Protein: Everything You Need to Know
There is so much misinformation on the Internet about training and nutrition that we've decided to go 'Back to Basics' and dissect the major topics to give you the truth in simple and straight-forward terms.
This 'Back to Basics' series packages up everything you need to know to get your diet and training right, combining the latest scientific research with what works for real people to achieve real-world results.
One of the most confusing topics out there is protein - so here is everything you should know, without the guesswork, conjecture or BS.
Protein comes from the Greek word meaning ‘the first’ - it’s arguably the number one macronutrient responsible for achieving positive body composition results.
At the same time, it’s the number one macronutrient most people undereat.
The majority of clients we see walk through the door typically eat a diet similar to this:
As you can see from the pie chart, the typical diet is heavily skewed towards carbohydrates, with very little in the way of protein.
This is no surprise after considering government guidelines for protein intake.
The Recommended Nutrient Intake (RNI) advises that adults should eat 0.35g per pound bodyweight in protein, which essentially equates to two portions a day.
The UP guidelines typically advise clients to consume between 0.8g and 1.2g per pound of bodyweight in protein.
In fact, one of our non-negotiable rules with clients is that each feeding opportunity should have at least one source of quality protein.
Why is protein so important for fat loss?
Upon starting a transformation programme with UP, the most common feedback we get from clients is, ‘I’m never hungry, this is great!’
The increased protein intake is responsible for this. Research seems to link this sensation to protein’s effect on various satiety neuropeptides such as peptide YY (PYY), glucagon peptide 1 (GP-1) and cholecystokinin (CCK).1
What these neuropeptides do is communicate information about the body’s energy status to the brain and, in the case of those mentioned above, tell the body it’s satiated.
2. High Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
The thermic effect of food is defined as the increase in metabolic rate after ingestion of a meal.
As the table below shows, the TEF for protein is a lot higher, due to the greater caloric cost associated with unfolding the proteins and subsequently digesting them.
This is one of the reasons why, when comparing high protein versus low protein diets in isocaloric conditions, the high protein groups tend to lose more body fat.
3. Growth and Repair
If you’re training hard, your demand for protein increases. To create body compositional change, we need a higher level of training frequency. To facilitate this, protein intake needs to be higher for the average person - 0.35g/lb just won’t cut it.
Remember, muscle is 'metabolically expensive', so if you’re not feeding the body with enough protein, it will break it down. This is the last thing you want on any diet, with the aim always being to maintain or build muscle mass (depending on your training status).
What determines your intake on the scale of 0.8 to 1.2g/lb?
As always, it boils down to individual circumstances such as:
Calorie Intake - The deeper you are in a calorie deficit, the higher the protein requirements. In some situations where you are really chasing aggressive body transformation, intakes up to 1.5g/lb can work great.
Training Intensity, Volume, Frequency - The more demanding your training schedule, the higher the intake, especially when combined with a calorie deficit.
Gender - Generally speaking, men require more protein intake than women. For women, 0.8 to 1g/lb is a good starting point, while men could push more towards 1 to 1.2g/lb, to begin with.
Carbohydrate Intake - Carbohydrates are ‘protein sparing’, which means the more carbohydrates in your diet, the less protein you require. What this means is that carbohydrates protect the protein you do consume from being converted to an energy source.
Delving a little deeper…
Once you’ve set your protein goal, you now need to consider the timing, type, and amounts for optimal results.
While some may argue that this isn’t necessary, if you want the best results possible, these things do matter.
Remember, at UP we’re after body recomposition. Many of our clients have never trained as hard, nor eaten as well as they have prior to coming to UP. This means we want to strive towards building muscle and losing fat throughout the process.
In order to do so, we need to maximise protein balance.
Protein Balance = Protein Synthesis – Protein Degradation
The greater we can shift the pendulum towards a positive balance on a daily basis consistently, the better ‘look’ we can achieve with a client in the long run.
You’ll be able to recover quicker, which means you’ll be able to train harder and more frequently - this equals greater levels of muscle mass!
Recent research has finally caught up with something that experience in the bodybuilding world has already taught us has worked for decades.
Spreading your protein intake throughout the day, instead of skewing it to dinner only (like the typical diet detailed at the beginning of this article) will increase daily protein synthesis rates by up to 30% over a seven-day period.4
The reason for this is because muscle protein synthesis is regulated on a meal-by-meal basis, not a 24-hour basis.
If you don’t eat any protein in your early meals, you can’t make amends later in the day – it needs to be consistent.
When you consider this over a 12-week period, this can add up to some real significant differences in results.
This study examined the effect over three meals. For our clients, we typically recommend anywhere between three and six servings, depending on schedule, preference, adherence and total calorie intake.
How much per meal?
To get the full anabolic effect of a meal, we need a minimum of 25-30g of protein per meal.
As a general guideline, if you weigh 120-150lbs, then 25-30g per meal will suffice. If you’re 150-200lbs, then 30-40g per meal is a good target.
In reality, dividing your protein target by the number of meals you’re eating is the best advice.
This guideline stems from the actions of leucine, which is the most important amino acid responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
It seems there’s a leucine ‘trigger’ by which muscle protein synthesis can be maximally stimulated, typically in a range of 3-4g.
While it’s tempting to think leucine is the only important amino acid, the full spectrum of amino acids is required for optimal sustained protein synthesis.3
And before anyone reading this is starting to the think they need to spike their meals with leucine, that is not necessary at all.
If you’re eating 100-200g of some form of animal protein source in a meal, you are covered.
This all sounds a little complicated, but it’s more to give you an insight into why you might be doing what you’re doing, and why we do what we do.
Is there a limit?
A common question we get asked is, ‘if 1g/lb of protein is better than 0.35g/lb, then won’t 3g/lb be even better? Aren’t we missing out on even better results?’
Unfortunately, while your body can digest and absorb all the protein you eat without any problem (unless you have a pre-existing digestive issue), whether it’s necessary for the anabolic processes it's involved with in the body, is another question.
Once you’ve stimulated protein synthesis maximally, adding more protein on top won’t somehow create an even greater response.
Instead, this excess will probably be subject to hepatic gluconeogenesis (protein conversion to glucose in the liver) and then stored in the form of glycogen.
So while you probably won’t be doing your body any harm, the calories used from extra protein could perhaps be better utilised by adding more carbohydrates or fats into the diet.
What about my kidneys?
This is a myth that doesn’t seem to go away, no matter how many times it’s dispelled.
High protein diets DO NOT cause kidney disease in healthy people.
For those with kidney disease, a low to moderate protein diet can be therapeutic (if you do have any kidney issues, please consult your physician first).
The myth comes from the idea that because one of the main biological roles of the kidney is to metabolise and excrete nitrogen byproducts (urea) from protein digestion, if you ingest too much protein, you’ll create a ‘strain’ on your kidneys.
In fact, a recent study has disproven this once again and shown that high protein intakes up to 3.3g/kg (approximately 1.5g/lb) have no effect on blood lipids, or markers of renal and hepatic function. 1
Is protein only for muscle?
A common perception with many people is that protein intake is only necessary to build muscle.
However, few know that protein is actually a component in every cell in your body, and provides the building blocks of bones, cartilage, hair, skin and blood.
Your body needs it to continuously build and repair tissue, as well as to make enzymes, hormones and other physiological chemicals vitally important to our existence, including the widely misunderstood 'detox' processes of the body.
If you remember the Recommended Nutrient Intake guidelines earlier on, that covers all of these processes. When we add resistance training to the mix, the demand placed on the body means the RNI simply isn’t sufficient to create the changes we want the body to make.
That’s it for protein!
Hopefully, this article has helped further your understanding of the benefits of high protein diets, how and why to implement it, as well as busting some myths surrounding this nutritional powerhouse.
If you are ready to transform your physique, speak to us about our UP Personal Training plans.
If you don’t live near a UP gym you can still get in the best shape of your life with one of our UP Online Personal Training plans from anywhere in the world.
1. Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., & Peacock, C. (2016). The effects of a high protein diet on indices of health and body composition--a crossover trial in resistance-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
2. Journel, M., Chaumontet, C., Darcel, N., Fromentin, G., & Tomé, D. (2012). Brain Responses to High-Protein Diets. Nutrient Control of Metabolism and Cell Signaling, 322-329.
3. Katsanos, C., Chinkes, D., Paddon-Jones, D., Zhang, X., Aarsland, A., & Wolfe, R. (2008). Whey protein ingestion in elderly persons results in greater muscle protein accrual than ingestion of its constituent essential amino acid content. Nutrition Research, 651-8.
4. Mamerow, M., Mettler, J., English, K., Casperson, S., Arentson-Lantz, E., Sheffield-Moore, M., et al. (2014). Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults. The Journal of Nutrition, 876-880.