Protein Part One: Why and How Much?

I've been talking with a lot of fellow runners and fitness pursuers lately about food and diet changes. It has had me thinking more about the common misconceptions out there about 'healthy' eating. I was speaking with one friend about little changes in what she consumes and when I mentioned increasing protein, I could see her immediately react with nervousness and she said something that has stuck with me for a while: "I'm not going to be training to be a runner."

It's probably because I have been so immersed in learning about the various macronutrients out there that her comment struck me as bizarre. I didn't realize, until then, that some people don't really know what certain macronutrients do and how they work into the different fitness routines.

Protein Part One: Why and How Much?

Protein is good for everyone. Period. It has more effect for those who actively do some sort of resistance/weight training, less so in terms of cardio. So let's look at protein more closely. This will probably be broken into a few segments since there's a lot of information.

Why Do We Need Protein?

Like with the various fat discussions, the basic answer to why protein is good for us comes down to the composition of protein. It is made of various amino acid chains. Amino acids are the foundation and bricks of muscle. You can't build or maintain muscle without protein. Amino acids also regulate hormones, enzymes, and immune chemicals. Normally, we can make 12 of the various amino acids internally. The other 8, considered essential amino acids, we have to get from outside sources.

Healthy fats (like Omega-3), including, unfortunately, unhealthy fats, and protein encourage the body to feel full which in turn helps decrease cravings and overall caloric intake. As well, protein has the highest thermic effect of all macronutrients. What that means while we burn energy (ie. calories) to process what we eat, protein takes the most energy and therefore we burn more caloric fuel to process protein than we do carbohydrates or fats.

Carbohydrates can have strong effects on insulin and blood sugar, but when consumed with sufficient amounts of protein, the effect is significantly decreased.

How Much Protein Should We Have?

Currently, the daily recommendation for sedentary individuals, to maintain day-to-day functions, is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.5 grams per pound of body weight. The amount increases to 1.4-2 grams per kilogram of 'desired' body weight for active people going as high as 1 gram per pound of 'desired' body weight.

I would use caution when looking at 'desired' body weight, though. If all that matters is the number on the scale, the above works against you. For example, if I'm 160 pounds and my desired body weight is 130 pounds, by limiting my protein intake to only 130 grams of protein a day, I will drop weight, but that weight will come partially from my muscles. Your body will use muscle tissue as fuel, if need be, and by not feeding your muscles the 'bricks' it needs to keep itself building up, then they will become smaller. As muscle weighs more than fat, this effect will result in a lower scale weight.

A better rule to live by, for active individuals, is about 20-30 grams per meal for women and 30-40 grams per meal for men. Overall, 30% of your food on a given day should be protein. The normal maximum amount that can be absorbed at one time on average is about 30-40 grams. This varies based on the overall available muscle mass.

It's better to have excess protein rather than excess carbohydrates. Carbohydrates convert into glycogen to fuel the muscles during any high intensity activity. If the glycogen is not used within a short time span, it is then stored for later use as fat.

As we know above, protein takes more calories/energy to process and this is partially because protein goes through many more phases before going to storage (if it goes there at all). Any extra protein in the system is first converted to glycogen as fuel for muscles. Any extra is then changed again and used to build up lean muscle mass to a finite amount (varying based on muscle size, so less so for women). After that, it is converted back into glycogen and stored in the muscle as fuel if it is not used right away. It is only after that point, that is could potentially be stored as fat. Keep in mind each step in this process requires converting the protein which in turn burns calories.

In comparing protein to carbohyrdates in terms of processing, it's easy to see that overloading on carbs can quickly lead to fat store build up. There is 1 step in the conversion process. With protein, there is 4-5 steps that it goes through before it could potentially enter the fat stores of the body. Protein, in addition to going to the muscles first and staying longer, takes 4-5 times more energy to process so it burns way more calories on the way which in turn creates more places for the protein fuel to go before becoming fat.

Is it possible to have too much of protein? Yes, probably it is. It's possible to have too much of anything, really. The key thing here though is that the limit of 'too much' in terms of protein is extremely high and much harder to reach than the limit of carbohydrates or fats. The average person would be very hard pressed to hit that limit without intense over-supplementation. Hitting the carbohydrate limit is easy and the majority of us do it ever day, especially when we fail to combine carbohydrate consumption with high intensity interval training of some kind (not steady-state cardio).

In part two, I'll tackle the various sources of protein, the traps of 'high protein' labels, and ways to increase protein in your daily meals.

Also, keep an eye out this weekend for the start-up of my (protein) shake series!

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