Protein is perhaps the oldest and most well-known bodybuilding supplement currently on the market. However, as the popularity of protein (powders, bars, etc.) has risen substantially over the years and spilled into the mainstream market, so too has skepticism and claims that high protein intake is unnecessary.
Some have even taken the stance that consuming too much protein is downright bad for you! Fortunately, this is a matter that has been thoroughly investigated in the world of nutritional science.
The purpose of this article is to establish a better understanding of what factors influence protein requirements in order to help you determine how much protein you actually need. Let’s get started…
Who is Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) Recommended For?
The U.S. Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) is roughly .8g/kg, or .36/lb. This would be equivalent to a 200lb person consuming about 72g of protein daily. The obvious question here is: Recommended for whom?
Research has confirmed that .8g/kg is adequate for a sedentary person to maintain muscle mass, but what about those of us who are physically active? Certainly someone who goes to the gym every day and subjects their muscles to strenuous activity on a regular basis should require more than someone who hardly moves a muscle, right?!
Indeed, a 2000 study, published in the “Journal of the American College of Nutrition”, found that exercise significantly increased the bodily demand for protein as much as 100%, and concluded that the RDI for highly active individuals should be more like 1.6-1.8g/kg, or .7-.8g/lb.
Is High Protein Intake Safe?
A 2004 study, published in the “Journal of Sports Sciences”, concluded that high protein intake such as 3g/kg, or 1.4g/lb, is entirely safe, though whether or not this high intake would convey any additional benefit is largely dependent on degree of physical activity as well as timing of ingestion.
Okay, It’s Safe. But Is It Beneficial?
A 2011 study from “Clinical Nutrition” found that healthy human males who consumed 3g/kg (1.4g/lb) daily experienced significantly improved reaction time when compared to subjects consuming 1.5g/kg (.7g/lb) daily. Plasma concentrations of branched chain amino acids and phenylalanine were significantly higher in the higher-protein-intake group, offering a potential mechanism of action for the improvement in reaction time.
Phenylalanine is an indirect precursor to Dopamine and Noradrenaline whereas BCAAs are thought to competitively inhibit Tryptophan levels in the brain (reducing fatigue causing Serotonin). Though further research is needed to explore these mechanisms, the study as a whole certainly lends credibility to the already established notion that higher protein intake is beneficial (in many ways) for athletes.
A 2005 study, published in the “Journal of Nutrition”, showed that increased protein intake combined with a relative drop in carbohydrates was able to improve body composition (less fat relative to muscle) during a restricted calorie diet. These findings were replicated in a 2007 study in obese women dieting, as well as a 2010 study from “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” in which dieting athletes were able to preserve lean muscle mass during calorie restriction.
Are Protein Shakes Necessary?
Ultimately, that depends entirely on your diet. If you are a highly active person looking to not only preserve, but gain muscle mass, you should shoot for a daily intake of 1-1.4g/lb. If you can achieve this through diet alone, then you’re all set. However, if you find that you’re falling short of your daily protein goals, and are eating about as much as you can, tossing a protein shake into the mix is a great way to ensure you hit your goal.
There is nothing inherently dangerous or unhealthy about drinking protein shakes here and there to ensure adequate protein intake. Guzzling them all day isn’t going to help you, so it is still recommended that you get the majority of your daily protein from your diet.
What Kind Of Protein Is The Best?
Protein supplements come in a variety of forms such as:
- Whey Protein
- Casein Protein
- Egg Protein
- Soy Protein
- Beef Protein
- Rice Protein
- Pea Protein
Whey and Casein are both derived from Milk, with Casein making up around 80% of the protein content and Whey making up the other 20%. When you drink Milk, you’re consuming both Casein and Whey. This makes Milk itself a pretty good post-workout drink, but there are many other sources of protein to consider…
Is absorbed rapidly, resulting in peak blood amino acid levels in just 20-40 minutes. Typically you’ll find Whey in the form of:
- Whey Concentrate – (70%)
- Whey Isolate – (90%+)
- Whey Hydrosylate (95%+)
Whey concentrate is the least pure and Whey Hydrosylate is the most pure. This is simply because Whey Isolate and Whey Hydrosylate have undergone additional processing and may be more rapidly absorbed. That said, all Whey Protein is rapidly absorbed relative to most other forms.
Is much more slowly absorbed than Whey, resulting in peak blood amino acid levels in 3-4 hours or so. This makes it ideal for before bed when blood amino acid concentration would generally decline throughout the night (since you’re not eating while your sleeping).
In terms of absorption, Egg Protein is something of an intermediary between Whey and Casein, and boasts a particularly high Net Protein Utilization rate. This is why many bodybuilders simply eat Egg Whites. It’s essentially nature’s protein supplement!
Protein derived from actual beef. Yes, it tastes as bad as it sounds. No, it doesn’t provide any advantages over other forms of protien as far as muscle building.
The whole Beef Protein trend started when a few supplement companies decided to spread a bunch of propaganda about how other sources of protein–such as Whey and Casein–don’t provide a complete amino acid profile and therefore don’t provide your body with every thing it truly needs to build muscle.
To be crystal clear, this is NOT TRUE at all and has since been debunked by researchers. While it is true that animal proteins typically have the most complete amino acid profile, Whey, Casein, and Egg Protein ARE animal proteins. Each of these types of protein is just as effective as Beef Protein for building muscle.
Since Whey, Casein, and Egg Protein are all considered animal products, anyone who abiedes by a Vegan diet must consider other options.
Not to worry though, it’s entirely possible for Vegans to consume enough protein to reach their fitness goals without ever consuming meat or animal products…It’s just not easy. Vegans must master the art of combing incomplete proteins to form complete (muscle-building) proteins which takes a little research and effort.
Soy Protein may be vegan-friendly, but it’s not necessarily an ideal protein source if building muscle is the goal. There is some (somewhat tenuous) evidence to suggest that regular intake of Soy can have estrogenic effects in men, but some studies have found no such influence.
So, we’re not going to jump on the “Soy Raisese Estrogen” bandwagon. A little Soy won’t hurt you (unless you’re allergic). It’s just that there are better non-animal sources of protein with far less controversy surrounding them.
It’s certainly not superior in terms of muscle-building, so even without the potential negatives, it’s just not the best option.
An excellent option for Vegans or anyone who doesn’t eat dairy-based products. Rice Protein is a highly efficient source of protein which has been shown to be just as effective as Whey Protein with regards to muscle-building.
Rice Protein tends to be high in sulfur-containing amino acids like Cysteine and Methionine, but lacks Lysine. For this reason, it’s recommended to consume Rice Protein along with another form of protein, preferably one that is high in Lysine.
Like Rice Protein, Pea Protein is also a highly efficient form of protein suitable for Vegans aCnd, as if it the two were meant to be together, it’s not high in Cysteine or Methionine but does contain a good amount of Lysine. So, the combination of Rice/Pea Protein combination is superior to either one on it’s own and the biological value of the combination approaches that of animal-source protein.
So, Which Is It!?
Once again, it is strongly advised that you get most of your protein from actual food. A protein supplement should only be utilized if you have calculated your daily protein requirement based on:
- How Much Muscle You Want To Build
- How Often And How Hard You Train
And are finding it difficult to eat enough real food to meet that requirement. If that’s the case, tossing a protein shake or two in between meals is an excellent way to ensure that you’re consuming enough.
When it comes to determining what type of protein to use, we’ll put it like this…
If you’re not a vegan: Go with Whey, Casein, Egg Protein, or a combination of all three.
If you ARE a vegan: Go with a combination of Rice Protein and Egg Protein to ensure a more complete amino acid profile.
Consider Going With A Blend
Different form of protein have different absorption rates, so it should come as no surprise that combining slow-absorbing proteins with fast-absorbing proteins provides a more sustained anabolic effect.
Whey Protein is ideal for immediately after your workout, as it results in the fasted/highest spike in Amino Acids available for muscle protein synthesis, but why not add some Casein on top of it? That way, you get the best of both worlds. An instant protein fix, and a sutained release of Amino Acids in to the blood stream for several hours.
The Bottom Line
Protein is essential for maintaining and building muscle, and the amount of protein you need to consume, whether it be from diet or through supplementation, depends on your level of physical activity and your personal goals for gaining/maintaining muscle.
If you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, or just someone who is extremely physically active, you likely require atleast .8g/lb to maintain muscle mass. If you match that description but are looking to gain more muscle, consider bumping the intake up to 1-1.4g/lb.
Higher protein intake is associated with cognitive as well as physical benefits, and those looking to preserve lean muscle mass during a diet should consider boosting their protein intake (relative to other macronutrients).
There does come a point, however, when additional protein intake won’t convey much benefit, so stick to the above mentioned guidelines and you should be fine.
Looking for the right protein supplement? Check out our Best Protein Blends List for some recommendations!
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