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How much protein do you really NEED?

Posted by Joel Marion

After a day of flying across the country, I’m finally getting the opportunity to write this newsletter.

Straight from…what’s this place called?  Ah yes, the Gibson Guitar Lounge in Orange County airport.

I was actually planning on sending this during my last flight, because, that plane was COOL and had the internet, but alas, my middle seating assignment amongst two individuals even larger than I made that an impossibility.

But here I am, making it a point to deliver on my promise to you, my loyal subscriber, even before I check in to my hotel.

Alright, enough of that…moving on to what you really want to know:  How much protein do you really NEED?

Ha!  Trick question, because that’s actually not the question you should be asking anyway.  You see, when you ask the question about “need”, one needs to examine the context of the question.

How much protein do you need for what?

To build muscle?  To improve body composition?  To improve performance?  To enhance recovery?  To live?

In most cases, people are asking how much protein should I intake to enhance my body composition and performance related goals.

And with that question, it’s important to take a look at things not from a “need” standpoint, but from an “optimization” standpoint.

And because my very good friend and nutritional biochemist and all around bad ass Dr. John Berardi already covered this in another article, I’ll just quote him here:

“Asking ‘How much protein does an athlete need?’ is much like asking the question ‘How much does a student need to study for an exam?’ Since a student only needs to pass their exam to remain a student, the proper answer would be ‘however much it takes to score a 60%.’  However, very few students want to earn only a 60%. Therefore the best question would be ‘How much does a student need to study to get an A on their exam?’

Now, the truth is, there are MANY reasons beyond “need” to increase protein intake to boost body composition and performance related results, here are just a few:

Reason #1

Increased Thermic Effect of Feeding — While all macronutrients require metabolic processing for digestion, absorption, and storage or oxidation, the thermic effect of protein is significantly higher than that of carbohydrates and fat. In fact, protein requires 25-30% of the energy it provides just for digestion, absorption, and assimilation while carbs only require 6-8% and fat requires 2-3%. That means that eating protein is actually thermogenic and can lead to a higher metabolic rate. This means greater fat loss when dieting and less fat gain during hypercaloric diets.

Reason #2

Increased Glucagon — Protein consumption increases plasma concentrations of the hormone glucagon. Glucagon is responsible for antagonizing the effects of insulin in adipose tissue, leading to greater fat mobilization. In addition, glucagon also decreases the amounts and activities of the enzymes responsible for making and storing fat in adipose and liver cells. Again, this leads to greater fat loss during dieting and less fat gain during overfeeding.

Reason #3

Increased IGF-1 — Protein and amino-acid supplementation has been shown to increase the IGF-1 response to both exercise and feeding. Since IGF-1 is an anabolic hormone that’s related to muscle growth, another advantage associated with consuming more protein is more muscle growth when overfeeding and/or muscle sparing when dieting.

Reason #4

Reduction in Cardiovascular Risk — Several studies have shown that increasing the percentage of protein in the diet (from 11% to 23%) while decreasing the percentage of carbohydrate (from 63% to 48%) lowers LDL cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations with concomitant increases in HDL cholesterol concentrations.

Reason #5

Improved Weight-Loss Profile — Research from Layman and colleagues has demonstrated that reducing the carbohydrate ratio from 3.5 – 1 to 1.4 – 1 increases body fat loss, spares muscle mass, reduces triglyceride concentrations, improves satiety, and improves blood glucose management.

Reason #6

Increased Protein Turnover — All tissues of the body, including muscle, go through a regular program of turnover. Since the balance between protein breakdown and protein synthesis governs muscle protein turnover, you need to increase your protein turnover rates in order to best improve your muscle quality. A high protein diet does just this. By increasing both protein synthesis and protein breakdown, a high protein diet helps you get rid of the old muscle more quickly and build up new, more functional muscle to take its place.

Reason #7

Increased Nitrogen Status — Earlier I indicated that a positive nitrogen status means that more protein is entering the body than is leaving the body. High protein diets cause a strong positive protein status and when this increased protein availability is coupled with an exercise program that increases the body’s anabolic efficiency, the growth process may be accelerated.

Reason #8

Increased Provision of Auxiliary Nutrients — Although the benefits mentioned above have related specifically to protein and amino acids, it’s important to recognize that we don’t just eat protein and amino acids — we eat food. Therefore, high protein diets often provide auxiliary nutrients that could enhance performance and/or muscle growth. These nutrients include creatine, branched chain amino acids, conjugated linoleic acids, and/or additional nutrients that are important but remain to be discovered. This illustrates the need to get most of your protein from food, rather than supplements alone.

So, looking over this list of benefits, isn’t it clear that for many individuals, an increase in protein intake would be advantageous for most people’s training goals?”

Hmmmm, indeed it does, Johnny boy, indeed it does.

So rather than looking at “need”, when talking about protein intake, let’s talk optimization.

Based on my experiences (and many others), that level is around 1 g per pound of lean body mass in most cases.

In some situations, for very specific purposes (like the protein depletion day of the XFLD), higher protein intake may be warranted.

Regardless, the bottom line is this:  protein is the most under-rated nutrient, or at least the nutrient that most people under-consume.  If you’re looking to boost your body composition results, make sure you’re getting enough.

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