“Protein, protein, protein! Protein is so important! Don’t get protein deficient. If you exercise, you probably aren’t getting enough.” I once heard a guy at the gym exclaim, “Oh my god, I’m going catabolic!” and proceeded to chug a protein shake.
Wisdom comes from experience. People who are at the top of their field generally have the most experience. It isn’t a stretch to say that the best health professionals have experience. If they don’t currently walk-the-walk, at least they’ve done it at one time or another, and can appropriately guide others to do so.
Over the years, I’ve dappled in a lot of things–particularly, in a lot of diets. I grew up a fat, meat-eating, milk-chugging American. If a person didn’t eat meat, I didn’t trust him. It was downright blasphemy.
Years later, my coaches told me to lose 40lbs of fat if I wanted to be a serious athlete. Suddenly everything in my diet fell under scrutiny. Whole milk was fattening. Chicken fingers were fattening. Steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, egg yolks… fattening. I hit the salad bar, hard.
I dropped the weight, but it wasn’t easy. I turned my diet inside out. The pounds came off, my performance improved, and suddenly I was curious. Why did my diet have such an impact on my performance? I started reading. I read everything I could find. One thing I continued to encounter was this: there exists a disproportionately high number of Olympic metal-winning athletes who are vegetarian.
Bottom line. Protein doesn’t equal meat.
Protein is made up of amino acids. Your body can make certain amino acids, but not others. The ones it can’t make, it has to get from food. Once in the body, those amino acids are shuffled around with the others and placed in nifty little chains to make protein for the human body: cells, tissues, hair, nails, etc. The only thing more abundant than protein in the human body is water.
That’s it. Amino acids come from food. You eat a balanced diet with a sufficient number of calories, and you will get enough protein…
…that is, unless you’re doing something extreme, and many of us are.
I hate supplementing, but out of curiosity, I’ve tried upping my protein intake on several occasions. During periods of my life, I’ve needed to eat 4,000+ calories daily to maintain my weight and performance. At other times, I have subsisted off 2,000 calories per day, and wasted away. By wasting away, I mean that I lost weight, and a lot of it was muscle mass.
Why is that? Muscle is hungry. It needs more calories to support itself than fat does. Way more. If you are on a restricted-calorie diet, and your body thinks it is going into a period of lean times, it is going to try to get rid of anything that wastes its energy, particularly if it isn’t being used. Bye-bye muscle mass.
Bottom line, if you want to gain muscle, you have to eat enough food. If you want to lose weight, you have to eat less food. If you want to gain muscle and lose fat, then you’re in for something tricky. The body doesn’t like trying to do two things at once; be in a catabolic (break-down) and anabolic (build-up) state.
This is where protein supplementation is key. We’ve figured out ways to extract protein from whole foods so that you don’t have to ingest fat and carbohydrates (things that might retard your efforts to lose fat). If you eat a ton of protein and limit your fat and carb intake, you have plenty of building blocks (for muscle gain) and little to burn (fat and carbs are your body’s energy sources for movement)–at the same time. Tricky.
If you don’t have fat and carbs from food for energy, the body has to make it, so it begins to make a fundamental shift in favor of fat metabolism. Now you can burn fat and build muscle.
How much protein would you need to eat to achieve this? Opinions vary. In my opinion, a lot. When I eat like a normal person, I only eat 50-70 grams per day. At 6’0″ and 190lbs, I have no problem maintaining muscle and increasing my strength. I just don’t think about it. Maybe because I insist on eating nutritious and organic whole foods (protein isn’t the only thing that matters). I also get plenty of sleep.
When I’m experimenting, my protein intake is supposed to jack up to over 200 grams per day–or 35% of my daily intake on a 2,500 calorie diet. That’s three times the amount I used to eat. The difference? It’s easier for me to shed body fat in a jiffy, but I’m not going to continue to spend $70 every couple weeks to buy those 5-lb protein powder tubs.
It all depends on your goals. Many people are not satisfied with their naturally occurring body shape. If your goal is an unnatural body, then unnatural means (protein supplementation) is a logical route. For the rest of us who aren’t competitive body builders, who want healthy levels of body fat, proportionate figures, and a glorious range of motion, just eat a wide variety of whole foods.