High–Protein Confusion: What’s the Deal, Bro?
High–Protein Confusion: What’s the Deal, Bro?
Protein: The Un-Equaled Macronutrient
Within the realm of sports, health, and fitness, nutrition is a dominant and continuous topic of discussion and debate. And, within the domain of nutrition there is a multi-billion dollar supplement market, and a key macronutrient that perpetually captivates a great deal of attention is protein. For many years, greater protein intake was seen as a must for physically active people, but that continues to stir quite the controversy.
As anecdotal and empirical research has accumulated to support its use, the efficacy of protein ingestion has begun to develop a solid fan base. As with many other things in the fitness industry, an appreciation for anything (products, exercise application, etc.) that might help to increase lean body mass, decrease fat mass, and/or give those who seek a leg up on the competition often leads to the more-is-better principle – but should it? If protein is the holiest of all macros while carbohydrates are Beelzebub in the flesh, then it must be better, right? This, my friends, is where the confusion leads to misinformation. Misinformation then leads to personal anecdotes and then personal anecdotes drive the very lucrative world of manipulative marketing and groundless intake recommendations we see all around us.
Look, there’s no doubt protein is an important nutrient. In fact, a substantial number of studies suggest protein should be consumed in what’s now termed HIGH amounts by most individuals, particularly very physically active individuals. Knowing how much and the timing of protein ingestion can greatly impact the results you may be attempting to achieve.
So, let’s cut through the crap to truly understand protein and how you can use it to achieve your health and fitness goals.
Why Are We So Confused?
As it turns out, many factors have influenced how we look at protein today.
First and foremost, the multi-million dollar monster enterprise that is the U.S. weight loss market is to blame. According to Marketdata Enterprises, the U.S. weight loss market totaled $64 billion in 2014. The proliferation of junk gym-science (we’re being nice about naming that one!) that continues to be pumped out regarding nutrition and supplements, including various proteins, is directly proportional to the buying patterns of consumers. These consumers are tricked into believing and purchasing these products and marketing lines.
Compounding the confusion among the general public, amateur and professional athletes alike is the disorientation by what we like to call bro-scientists of the metric and imperial measurement systems -- you know, kilograms to pounds. Conversions of the historical recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein have been misinterpreted, misrepresented and manipulated from 0.8 grams/kilograms of body weight per day into 0.8 grams/pound of bodyweight per day. While the RDA for protein appears to be a low recommendation for those looking to increase fat free mass (FFM) and/or decrease fat mass (FM), the mix-up in the conversion would yield a more than significant difference. In layman’s terms, you won’t get the results you want.
Here’s an example for you:
RDA for a 150 lb individual would be: (150/2.2) X 0.8 = 55g/protein per day
Broseph’s (our bro-scientific friend) recommendation would be: 150 X 0.8 = 120g/protein per day
Broseph Might Be On To Something
Protein is a vital macronutrient, there’s no doubt about that. Recent research verifies that protein should be consumed in higher amounts by most individuals, particularly active individuals. But what does high mean, exactly?
In general, a protein intake greater than 30% of total calories is considered high. It may surprise you to know that studies including research subjects that fit into the subsequent categories yielded some interesting results: a) resistance trained-athletes (> 2 yrs experience), b) overweight and obese women, and c) the untrained/general population (no resistance training experience). In the studies, subjects who resistance trained at three to five days per week and consumed a diet consisting of >30% protein, all significantly increased fat free mass (FFM) while decreasing fat mass over variable time periods. Further research indicates when consuming a reduced-energy diet (lower than typical for subjects studied), the content of protein as well as overall energy intake strongly impacted the degree to which fat and FFM are lost from the body -- that being a decrease in FM and a stabilization or increase in FFM. And athletic or non-athletic individuals, regardless of body mass index status, who are aiming to decrease their body weight, may be advised to keep protein intake high.
If >30% of caloric intake and the premise of finding your personal high in an effort to gain FFM and lose fat mass leaves you flustered, well, don’t be. The research and findings reviewed can be summarized to obtain a general protein recommendation of 1.5g/kg.
That means, for example, an individual weighing 150 pounds should have an intake that looks like this: (150/2.2) X 1.5 = 102g protein per day.
Some Additional Benefits of High Protein Diets
In the additional research out there, the results suggest that individuals who consume higher-protein diets are more likely to eat less at subsequent meals due to feeling fuller for longer periods of time. Some research has supported that eating a high-protein meal has resulted in consuming anywhere between 12% to 30% fewer calories at the latter meal. In other words, quality protein will fill you up and won’t let you down!
In yet another study, researchers in Denmark showed that when participants on a high-protein diet (46% carbohydrate, 25% protein, 29% fat) or a high-carbohydrate diet (59% carbohydrate, 12% protein, 29% fat) ate as much as they wanted, those on the high-protein diets consumed significantly fewer calories over the course of the study. Moreover, the high-protein diet group lost significantly more weight than the participants on the high-carbohydrate diet. Participants on the high-protein and high-carbohydrate diets lost 19.5 lbs and 11.22 lbs of body weight and 16.72 lbs and 9.46 lbs of fat, respectively, and those are results that just can’t be ignored!
A Few More Considerations
There are a few more things you need to consider when looking at adding more protein to your diet. First, even though diets higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate seem promising, some researchers suggest that the long-term effects of a high-protein diet on overall cardiovascular and metabolic health need to be studied. However, the majority of high-protein diet studies that evaluated the potential effects on cardiovascular risk actually shows an improvement or reduced risk in comparison to traditional American diets.
The challenges and variables in many evidence-based research studies are numerous. The duration of the study as it relates to long-term outcomes, conditioning level of both the control and placebo groups, quality of protein used, timing, dosing, etc., are all factors that need to be looked at when you consider the results. Some studies last only a few weeks while others last several months. The articles used for this blog post references studies that spanned variable time periods, contained considerable variation in numbers of subjects studied at various fitness levels, and were not funded. In short, these are independently performed and peer reviewed prior to publication….no bro-science, here.
What should your takeaway from all this be? When you read health, nutrition, or fitness news that seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. You have to dig a little deeper to discover the truth behind health and fitness claims. Remember, people are trying to sell you things, but true health and fitness that last your lifetime can’t be bought, it can only be learned!
Escobar, K.A., McLain, T.A. & Kerksick, C.M. (2015). Protein Applications in Sports Nutrition – Part II: Timing and Protein Patterns, Fat-Free Mass Accretion, and Fat Loss. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(3), 22-34.
McLain, T. & Escobar, K. (2015). Protein Applications in Sport Nutrition – Part I: Requirements, quality, source, and optimal dose. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 37(2), 61-71.
Romotsky, S. & Bonci, L. The Importance of Protein for Athletes. NSCA Coach 2.1. Retrieved from https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/the_importance_of_protein_for_athletes/
Stavinoha, T. Pick Your Protein. NSCA TSAC Report, 38, Retrieved from https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/tsac-report/pick_your_protein/
Wein, D. & Halupowski, L. Eating for Muscle Growth. NSCA Coach 2.2. Retrieved from https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/eating_for_muscle_growth/