Protein is the king nutrient of muscle. In fact, ultimately, protein is muscle. Rather, muscle is protein. Even with the countless studies on protein intake, protein types, when, how, and how much to eat, the definitive truth still remains shrouded in mystery to a degree. May things we know for sure, like, we NEED protein in our diets and we need it regularly. We also know that some protein sources are different than others. Some digest slow, some digest fast and they all have different make-ups of amino acids. Still though, many fallacies remain about the right way to take our protein. Below are five myths about protein intake that you need to know:
Your body can’t convert protein to fat – This is a simple statement that requires a complicated response. The truth is, your body can convert amino acids into both glucose and fatty acids. While it is true that you are LEAST likely to store protein as fat than say, sugar or, well, fat, it is still very possible. This needs to be looked at on a total calorie (energy) consumption basis. If you are eating less than or about the total energy needs your body requires, than yes, you won’t store protein as fat or anything else for that matter. However, if you are at or above your maintenance levels of caloric intake, adding more protein will create a total energy surplus that will put you in a position to store some of that energy in the form of fat. While it may not be exactly the protein that is being converted over to fat and stored, by introducing additional energy into your body, the free fatty acids that exist in your blood stream will be directed to be deposited in fat cells and stored for later. Another way of saying this is that it’s not so much if protein, carbs or fats be stored as fats, but rather, excessive calorie intake will ultimately be stored as fat, regardless of which macronutrient it comes from.
You can only assimilate 30 grams of protein per meal into your muscle – This is one of those one-size-fits-all statement common in dietary advice that is never true. Everyone is quite different, and recent evidence shows that this is not true. Several factors are at play here that need to be taken into consideration. For one, several protein sources absorb at different rates. Further, eating protein with other foods further delays their digestion (particularly fats). So let’s say you eat 60 grams of protein from chicken along with a ton of carbs and fat, than by the time the digestion process completes (which may be several hours) you may indeed assimilate all of that 60g of protein since it is occurring over the course of time and not all at once. Similarly, in the case of an ultra slow acting protein like casein, the protein releases over time, so as it releases, you can continually absorb it. The opposite would be true of a whey protein isolate. Taking a ton of whey isolate at once all by itself will flood the system with free aminos and it will be more than can be processed for positive purposes at once and will be converted to something else and/or disposed of. In addition to this, what’s also of relevance is how much free aminos are currently in your blood stream. If you haven’t eaten for several hours, the amino count in your bloodstream will get very low and your body may fill it some by pulling aminos from muscle (you went catabolic). In this instance, free amino count will be very low and you will be able to refill your bloodstream with a lot more protein/aminos than had you just eaten a protein rich meal an hour or two prior. The last factor involved in this is kidney and digestive system function and body size. Everyone is different and has different processing capacities, so a 300lb male with 200lbs of lean muscle and excellent functioning digestion and kidneys will be able to assimilate a lot more protein than a 80lb sedentary grandmother with kidney disease, for instance.
Hydrolyzed whey isolate digests faster than standard whey isolate – This one is short and sweet. No it doesn’t. Studies have shown the difference is negligible. Both digest extremely fast, so this extra stage of filtration at the manufacturing level is not necessary. Also, as most fitness and nutrition enthusiasts will tell you, the less processing of foods the better they are, so save your money on this one.
Protein has set digestion times – This was touched on in #2, but it needs its own point made. It is stated that whey isolate takes about 40-60 minutes to digest, egg protein 90 minutes to 3 hours, casein 4-7 hours and so on. This is pretty much true when taken alone, however the wildcard here is what you eat the protein with. If you have a whey isolate shake post workout and eat rice or potatoes with it, it will slow down the digestion significantly and you may be looking at 3 hours instead of 45 minutes. What and how much other foods you eat with your protein will greatly effect it’s time to digestion and assimilation. Fats are the slowest to digest and will delay the process the most. The foods all compile and coagulate in the digestive tract and must be digested as a whole. The more the digestive system has to do the longer it will take. For this reason it’s often best to take in JUST whey isolate post workout and delay the carbs for an hour or so.
We need to eat xx grams of protein per pound of body weight – This riddle will never be solved. As mentioned in #2, everyone is drastically different and has different protein needs and ideals. We want to get enough protein of course, but not too much protein to decrease overall body efficiency. The most compelling and justifiable studies on this point to about 1.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight as both safe and ample. However, again, so many factors are involved that this will always be a moving target. Activity level, metabolism, muscle mass (not body weight), kidney function and digestion all play a role. The only REAL answer is to start at a baseline of about 1.3 grams per pound and adjust up and down as you learn your body. Older individuals need more protein, as do those who are more active (people who lift). Trying to throw a one-size-fits-all number at this won’t work.
Overall, protein is vital to muscle growth. Optimizing how much, how often, which sources and how much per meal we eat can make big differences.