The essentials about protein
Protein is your body's preferred muscle building fuel and can help you reach super-human levels of leanness.
What is protein and what role does it play in your body?
Protein is a combination of essential and nonessential amino acids in the body. When you consume animal or plant protein, the molecules are cleaved into amino acids, which are used to construct new cells, muscle tissue, hormones and many other molecules. Protein is one of the most abundant sources in our body, responsible for 15% of our total body weight. It also makes up many of our bodily components, including hair, skin, bones, nails and muscle.
Some of the benefits of eating protein are decreased hunger, an improve body composition and maintenance of lean muscle mass.
Amino acids and supplements
An amino acid is the smallest form of protein in the body. In order for protein chains to be formed, the body needs a total of 20 different amino acids to be linked together. The body is able to produce 11 of these amino acids on its own - these are known as nonessential amino acids. However, your body is unable to manufacture the other nine amino acids (known as essential amino acids) and these must be supplied by food sources or supplements. This is why you’ll find many supplements available on the market, including fish oil, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine. Fish oil contains Omega 3 fatty acids, which enhance your overall health, protect against disease and indirectly improve the quality of your workouts. Branched chain amino acids are made up of essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine, which promote muscle synthesis in the body. Another popular supplement is glutamine, which alleviates the body during times of stress (such as exercise) and builds, protects and repairs muscle tissue.
Protein for energy
Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts increase their protein intake when they’re trying to get leaner, to ensure they maintain their muscle mass. Although protein is not usually a source of energy during workouts, it can be burned for fuel if you’re on a restricted diet and don’t consume an adequate intake of protein. In order for the body to synthesize muscle, it must have access to all nine of the nonessential amino acids simultaneously. The body will break down its own protein if any of the essential amino acids are missing. Ensuring you consume enough dietary protein, conatining all the essential amino acids, will prevent muscle breakdown in the body. Proteins that contain all the essential amino acids include eggs, nonfat dairy products, chicken and turkey breast, seafood and protein powders.
Soy is promoted as a health food, which is low in cholesterol, and is popular with vegetarians who don’t want to consume animal based protein sources. However, research has demonstrated that milk based protein powders such as Casein and Whey are superior to soy based products when it comes to stimulating protein synthesis. Vegans can achieve low levels of body fat, but will need to pay close attention to their diet and make sure they’re meeting all their nutrient and protein requirements. They will also need to pay attention to carbohydrate intake, to avoid weight gain. When it comes to bulking, animal based protein sources are always the better choice. Robert Kennedy, author of Rock Hard, Super Nutrition for bodybuilders explains: “The bodybuilder would be ill-advised to adopt a true vegetarian diet. In the bodybuilding world of champions, that percentage is currently zero.”
Protein needs vary according to your current height, weight, activity levels and goals. Scientific research has proven that it’s optimal to increase protein intake when looking to sculpt lean muscle or burn fat.
One popular guideline, proposed by researchers, it that you should eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kgs), you would need to consume 150 grams of protein each day. Although this is a good starting point, it doesn’t take your goals into account (bulking, losing fat or maintenance) and it also fails to take overweight or obese people into consideration. For example, a man who weighs 300 pounds would not need to consume 300 grams of protein a day. Tom Ventuo suggests that overweight individuals should eat one pound of LEAN bodyweight or target bodyweight per day.
Protein intake for fat loss
A better approach – one that I use myself - was adopted from Tom Venuto’s Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle program, which recommends a baseline of 30% of protein for total calories consumed a day. This is a baseline starting point for anyone who is starting a fat loss program for the first time. You can then manipulate your diet and play around with the percentages as you go along. Once you know your caloric intake, you then divide the calories by four (since there are four calories in every gram of protein) to calculate your overall intake.
The formula is as follows: estimated total caloric intake x 0.30 (baseline starting point is 30%) = total number of calories. Total number of calories ÷ 4 = total number of grams per day.
Here is an example to make this clearer. If your goal is fat loss and you’ve estimated your caloric intake to be 1600 calories a day, your total number of calories for protein would be 30% of that. This would be 480 calories (1600 x 0.30 = 480). If you want to calculate how many grams of protein you should aim to be eating, divide total calories by four, which gives you a total of 120 grams (480÷ 4 = 120).
This percentage may change depending on your goals, as you go along. If you would like to decrease your carbs further (to accelerate fat loss or if you’re carb intolerant) and increase protein, you might bump the figure up to 40% of total calories. When training for my bikini fitness competition I ate 45% of protein! If, for example, you’re male, consuming 40% protein, and have calculated your total caloric intake to be 2200 calories a day, that would consist of 880 (2200 x 0.40) calories of protein and 220 grams of protein (880 ÷ 4).
Click here to estimate your total caloric intake for your goals.
Protein intake for muscle gain
In order to gain muscle mass you need to increase caloric intake so that you’re eating more than you burn. Once you’ve estimated your total calories for muscle gain, follow the same baseline of 30% of total protein intake and you can gradually increase this as dictated by your results. Some bodybuilders consume up to 50% of their total calories in the form of protein! It’s ideal to increase protein intake for muscle gaining programs in order to avoid over consuming carbs and to reduce the risk of storing fat.
The formula is as follows: estimated total caloric intake x 0.30 (baseline starting point is 30%). Total number of calories ÷ 4 = total number of grams per day.
A man that is looking to bulk up might estimate his caloric intake to be 3500 and chose to eat 45% of them in the form of protein. This would total 1570 calories of protein a day (3500 x 0.45) and 393.75 grams of protein (1570 ÷ 4).
High protein diets
It’s always optimal to increase your total percentage of protein intake when:
1- you are looking to gain muscle mass
2- you are following a low carb diet for fat loss
3- you are carb intolerant.
It’s important to note that you do NOT need to start off with a low carb diet for fat loss, but may eventually decrease your carb intake and increase protein intake as you get closer to your goal and your fat loss starts to slow down. If you cut your overall calories in the form of carbs low, you would need to increase your total number of calories in the form of protein if you want to avoid a low-calorie diet and maintain your muscle mass.
Individualistic protein intake
As Tom Venuto explains in his program, protein intake varies for all individuals and should be customized according to your goals and your results. As long as you’re getting results by following the baseline of 30% of total protein calories, don’t change anything. If you’d like to accelerate fat loss or increase muscle gains further, increase this figure.
Are high protein diets bad?
A high protein diet is ideal for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. As Tom Venuto says, it’s better to err on the side of too much protein in a diet than too little. A high protein diet can do no harm to a healthy and athletic person, unless you suffer from kidney disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.
No scientific evidence to date has proven that high protein diets cause kidney disease – and if this were the case, physique athletes would have started suffering from kidney problems a long time ago.