Seeking Maximum Muscle Mass
When athletes want maximum muscle mass and when increased protein intake above those needed to prevent deficiency will lead to greater positive nitrogen status. Although at these high levels of protein intake, both total body protein synthesis and protein breakdown are increased, the amount of protein that stays in the body is usually higher at the higher protein intakes (up to a point).
Lemon has suggested that intakes are over 0.82g/lb.-0.90g/lb. (1.8-2.0g/kg) may not be beneficial despite the apparent increases in positive nitrogen status. He believes that a ceiling may exist that prevents more muscle gain when eating above this level. Lemon tends to agree in at least one case and suggests that when using anabolic agents (i.e. growth hormone, testosterone, etc), a high-protein intake may be necessary to maximize muscle gains [Bhasin et al. 1996, Lemon, 2000].
It's well accepted in the weightlifting community that during anabolic steroid use, protein intake should be around 2g/lb. (4.4g/kg). (So a 200-lb., hard-training bodybuilder also using AS and GH might use 400 grams of protein a day)!
Going back to our 200-lb. natural strength athlete looking to increase muscle mass, I suggest that he/she might benefit from 182g of protein per day. The research is unclear whether more protein may further produce muscle gains, however, anabolic steroids theoretically increase nitrogen retention and, therefore, protein requirements.
Protein Intake: Performance Or Mass?
Athletic performance is dependent on many factors including skill level, conditioning, and team or individual strategies. Certainly, lack of nourishment will decrease performance but eating an excess of protein, carbohydrate, or fat might not increase performance (unless you are a strength and power athlete). Studies examining whether very high protein intakes can enhance a variety of athletic performances have not been promising [Lemon, 2000].
The bottom line is that it appears better to over-eat than to under-eat protein when someone's trying to add muscle mass while keeping body fat off. Excess protein calories are not as likely to be stored as body fat compared to carbs and most fats. This is because the metabolism and processing of protein is energy costly endeavor in that it's more thermogenic and activates hormones that help with fat loss [Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D. Human Nutrition Laboratory, Kent State University, Ohio, USA].
Carbohydrates make up the predominant energy source for most athletic activities. In general, only a small amount of protein is burned for energy during exercise. Where normal diets are consumed, it is only significant (5-15% of total calories burned) for long-duration endurance training [Dohm et al. 1982, Lemon and Mullin 1980, Lemon et al. 1983, Yarasheski and Lemon, 1983]. High levels of blood or muscle protein don't immediately contribute to the energy needs of exercise modes.
However, while protein is not a great pre-game meal, athletes usually follow year-round intense training programs. Recovery from these intense training sessions is necessary to see continual progress. Therefore, from a recovery perspective, protein intake may be as important, or more so, to the athlete as the other macronutrients.
Will a high-protein diet increase muscle mass? Yes. But, will this increase performance? Since many athletes believe in the power of protein to increase muscle mass, more studies need to be done. However, it only stands to reason that if muscle mass is increased due to long-term high protein intakes, athletes involved in strength and power sports will undoubtedly receive a benefit over time.
Benefits Of Increased Protein Beyond Athletic Performance
While high protein diets may not necessarily improve athletic performance (beyond recovery considerations) and it's not proven that protein above 0.82g/lb. (2g/kg) will increase muscle mass, are there any other benefits of a relatively high protein intake? I think the answer to this question is yes.
Protein and Metabolic Rate
Protein intake may positively affect body composition. Since all food requires metabolic processing, all macronutrients increase metabolism. However, the metabolic increases seen when eating protein are double those seen when eating carbohydrates or fat. Therefore a high protein intake may be thermogenic and may lead to increased calorie burning and fat loss.
During dieting, this may enhance calorie expenditure and therefore the rate of fat loss [Blacklevin et al. 1975, Ballor and Poehllman 1994, Skov et al. 1999, Alford et al. 1990]. As I said above, more protein is needed on a low-calorie diet anyway; especially when working out. During overeating in an attempt to gain muscle, although higher protein intake may not be needed for positive nitrogen status, it's likely better to eat excess protein rather than carbohydrates or fats. Since overeating leads to both some muscle and some fat gain, eating more calories as protein may lead to more lean weight and smaller gains in fat weight.
Did you know that eating protein might increase your metabolic rate and nutrient balance? To this phenomenon, a higher protein diet may contribute to body fat loss. Since protein foods require more "metabolic processing" than carbohydrates and fat it only stands to reason that the metabolic increases seen when eating protein would be higher than those seen when eating fat or carbohydrate. Several research investigations have shown just that. The metabolic increase seen with eating protein is just about double that of eating carbohydrates or fats [Welle et al. 1981, Robinson et al. 1990, Nair et al. 1983].
Protein and Hormones
In addition to the calorie-burning effects of protein, higher protein intakes can increase the release of the hormone glucagon from the pancreas [Guntiak et al. 1986, Linn et al. 2000)]. The hormone insulin prevents fat loss from adipose (fat) tissue, but glucagon is responsible for reversing this effect [Yamauchi et al. 1988]. Glucagon also does a nice job of decreasing the enzymes responsible for making fats and building up the fat stores in the liver and the fat cells [Girard et al. 1994].
So again, higher protein intakes may lead to losses in body fat due to the thermogenic effects as well as the hormonal effects of eating protein. During dieting, this may lead to a greater rate of fat loss [Blacklevin et al. 1975, Ballor and Poehllman 1994, Skov et al. 1999, Alford et al. 1990]. And, overfeeding, may lead to a smaller increase in fat mass relative to lean mass gains.
Additionally, in applicable human studies, protein and branched-chain amino acid supplements have been shown to increase the IGF-1 response to eating and exercise [Kraemer et al. 1998, Thissen et al. 1994, and Carli et al. 1992]. Therefore both protein and calorie intake may be responsible for raising IGF-1 levels. Since IGF-1 can regulate muscle growth [Adams 1998], I believe that a high protein intake may assist in muscular development.
Protein and Cardiovascular Disease Risk
Finally, increasing the percentage of protein in the diet while decreasing the percentage of carbohydrates and fats may have some real health advantages. Increasing protein intake from 11% to 23% can lead to very favorable changes in blood lipids and cardiovascular disease risk.
So, there may be some real health and body composition benefits to higher (even "excessive") protein intakes. More research on these topics is needed but until this research is done, the reports of hundreds of athletes, bodybuilders, and weightlifters have confirmed my speculation.
We have data showing that increasing protein intake from about 10 to 20% while decreasing carbohydrate intake from 55 to 45% (with fats kept constant at 35%) can lead to favorable changes in blood lipids. However, with athletes, increasing protein to levels higher than 20% might not offer much more benefit in terms of blood lipids. It may decrease performance since carbohydrates and fat would have to be reduced to do so. For the majority of athletes, since carbohydrates and fats are essential for athletic performance, I would not recommend decreasing either in favor of more protein [Len Piche, Ph.D., RD. Nutrition Program, Brescha College, University of Western Ontario, Ontario, CA].
Safety of A High-Protein Diet
In the previous section, I suggested that not only a high protein intake but also an excess protein intake might have some benefit to those interested in changing body composition and decreasing cardiovascular disease risks. Again, an important distinction has to be made. High protein diets aren't necessarily in excess. In fact, according to the data discussed earlier, high protein diets in athletes are just enough to get these individuals to nitrogen balance. So this isn't an excess of protein at all!
Replacing Carbs with Protein
Why are nutritionists recommending high carbohydrate diets when research has demonstrated that replacing some dietary carbohydrates with protein can lead to favorable blood lipid profiles?
Dr. B.M. Wolfe, a nutrition researcher at the University of Western Ontario, has been asking himself this very question for several years. In three separate studies, Dr. Wolfe has shown that when increasing protein intake from about 11% of the diet to about 23% of the diet, blood markers associated with heart disease took a turn for the better [Wolfe and Piche, 1999, Wolfe, 1995, Wolfe and Giovannetti, 1991]. This benefit occurs in both healthy and high-risk people.
As the protein intake increased, Dr. Wolfe made sure that the fat content of the diet stayed the same (25-35% fat) while the carbohydrate content was reduced (from about 63% to about 48%).
The exact magnitude of the changes was pretty large as in one particular study, the bad fats like LDL cholesterol decreased by between 6% and 9%, while the good fats like HDL cholesterol increased by between 12% and 17% [Wolfe, 1995]. In addition, in this study, the ratio of plasma total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol (the lower the ratio the better) decreased by between 15% and 16%. Finally, in this study, the total triglyceride levels decreased by between 18% and 23%.
Another interesting effect of the protein increase in these studies was that the satiety levels of subjects tended to be higher with the high-protein diet. Therefore they felt fuller at the same calorie intake. Protein is well known to have this effect on appetite.
Protein and Kidney Strain
The kidneys ultimately process chemicals derived from protein breakdown. Because of this, some have theorized that extra protein breakdown could cause strain and therefore damage to the kidney. From the research, though, there is no data (in healthy rats or healthy humans) that support such theories.
A new study directly contradicts this theory. In this study, protein intakes up to 1.27g/lb. (or 2.8g/kg) did not cause kidney damage. Some rat studies have revealed that when rats were given an 80% protein diet for long periods, none of the rats showed any signs of kidney damage [Zaragoza et al. 1987].
Protein and Osteoporosis
Past research has revealed that high protein intake was associated with increased calcium loss in the urine. From this researchers thought that this could lead to osteoporosis. Recently, though, such concerns have been dismissed. Recent studies have shown that higher protein intakes usually lead to a higher bone mineral content instead [Cooper et al. 1996, Freudenheim et al. 1986]. Since exercise is known to increase bone mass, a high-protein diet coupled with exercise training leads to a net increase in bone mass despite any potential losses in calcium.
The Purported Hazards of Eating Lots of Protein
So what is the truth? Are high-protein diets dangerous? Look and see what the research has to say.
Impaired Kidney Function?
Although studies have been published showing that in individuals with unhealthy kidneys, an excessive protein intake could place undue strain on their kidneys, healthy individuals have little to worry about with high protein diets. To demonstrate this, a recent study revealed that when bodybuilders consumed up to 1.3 grams of protein/lb. (2.8g/kg) of body weight kidney function was not impaired [Poortmans and Dellalieux 2000]. In fact, in an older study conducted with female rats, kidney function seemed to be improved with high-protein diets [Sterck et al. 1992].
A few original studies demonstrated that when protein intake was raised to 140-225g per day, excess calcium was lost from the urine at a faster rate than normal [Hegsted et al. 1991]. However, in these studies, calcium intake as well as phosphorus intake was restricted and not allowed to increase in proportion to the protein intake. Since whole-food proteins contain both calcium and phosphorous and even protein supplements are fortified with calcium and phosphorous, it only makes sense that increases in protein intake are typically accompanied by increased dietary calcium and phosphorous. In this scenario, the research has demonstrated that when taking in additional protein, there is a positive calcium balance and there are no adverse effects on bone calcium content [Hegsted et al. 1991, Zigler and Filer, Jr. 1996, National Academy of Sciences National Research Council 1989].
If protein supplements are used, they should be fortified with calcium and phosphorous.
There is no doubt that maintaining protein synthesis rates is a major problem for a high-volume/high-intensity endurance athlete (one of the reasons why anabolic steroid use is prevalent in pro cyclists). Metabolically speaking, these athletes spend much of their day in a major catabolic state. Therefore I think it is vital that these athletes be well on the positive side of nitrogen balance (closer to 2g/kg) to ensure that the massive daily calorie expenditure doesn't negatively impact lean muscle mass. However, too much protein (above 2g/kg) can be a problem for endurance athletes since it can change the acid/base balance of the body - decreasing the ability to sustain high-intensity activity, or it may replace much-needed carbohydrates in the diet [Eric Noreen, MS, Ph.D. candidate. University of Western Ontario, ON, Canada].
Whole Foods vs. Supplemental Protein
Athletes and nutritionists have been arguing for years about whether or not protein supplements are necessary. Nutritionists argue that protein needs can be met by whole food sources. They also say that supplemental protein powders offer no advantages. I don't necessarily agree with the nutritionists on this point.
It is more "fun" to eat a 16-ounce filet mignon than a can of protein. But protein supplements can offer significant advantages over whole food sources.
Variety and Convenience
Most athletes and nutritionists will certainly agree that protein intake should come from a variety of sources. Different protein sources have different amino acid, vitamin, and mineral profiles. The consumption of a limited variety of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, or fats) or micronutrients (vitamins or minerals) can lead to nutritional deficiencies. So how does one prevent deficiency? Eat variety! Mainstays of the diet should be protein sources like lean beef, eggs, low-fat cheese, milk, fish, and chicken.
But, typically athletes choose protein sources that are convenient and require minimal preparation (there go the chicken, beef, and eggs). In this scenario, because the protein sources are limited, the athlete doesn't eat enough of them. After all that, 200-lb. guy wants to eat three whole containers of cottage cheese just to meet his 180-g protein requirement for the day.
In addition, food protein sources chosen for convenience may be missing certain amino acids necessary for growth and repair. If this happens, although the grams of protein eaten may seem to be adequate, there can be serious deficiencies in the diet. Specific amino acid deficiencies from a limited variety can impair normal function. An illustration of the complexity and importance of protein and amino acid transport in the body is illustrated in Figure 2. This figure also illustrates the complexity of protein metabolism.
Protein supplements often contain very high-quality protein that requires no meal planning short of remembering to grab your protein packet or protein bar on the way out the door. In addition, since these protein powders are often fortified with vitamins and minerals (two other components of a balanced diet that many athletes are lacking), they may provide an easy source of other nutrients necessary for optimal nutrition and growth.
Vegetarian and Muscle?
Since meat is a good source of high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals, it's no surprise that most athletes and gym rats eat a lot of meat. However many dietitians and vegetarian groups have taken a very anti-meat stance. While some of their ideas can't be dismissed, their blanket statements against meat consumption are misguided. Of course, fatty meats can lead to blood lipid problems and other health dangers. But the consumption of lean meat seems to have many benefits, especially for weight trainers.
Dr. Wayne W. Campbell, a nutrition, exercise, and metabolism researcher from the University of Arkansas, has consistently shown that Lacto-Ovo vegetarian eating (dairy and eggs are allowed) can interfere with the positive body composition changes seen in meat-eating older weight trainers [Campbell et al. 1995a, 1995b, 1999]. In his studies, subjects were given between 0.8g of protein/kg/day and 1.6g of protein/kg/day. Regardless of the protein intake, vegetarians did not improve to the same degree that meat-eating trainees did. From all the data, it is clear that the addition of meat protein to a vegetarian diet can increase the gains in muscle and losses in fat seen with weight training. Since vegetarian proteins (besides egg and dairy) may be deficient in certain essential amino acids, this may prevent muscle gain even when the total calculated protein intake seems adequate.
Protein After Training
After training (whether aerobic or anaerobic), the body is primed for nutrient uptake into the muscle cells. So what should you feed hungry muscle?
The part should be liquid for ease and rapid speed of digestion of proteins.
It should contain rapidly digesting, high glycemic index carbohydrates (i.e. maltodextrin and dextrose) that stimulate large and rapid increases in the anabolic hormone insulin and lead to glycogen synthesis.
It should contain rapidly digesting protein with a complete essential amino acid profile (like whey protein hydrolysates and/or milk isolates with whole egg).
Contain minimal fat as fat slows digestion and nutrient delivery.
Contain branched-chain amino acids that may be independent stimulators of protein synthesis. Glutamine is also considered critical by many protein authorities.
Contain a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio in the neighborhood of 2 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein for a total of 0.37g of carbohydrate/lb. (0.8g/kg) of body weight and 0.18g of protein/lb. (0.4g/kg) of body weight.
Hydrolyzed proteins have a higher BV score than concentrates or other protein preparations [Ziemlanski et al. 1978]. Higher BV scores should translate to better processing and utilization of protein in the body. In addition, this increase in BV may increase the release of IGF-1, which, as mentioned earlier, can stimulate muscle growth [Adams 1998]. Finally, studies have even shown that hydrolysates do not stimulate the release of the catabolic hormone cortisol whereas whole intact proteins do stimulate this catabolic hormone [Slag et al. 1981]. Mild enzymatic hydrolysis has been developed to hydrolyze proteins. The best hydrolysates have been hydrolyzed with enzymes.
[Everson note: The highest hydrolysate levels of whey proteins we have measured in any commercial marketplace protein product are 37% whey peptide hydrolysate and 34% whey isolate in Beverly's Muscle Provider.]
Whey vs. Casein - Is One Better Than the Other?
While whey and casein may have different bioactive peptides, they also have major physical differences. The main difference is how they behave once they enter your GI tract. Both are high-quality protein sources with high PDCAAS and BV scores but what differs between the two proteins is their rate of digestion and absorption into the body [Mahe et al. 1996, Boirie et al. 1997].
Simply put, the amino acids and peptides from whey protein move through the GI and into your bloodstream quickly while casein amino acids and peptides "clot" in the GI and therefore are much more slowly digested. Casein, therefore, takes longer to get to the bloodstream than whey. In this case, being faster isn't necessarily better.
So what do these differences in digestion and absorption mean? The amino acids and peptides from whey will rapidly get into the blood. And these rapid rises in blood amino acids create a quick and short-lived increase in protein synthesis. Studies show that after consuming whey protein, blood amino acids rise and then return to normal approximately 120 minutes after eating. Although this does stimulate protein synthesis, it has no impact on slowing protein breakdown. The balance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown determines muscle gain.
On the other hand, casein creates the opposite effect. The slow delivery of casein will lead to a small but steady increase in blood amino acids over a long period. After consuming casein, blood amino acids are elevated for at least 420 minutes. This does significantly decrease protein breakdown.
When the effects of whey and casein were all calculated and the net protein synthesis or breakdown was measured, you can see from Figure 3 that, after 120 minutes, there were no major differences in protein balance (the balance of protein synthesis and protein breakdown) between the groups. However, after 420 minutes, the casein group had a far more positive protein balance than the whey group and total synthesis was greater than total breakdown (see Figure 3).
The rate of digestion of your protein has some pretty interesting effects on protein balance in the body. In a study by Dangin, the authors wanted to measure protein balance differences between slow-digesting proteins and fast-digesting proteins, independent of whey vs. casein. So they compared a slow-digesting casein protein to a fast-digesting amino acid blend very similar to the composition of casein. Then they compared a fast-digesting whey protein to a modified whey protein that had a slower digestion rate. At the end of the 7-hour measurement period, the "slow proteins" (whether whey or casein) resulted in a more positive protein balance than the "fast proteins" (whether whey or casein).
Weight trainers who eat every 2-3 hours probably won't see a difference between the two types of protein. After all, the only differences in protein balance were seen after 7 hours. At the 2-hour mark, they were the same.
In 2000, a study was published by Demling and DeSanti comparing body composition and strength changes in dieting overweight police officers supplementing their diets with 75 g of either a milk protein blend containing mostly casein or a whey-only protein blend. As you can see in Figure 4 on the next page, the milk protein/casein group lost almost 6.5 lbs. (3kg) more fat and gained nearly 4.5lbs. (2kg) more muscle than the whey-only group. In addition, the milk protein/casein group had a 31% improvement over the whey-only group in muscle strength.
It makes sense to categorize protein sources into two groups; the slow proteins and the fast proteins. Slow proteins would be whole food sources like cottage cheese, egg, beef, fish, and chicken as well as supplemental protein powders containing milk and casein (isolates or concentrates).
Fast proteins would be proteins like whey isolate or concentrate as well as most protein hydrolysates (including casein, whey, etc).
1) First Thing In The Morning
When waking up in the morning, your body has just been through a fast (6-9 hours for most people). During this overnight fast, the body has been using up its stored energy by slowly sending nutrients out from the liver, fat cells, and muscle cells. The body does this to keep blood sugar constant and to fuel the brain and other tissues during sleep. Unfortunately, this constitutes a small degree of body cell destruction. At this time, the best thing you can do for your body is to consume a relatively quick digesting protein source. One nice way to accomplish this would be to drink a small whey protein or hydrolysate shake immediately upon waking. Then, a little while later, consume your normal breakfast meal.
2) Immediately After Training
Basically, after training the body is primed for nutrient uptake, especially the muscles. So this is a great time to consume a quick digesting fast protein. Since whey protein hydrolysates are the fastest to be digested and absorbed, these are pretty much the choice of protein for post-workout recovery nutrition. But carbs, glutamine, and BCAAs are also extremely important.
3) During The Day
Since, throughout the day, your goal should be to eat small, dense meals every few hours; the need for "special" proteins is limited. Since studies have shown that an omnivorous diet is ideal for promoting positive training adaptations, lean meat sources of protein are ideal during the day. While I encourage lean meat sources of protein for most of your day, if you get in a bind, a good whey/casein/milk protein isolate/concentrate blend can be a good compromise due to the combination of fast proteins and slow proteins.
4) Immediately Before Bed
Before you lie down and enter dreamland, you should consider taking in a final meal in anticipation of the 6-8 hour fast ahead. You want to prevent the body from using all of its stored energy during the night. This would be a great time for a slow protein since slow proteins release their nutrients over several hours. The studies we discussed above showed that even after 7 hours, the subjects were still in a positive protein balance and still had a slow delivery of nutrients [Boirie et al. 1997, Dangin et al. 2001]. So, before bed a milk protein, isolate/concentrate blend with whey and casein naturally in it, would be good.
Summary and Recommendations
Both endurance and strength athletes need more protein than recommended by most nutritionists and the RDA. The natural athlete eating sufficient calories should consume about 0.7-0.9g/lb. of body weight (1.5-2.0g/kg). However, during dieting or anabolic drug use, more protein may be needed and/or beneficial (up to 2g/lb. or 4.4g/kg).
For physique athletes or body-weight athletes interested in increasing lean body mass while minimizing fat mass, excess protein intake above "need" may be beneficial. This additional intake can increase metabolism relative to other nutrients, prevent insulin-related fat gain, optimize anabolic hormone levels, and improve cardiovascular risk profiles. Whole food protein sources also contain creatine and other nutrients that may be beneficial to the athlete.
To meet their protein requirements for the day, people need to consume a good amount of high-quality protein during every meal. While possible with whole food sources only, this can become inconvenient from time to time. Understanding that convenience is imperative in today's world -- I stress the need for protein supplements.
They provide a very quick and easy source of protein that is comparable in price to other whole protein sources. A good plan might be to consume 3-4 food meals per day and 2-3 supplemental protein meals.
Supplemental proteins today are mainly milk-derived protein sources including milk protein isolates, whey protein isolates, and casein. As discussed, milk proteins have several very powerful peptides that do very interesting things in the body. These peptides can regulate digestion, immunity, and muscle growth.