25 May You Are What You Eat: Maximizing Your Fitness Regime
Last night, a client and I were talking about muscle mass. “I thought the only thing you needed to build muscle was more protein,” he said. I gave him a dry look. I explained that muscle mass is best accumulated, as far as diet goes, with a post-workout carbloading, when you happen to be the most sensitive to insulin. He nodded slowly, and I could tell he didn’t quite understand. After all, don’t we all pound back protein shakes after a workout? What’s the point? What is it doing to us?
Dietary proteins are molecules that can be composed of 22 different amino acids, 8 of which are essential (not produced by the body in any form and so must be consumed) while the remaining 12 are considered non-essential. The amino acids are responsible for a multitude of functions in the body, including hormonal function (specifically regarding metabolism) and being the basis for every cellular structure in the human body. Protein is often called the basic building block of muscle, and it absolutely is. While it does contain 4 calories per gram (like carbohydrates), it is not typically a fuel source. Rather than being used for energy, it is used for the support, repair, and creation of cells. That is, you need protein to build muscle, but you need either carbohydrates or fat to fuel the muscle or to even fuel the process of building the muscle.
The amount of protein a human needs is hotly debated, but most sources claim it is around 45 grams a day for women and 55 grams a day for men. That’s not a lot, is it? But you have to keep in mind that these numbers are referring to what is necessary to maintain the absolute basic functions of the body. And it is very difficult to even quantify that, because the bigger you are, the more cells you have to support; obviously, a larger person will need more protein than a smaller person. More than that, if your goal is musculature, then your protein requirements are going to be much higher than what is necessary to simply survive. An active person, who is using up more protein regularly due to the break-down of cells and the need for increased cell production (blood, muscle,and others), is going to need more protein as well. This is the reason why bodybuilders, who are both large and training very strictly, require such a great amount of protein over that base number. In fact, if you’re at Urban Evolution, your protein requirements are probably a lot higher than the average sedentary person!
But there’s another side to this story and that’s about taking in too much protein. There are claims that excessive protein is dangerous to the kidneys, but those studies all happen to involve subjects with pre-existing kidney issues. There has never been a study on protein consumption in a normal and healthy individual and it seems to be a giant leap of faith. It is exactly the same as observing people squat with poor form, noticing that their knees are going bad, and then declaring that squats are dangerous for everyone and shouldn’t be performed. However, there is one consideration – people often will overload on protein because they think it will help with muscle production (and it does). There is a ceiling of how much protein you can use, though, and the rest becomes involved in a process called glyconeogenesis. For those who didn’t major in Latin, it’s the new production of glycogen which is – you guessed it – a carbohydrate. Typically, these new carbs derived from the protein (remember the 4kcal per gram thing above?) are stored as fat if they aren’t needed at all. So the only real caveat, unless you have kidney disease, with excessive protein is getting fat. There’s no real point, so it’s best to stay somewhere in the middle, depending on what your goals are.
Protein is definitely an important nutrient. For athletes, it’s one of the most important because it is the basis of everything we are trying to do to our bodies. But it certainly is not a magical muscle-production machine and adding more protein without increasing overall calories isn’t going to serve much purpose. The bigger you are and the more active you are, the more protein you are going to need, but taking in too much will probably just make you fatter than you want to be.