND LEAN MUSCLE MASS

While carbohydrates and fats are your potential energy sources, protein is the foundation of all of your body’s tissues. Protein breaks down into amino acids, and amino acids are structural components of hair, skin, nails, and most importantly for our purposes, muscle tissue. If you want to build a lean, sculpted physique, you’ll need protein.

As a fitness athlete, you strength train several times a week to build muscle and increase your metabolism, but its important to note that the act of weight training does not build muscle. Training is only the stimulus to build new muscle. Weight training damages muscle fibers, setting up the environment for your body to repair and rebuild them stronger so they do not have to experience this trauma again. It is only when you consume an adequate amount of protein in the diet that this rebuilding process takes place. Carbohydrates can’t build muscle, fats can’t build muscle, only proteins.

Building muscle is a chemical process just like any other. If you’ve ever taken a basic chemistry class, than you’ve heard of the term limiting reagent. You don’t want dietary amino acids to be the limiting reagent in the muscle-building equation. You can’t make a water molecule without two hydrogens and an oxygen, and you can’t make muscle without amino acids. This is why those who train hard in the gym, but don’t pay attention to their diet, are just wasting their time. The great part about this is that you are in complete control. If you eat right, you’ll be supplying your body with all of the base ingredients it needs to make progress from your training.

PROTEIN, METABOLISM, AND FAT LOSS

What if you don’t care about all of this muscle building nonsense, all you care about is slashing fat? Well, these two processes go hand-in-hand, so pay attention. The amount of lean muscle mass you build and carry is directly related to your resting metabolism. The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will be. The faster your metabolism, the easier it will be to drop body fat. You probably know of someone who can eat whatever they want and still stay lean. We all hate that person, because that person genetically has a fast metabolism. If all you have to do is look at food and you gain fat, you have a slow metabolism. The only way to make up for this difference in genetics is to weight train, eat enough protein, add muscle, and speed up your metabolism. You don’t have to build Hulk Hogan type muscles unless you’re the type of dude seeking all out mass and want to (and ladies you probably can’t because of a difference in male and female hormones – to be discussed later), but adding some lean muscle will give you that metabolic boost you are looking for. It will also add nice shape and tone to your body. A lean, sculpted triceps takes up less space and looks less bulky than a triceps covered in body fat.

QUANTITY

Just how much is enough protein to get the job done? By definition, fitness nutrition is geared towards individuals engaging in a regular fitness program, weight training or both weight training and a cardiovascular program. This means your protein needs are much higher than the RDA recommendations for three reasons:

  1. The RDA’s are set for the general, non-exercising population. Exercising, especially weight training, places unique stresses on the body. The constant breaking down and rebuilding of muscle tissue increases the body’s demands for protein. The commercial construction worker needs to replace his tools more often than the average, weekend do-it-your-selfer.
  2. The RDA’s are set to avoid side effects related to protein deficiency and simply for maintenance of the average physique, not for the higher aspirations of fitness individuals looking to maximize lean muscle mass while stripping away body fat. You need more bricks and lumber to build a mansion than a town home.
  3. The RDA recommends an ultra-high consumption of carbohydrates, including sugars and refined starches. In this traditional, so-called balanced diet, the protein-to-carbohydrate ratios are way out of whack (1:5). We’ll be re-adjusting those ratios for the fitness athlete (1:1 to 1:2). We’ll be reducing carbohydrates, while simultaneously increasing our protein intake. Essentially, we are going to re-balance your dietary portfolio.

The general consensus in the fitness industry is to eat about 0.75-1.25g of protein per 1lb of lean bodyweight per day (total bodyweight – body fat), with 1.0g being the average. The 1g benchmark ensures you will be supplying sufficient amounts of protein to build and/or maintain muscle, and support a healthy metabolism. Many conservative nutritionists recommend less (0.5 per lb), and many aggressive nutritionists and bodybuilding experts recommend more (1.5 – 2g per lb). I think the 1g mark is a great place to start, and adjustments can be made from there as individual needs require.

Protein Intake Chart

Lean Body Weight 0.75g protein/lb 1.0 g protein/lb 1.25g protein/lb
100 lbs 75 g 100 g 125 g
125 lbs 94 g 125 g 156 g
150 lbs 113 g 150 g 188 g
175 lbs 131 g 175 g 219 g
200 lbs 150 g 200 g 250 b
225 lbs 169 g 225 g 281 g
250 lbs 188 g 250 g 313 g
275 lbs 206 g 275 g 344 g

NATURAL VS. PROCESSED PROTEINS

For general health, all individuals should choose natural protein sources over processed protein sources. This means eating foods like chicken breasts, eggs, fish, and lean red meats and avoiding foods like hot dogs, salami, and bologna. Natural protein sources are what our bodies are meant to absorb and digest, and provide our bodies with high quality proteins. Processed protein sources are generally of lower quality and are filled with preservatives and artificial ingredients. The closer a food is to its original source in nature, the better it is for you.

One exception to this rule is a high quality whey protein powder. Whey is one of the two proteins found in milk, the other being casein. Pure whey isolate is a highly bioavailable protein source. The BV rating essentially measures the percentage of ingested protein your body can actually utilize. Whey is at the top of the charts, more efficient than any other protein source. Whey is fast digesting and easily assimilated, which is good for the fitness athlete eating regular meals and is also why it is one of the best source of protein in your post workout meal.

Don’t misunderstand me, I still believe whole, natural protein foods are far superior than any supplemental protein powder. If you lived in an ideal world and had unlimited time, I would recommend eating all natural proteins. But in the real world, protein shakes are quick and convenient, and that is the biggest advantage for busy, working professionals. You can leave a jug in your office or carry it around with you wherever you go and use it whenever you need a convenient meal/snack. It’s a much better option than running out to a fast food joint or ordering a pizza when the work day gets hectic. Many professionals find that shakes are the best option during business hours.

You should stick with powder that you have to mix yourself versus prepackaged cans/bottles and protein bars. The heat processing used to extend shelf life can damage the protein in these products. They throw all kinds of other nonsense into the packaged products as well. Many of the bars are loaded with sugars, fats, and artificial ingredients and are nothing more than glorified candy bars fortified with protein. Stick to pure whey isolate powder.

LEAN VS. NOT-SO-LEAN PROTEINS

If you are trying to get lean, you should also stick to leaner cuts of meat to control overall calories and dietary fat quality. Dropping fat requires a calorie deficit. You should be eating some healthy fats to optimize hormone production, but if you go overboard, you won’t drop weight. Many low carb proponents suggest that if you are eating the right types of foods, you can eat as many calories as you want and still lose weight. This simply doesn’t jive with the law of thermodynamics. While you can probably eat more than if you were following an ultra- high carbohydrate diet due to metabolic and hormonal advantages, you still have to control calories. If you take in 9,000 calories a day from protein, fat, and vegetables, you probably are not going to get very lean, and you better stock up on toilet paper.

A 4oz piece of lean top round or eye of round steak may contain about 5g of fat. A 4 oz piece of New York steak, Ribeye, or high fat ground beef burger may contain upwards of 20g of fat. If you are trying to lean up, you should stick to the leaner cuts the majority of the time, and save the fattier cuts for special occasions, like a night out at a restaurant or a pre-game barbeque. Leaner cuts of beef and poultry would include eye of round, top round, sirloin, skinless chicken breast, turkey breast, and 95% lean ground meat/turkey. Fishes high in Omega 3 fats (salmon, mackerel) have unique benefits and are an exception to the rule, and should be included on a regular basis. To clear things up, just check out the food charts I’ve laid out for you at the end of the article.

OTHER PROTEIN TIDBITS

There are some other interesting side effects of a higher protein diet that will have positive effects on your body composition goals.

  1. Thermic Effect — Protein has the highest thermic effect, or number of calories that are burned as heat in the digestion process. Compared to fat at 3% and carbohydrates at 10%, nearly 20% of the calories of protein foods are used/burned off during digestion. This means it takes a lot of energy to break down protein foods, thus increasing the metabolic rate. Small protein based meals spread throughout the day will speed your metabolism and make it easier to get lean. Large, infrequent, carbohydrate based meals will not.
  2. Satiety/Reducing Hunger Cravings – Protein foods digest slowly, which will help you feel full for longer periods of time and prevent intense hunger cravings. Carbohydrate only meals digest rapidly and through blood sugar swings can stimulate hunger and cravings, sometimes immediately after their consumption. Nutrient dense protein foods will make it easier to follow better eating patterns and control overall calories.
  3. Buffering Blood Sugar/Insulin Response to Carbohydrate Foods — Protein has positive effects on insulin output when combined with carbohydrate foods. When carbohydrates are eaten alone, the primary hormone released is insulin. In high amounts, insulin can cause sugar to be stored as body fat, and triggers the uptake of dietary fat by body fat stores. Small servings of protein, 15-30g, counteract this negative response to carbohydrate foods. It is kind of like adding cool water to hot water, it lowers the overall temperature. Combining protein with carbohydrate foods lowers the net release of insulin, making it harder for those carbohydrates to get to fat stores. Carbohydrates should never be eaten alone, without at least a small dose of protein.

ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

The body can store fat and carbohydrates, but it cannot store protein. This is why it is important to spread your consumption of protein throughout the day. You should have small servings spread evenly over a minimum of 4 meals/snacks a day, and preferably 5. This will supply a constant influx of amino acids throughout the day to support the muscle building process.

After a weight training workout, your body can be in construction mode for up to 48 hours. When you eat protein at only 2-3 meals than: (1) Your body can’t get enough protein, or the constant flow necessary to build muscle and (2) You tend to overeat protein at these meals. Your body can only digest so much protein at one time. You can’t skimp on protein throughout the day and then eat a 20oz steak at dinner and expect to build muscle. Your body will only utilize a small portion of that steak, and the rest will have to be excreted, putting unnecessary stress on your kidneys and other parts of the urinary system. The best way to maximize protein absorption and utilization and minimize waste (with all foods for that matter), is to eat smaller more
frequent portions that the body can handle.

One objection that some have in regards to following a higher protein diet is that misinformation, improper data extrapolation, or perpetuated myths have caused them to believe that a higher protein intake is bad for the kidneys or will cause kidney (renal) failure. The fact is that the kidneys are involved in the excretion process of some of the by-products of protein metabolism. If you have an underlying kidney condition or disease, than yes, you must closely watch your protein intake. You must work with your doctor to devise a dietary plan based on individual needs. But for a normal, healthy adult, this excretion process is perfectly natural. There are published research studies that have shown that even extremely high levels of protein intake in strength athletes (up to 2g of protein per pound of bodyweight) had no detrimental effects on the kidneys. A person with heart disease should not run wind sprints on the track, but a healthy person could get great benefit out of it, get my point? One of the things we can do to eliminate stress on the kidneys and the rest of our digestive and urinary systems is to eat reasonable portion sizes. As I mentioned previously, the body can only digest and assimilate so much protein at one sitting, and it has no ability to store excess protein. Most people tend to over consume protein when they finally do eat it. Restaurants do not help this negative pattern. Most restaurants serve portions sizes that are too large. There are very few people who can digest 16-24oz of meat, poultry, or fish in one sitting. The average person doesn’t need much more than 3-8oz of protein per serving.

Also, staying adequately hydrated should coincide with a higher protein intake, and is good for overall health in general. Water keeps your cells hydrated and helps flush waste products, toxins, and the by-products of food metabolism out of your system.

Finally, reducing sugar intake can help ease stress on your kidneys – which is one of the major goals of fitness nutrition. According to nutritionist Jonny Bowden (Living the Low Carb Life), proteins naturally have a slippery texture, which allows them to slide around easily in the cells. Excess sugar in the blood, however, get stuck to these protein molecules and become what are
called glycolated protein molecules. These particular molecules acquire a sticky, gum-like texture. They can stick together and form bigger collections of molecules. Because of their size and texture, glycolated protein molecules have a hard time passing through the filtering process of the kidneys and can put unnecessary strain on this organ.

The moral of the story is if you are going to consume a higher protein diet, you better do it the right way. Don’t just be a meathead about it. You should stay within reasonable daily totals, spread your protein intake out over the course of a day, eat reasonable portion sizes, drink plenty of water, and reduce your sugar intake.

As with starting any diet or fitness routine, you should always consult your physician and discuss it. You should rule out any underlying problems or concerns that could lead to detrimental health effects down the line. If you have a clean bill of health, get ready to chow down on some fish, steaks, and protein shakes in order to maximize results from your training.

PROTEIN FOOD LISTS

LEAN PROTEIN SOURCES (GOOD CHOICES)

Fish: Bass, Calamari (not fried), Shrimp, Oysters, Salmon (burgers, smoked, canned), Mackerel, Sardines, Anchovies, Snapper, Monk Fish, Mussels, Tuna, Scallops, Cod, Prawns, Halibut, Sole, Orange Roughy, Butterfish/Sable Fish, Perch, Mahi Mahi, Crab
Foul: Egg Whites, Turkey Cutlets, Ostrich, Skinless Chicken Breasts, Lean Ground Turkey
Deli Meats: Roast Beef, Turkey, Chicken
Beef: Buffalo, Sirloin Steak, 95% Lean Ground Beef, Flank Steak, Top Round, Cubed Steak, Filet Mignon
Pork: Pork Tenderloin
Supplements: Whey Protein, Whey Protein Isolate

HIGHER FAT AND PROCESSED PROTEINS (BAD CHOICES)

Beef: Ribeye Steak, Prime Rib, Hot Dogs, Meatlof, T-Bone, Ribs, Porterhouse, Higher Fat Ground Beef, Tri-Tip, Meatballs
Pork: Pork Loin, Linguisa, Ribs, Pork Chop, Bacon, Pork Shoulder, Sausage
Foul: Duck, Dark Turkey Meat, Whole Chicken, Chicken thigh, drumstick, wing (fried or not), Whole eggs, High fat ground turkey,
Deli Meats: Pepperoni, Pastrami, Salami, Bologna
Lamb
Dairy: Cream, Milk, High fat or high sugar yogurt, High fat or high sugar cottage cheese (dairy proteins will be discussed in detail in a separate article)

SUMMARY

  1. Protein is the most important macronutrient for building lean muscle, speeding up your metabolism, and slashing fat.
  2. Each meal/snack should be centered around a lean protein source.
  3. Eat reasonable portions. Most people only need about 3-8oz of protein per meal. 18-24oz is way too much.
  4. Because the body cannot store protein to any significant degree, you should spread your intake out over a minimum of 4, preferably 5, and optimally 6 or more meals/snacks a day.
  5. When consuming a higher protein diet, make sure to drink plenty of water and limit sugar intake.
  6. Eat about 0.75 – 1.25g of protein per 1lb of bodyweight (1g being the average and a good starting ground), or 1g of protein per 1lb of lean body weight if you are over 15% body fat.
  7. Choose natural protein sources over processed protein sources (salami, hot dog, etc.). Good choices would be fish, steak, chicken, turkey, buffalo, shellfish, etc. The one exception is a high-quality, pure whey isolate protein powder.
  8. The majority of the time, choose leaner protein sources over their higher fat counterparts. The one exception is high fat fish.