Steak is just one of the many sources of protein.
Ahhhh, protein.The much-revered and equally-maligned macronutrient that is either the solution to our physique goals or a big threat to our health, depending on who you ask.
Most strength athletes and bodybuilders have long recognized protein as the heavenly saviour on which all muscle gains are made. The vegetarian and vegan communities (not to mention most government food guides) have been trying to convince us that we’re getting plenty of protein and that we shouldn’t worry about it.
The truth can seem fuzzy sometimes, and if you’re believing the wrong side you could be missing the benefits of protein.
When it comes to building muscle, protein needs have to be met.
How to meet those protein needs is where the confusion comes in.
Believing these protein myths could be holding back your physique progress:
1) Your body can only absorb 30g of protein in a sitting
This claim may have been linked to a 2009 study, in which the researchers looked at the rate of protein synthesis following ingestion of protein. The conclusion was that “ingestion of more than 30 g of protein in a single meal does not further enhance the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly.”
Note the use of “further enhance” to suggest that more than 30g is completely useless.
Now, I’m not the kind of person to dissect research studies (way too tedious!), but this was a very small study with only 26 people in which the subjects were essentially asked to rest in bed for the duration.
In fairness, most nutrition studies are small anyway, and the subjects are generally a homogenous group of university students.
Such is one of the many limitations of nutrition science.
Anyway, how much protein your body can absorb is dependent on many factors, including your size, genetics, gender, digestive health, activity level, and body composition. Even the synthesis of muscle protein, which is what that particular study looked at, will vary between individuals.
The other issue is that protein has many other functions in the body besides muscle protein synthesis.
It stabilizes your blood sugar, enhances your immune system, repairs other tissues, and provides satiety to your meals.
There’s no reason to believe that those effects top out at 30g of protein per sitting.
As long as your calorie intake isn’t too high overall, causing you to store fat, extra protein can be utilized for any of those other functions.
Keep in mind that your body doesn’t use all the protein you consume in one meal immediately.
Food is mechanically combined into something called chyme as it goes through the stomach, which can take several hours before reaching the small intestine, where the protein is absorbed.
The body can adjust the rate of absorption as necessary.
So don’t worry if you’re having more than 30g of protein in one meal. In fact, I look at 30g per meal as a standard rather than a limit.
This myth probably comes from the knowledge that kidney damage from high intakes of protein may be an issue for individuals with already existing kidney dysfunction.
Just because something is bad for a person with a disease doesn’t mean that it’s bad for everyone. If a few people are allergic to tomatoes, does that mean that everyone should avoid tomatoes? Of course not.
There’s nothing to indicate that protein causes any issues with healthy kidneys.
The one caveat: stay hydrated!
Protein needs more fluid to move through your system.
Ensure that you’re drinking plenty of water daily so that your body can process all the protein you’re consuming.
The ole’ eight glasses a day recommendation isn’t scientifically proven, but it’s a good general guideline.
If you’re a 240-pound dude with tons of muscle you need more than a 5′ nothing lady who gets pushed to the side by slight breezes outdoors.
Hot weather or excessive sweating (more likely to come from that 240-pound dude!) increase your need for fluids, so adjust accordingly. Most active people tend to drink a lot of water anyway, and it’s one of the first lifestyle changes that a newbie fitness convert makes, but be aware that it’s especially important when your protein intake is high.
3) A high protein diet has to be extremely low-carb
First we have to look at what a high-protein diet actually is, and that’s where a lot of the confusion comes in. The definitions of a high protein diet include: intakes greater than 15–16 % of total energy, as high as 35 % of total calories, or intakes that merely exceed the RDA.
The RDA (recommended daily intake) definition is perhaps the biggest joke, since it’s too low to most athletic people.
Sometimes referred to as Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), the RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. A 150-pound person would need 54g of protein per day.
This amount would prevent a protein deficiency, but it likely isn’t the amount for optimal health.
Based on any of the three definitions above, many of us are already on a high-protein diet. And a high protein diet where 35% of the diet is protein, and assuming 10% fat (not something I recommend, but it’s useful for this example), would still contain 55% carbs.
There’s no clear definition of a low-carb diet either, but most people don’t think of 55% carbs as low-carb.
My diet is actually a fairly good example, as it follows a couple of the definitions of high protein, but contains quite a lot of carbs. I don’t measure or keep track at the moment, but I’m not trying to restrict carbs because I’m active, lean, and trying to put on muscle mass (grow, shoulders and glutes!).
4) You’re eating too much protein already
I suppose if you’re going by the RDA then you probably think that you’re eating too much protein. We’ve already discussed how this is misleading, as there are known benefits to protein intake for fat loss, immunity, and reducing appetite.
Remember that these government associations are looking out for the greater good of a massive population, a group of people where – in the case of the US – 66% of people are overweight or obese. Their biggest problem isn’t necessarily getting more protein…it’s eating a lot less food altogether!
That protein also isn’t coming from the best sources and comes with all sorts of other undesirables, like trans fats and plenty of refined carbohydrate.
Most obese people are consuming protein in the form of fried chicken, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and roasted peanuts. Sure, there’s some protein in there, but it isn’t doing your body any good overall…and it explains why protein often gets a bad rap.
Now, if you’re moderately active and exercise 3-4 days a week, and are of a normal weight, but not necessarily as lean as you’d like, then the situation is completely different.
You’re probably eating better quality lean protein in the form of chicken breasts, lean meat, and fish and not packing in the grease from the local takeout joint while doing it.
When studies look at a large population of people and their protein intake, they group all people with high-protein intake together. They don’t account for the quality of the sources (and the other macronutrients involved).
Since, as we’ve established, most people are using poor protein choices, the data tends to be skewed negatively for health outcomes from high protein intake.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition has set their standards for protein for active people at 1.4-2.0 grams per kg of bodyweight per day.
For those of you who like math, this works out to about 0.63-0.9g of protein per pound per day, not far from my standard recommendation (and that of the bodybuilding community) of 0.8-1g per pound per day.
A 150lb person should eat 120-150 grams of protein per day.
5) Protein builds muscle without training
The only thing that really helps you put on muscle without training is endogenous hormones (ie. steroids). I don’t even talk about drug use with respect to muscle building or weight loss because it’s not something I know much about.
I’m a lifelong natural athlete and I’ve never tried, nor considered trying, any form of drug enhancement to improve my physique.
Sometimes people get confused because they see bodybuilders taking in a lot of protein and think that protein does more work than it actually does.
In order to build muscle, you need to stimulate your muscles to grow with progressive resistance training. Minor muscle damage occurs and when the body repairs the muscle (through the use of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, amongst other things) the muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Protein will help you retain whatever muscle mass you already have, but if you don’t train progressively with weights then your muscles won’t grow any bigger. Sitting around and just packing in the protein won’t get you anything but fat accumulation.
6) Protein Causes Cancer
There are few things that cause cancer directly, apart from perhaps high-dose radiation exposure. Experts agree that the cause of different cancers is multi-factorial (an interaction between genetics, environment, and perhaps even emotional triggers).
Cancer is a name given to a collection of many similar diseases, defined when some of the body’s cells divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissues.
This is part of the reason why treating and curing cancer is complex…it’s not really one disease but a bunch of diseases with that one similarity.
While there is a study that showed an increased risk of cancer with higher protein intake, there were a lot of issues with that study. It certainly didn’t indicate causality. High protein consumption is often associated with the consumption of poor quality food in general.
If you’re not that science-y, remember that correlation doesn’t mean causality.
Meaning, just because Lady Gaga released an album this morning and the sun came up this morning doesn’t mean that Lady Gaga’s album release CAUSED the sun to come up.
There are way too many confounding variables in nutrition studies to really know what’s going on.
The other claim circulating out there is that specific types of protein – namely red meat – cause cancer.
These studies have NOT indicated a causal relationship between eating red meat and getting cancer.
Eating good quality versus poor quality protein hasn’t been addressed in any study that I’ve seen (let me know if you find one!).
And unfortunately it’s impossible to do a double-blind placebo-controlled study with food.
Eating protein (and red meat especially) is often associated with other behaviours that are unhealthy and potentially cancer-causing, like a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, chemical exposure, and excessive alcohol intake.
I doubt the results would be the same for an active, clean-living, lean-meat eater who eats tons of vegetables.
Eating plenty of vegetables, with their variety of phytonutrients that seem to reduce the risk of cancer, is always a good idea.
There aren’t enough people who exercise, eat large quantities of vegetables, and also consume high-quality meat to compare with the equivalent vegetarian.
That would be an interesting study though, wouldn’t it?
I don’t like to get too carried away analyzing the research data. I’ll leave that to the professional research scientists (those peeps with the PhDs after their name).
My purpose is to disseminate the bulk of the data for you, and ask you to use your common sense and best instincts to make a good judgement for YOU.
Protein requirements vary and it’s not always simple to figure out where your needs fall.
I normally recommend 0.8-1g per pound of body weight per day.
This applies unless someone is very large and overweight. In that case it might be more appropriate to make the target based on their goal body weight.
There’s no reason to believe that this amount of protein is harmful.
A series of studies are being conducted that measure the impact of high-protein diets on health markers like blood lipids, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and kidney function. So far the news is that there’s no negative impact on these indicators of health.
So get in your protein, in the best form possible. Eat plenty of vegetables as well, to provide you with an array of health-protective phytonutrients. Drink lots of water so to get protein through your system to do its work.
There’s power in protein…if you harness it correctly.
Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Peacock, C. The effects of a high protein diet on indices of health and body composition–a crossover trial in resistance-trained men. Int Soc Sports Nutrition. 2016 Jan 16;13:3.
Arnal, M.A., Mosoni, L., Boirie, Y., Houlier, M.L., Morin, L., Verdier, E., Ritz, P., Antoine, J.M., Prugnaud, J., Beaufrere, B., Mirand, P.P.Protein feeding pattern does not affect protein retention in young women. Nutrition. 2000 Jul;130(7):1700-4.
Brock Symons, T., Sheffield-Moore, M., Wolfe, R.R., Paddon-Jones, D. Moderating the portion size of a protein-rich meal improves anabolic efficiency in young and elderly. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Sep 1; 109(9):1582-1586.