In this article I am going to discuss and dismiss common misconceptions regarding dietary protein. There are numerous myths concerning protein and it’s effect on humans, notably its effect on body composition, renal (kidney) function, and how much protein can be absorbed at any one time. For years there has been much confusion behind protein and the role it plays in the human body, with different views coming from all angles in the fitness and nutrition industries. Well, it’s time to end all of the confusion by looking at the facts:
Myth # 1: Eating protein will bulk you up
This belief, as idiotic as it may be, is shared by men and women alike.
Considering the males for a moment, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a couple of “bro’s” discussing in a romantic fashion which protein is their favorite to “do….”
What the hell does that even mean? The protein in the big tub with all of the cool designs and nifty sayings like “XXX Matrix Formula Revolution Maximum Monster Freakkky Sizzeee,” is no different than the chicken breast that mommy cooked you for supper, but I sure as hell don’t hear you telling your buddies that you “do” skinless boneless chicken breast for optimal muscle growth.
As for the females, when I tell them that in order to optimize their fat loss program they’ll need to increase their protein intake, without fail the first thing I hear is “wait but…you know I don’t want to get big muscles, right?” at which point I have already begun stabbing myself in the eye with the nearest sharp object. O.K. so I don’t actually put any sharp objects in or around my eyes, but I can’t stress enough that eating protein WILL NOT give you massive muscles, regardless of your gender! If it did, 90% of the dudes working at GNC wouldn’t be fat and weak.
So if protein doesn’t bulk you up, why does this one macronutrient legitimately have its own industry geared towards gaining size? Why do all of the massive body builders recommend those big tubs of protein with crazy-cool designs and hardcore looking symbols? And why oh why would you increase your protein intake if you’re trying to lose fat?
1) While simply eating dietary protein (including those powders in the massive tubs) will not produce muscle out of thin air, incorporating the right amount of protein along with a calorie surplus and proper training routine can lead to muscle/size gain. The important things to remember here are:
– Protein is the only nutrient that can legitimately build muscle. It doesn’t matter how good your training routine is, if you’re not taking in an adequate amount of protein ( at least 2.2g/kg or 1g/lb of lean body mass), you will not be optimizing your gains
– Gaining size is dictated by total calorie intake. If you are eating more than you burn (a calorie surplus) you will gain weight. If you are burning more than you eat (a calorie deficit) you will lose weight. Period.
2) Those massive body builders who swear by the most expensive protein brands are simply models and are getting paid for their work. Just because they have their shirt off on the cover of the container with a quote saying “This got me HUGEEEE” doesn’t mean it’s true…especially considering the fact that there’s an asterisk next to all of the scientific claims which say they haven’t been evaluated. And if you think those models aren’t “enhancing their gains,” or using steroids then you’re out of your mind. I’m not arguing that steroids are bad or that their use should be prohibited, but anyone who uses steroids cannot compare themselves, or their gains, to a natural lifter. Ever.
3) Just because you increase your protein intake does not mean you need to increase your total calorie intake. As I said before, protein is the only nutrient which contributes to muscle growth, and what a surprise…it’s also the only nutrient which will aid in the maintenance of muscle. Therefore, if you’re on a fat loss diet (in a calorie deficit), increasing protein intake while reducing total calories will significantly help maintain muscle mass. Additionally, protein has been proven time and time again to be the most satiating (filling) macro-nutrient, and keeping hunger at a minimum, especially when dieting, is always a good thing.
In conclusion, while consuming an adequate amount of protein is absolutely necessary in order to gain mass, simply eating or adding protein supplements into your diet will not pack on copious amounts of muscle.
Myth # 2: You can only absorb 20-30g of protein at a time…
The idea that the body is only fit to absorb a certain amount of protein (20-30g) in one sitting has been circulating in the training and nutrition industry’s for far too long. Unfortunately this belief has led many people to succumb to the proposal that eating 6 small meals per day is optimal in order to stoke the metabolic fire, another common nutritional fallacy which I debunked in my article Fact or Fiction? Nutrition Fallacies, Part 1: Meal Frequency.
Simply put, the belief that the body can only use a certain amount of protein in one sitting is incorrect. Lucky for us, the human body is much more efficient than many people give it credit for. First and foremost, from a logical standpoint, does it even make sense to think that our body’s would “throw away” excess protein? Unlike today, humans haven’t always had an unlimited supply of food at their fingertips. In the grand scheme of things it’s been a relatively short period of time that we’ve been able to open up our refrigerators or kitchen cabinets and stuff our faces whenever we so choose. In reality, it wasn’t uncommon for our ancestors to go days without eating, followed by massive feasts of meat, meat, and more meat! Had our bodies only been equipped to utilize 20-30g of protein, I think it would be safe to assume that our species would have died out a long, long time ago.
However, as fun as it is to think from logical and evolutionary standpoints, if you don’t have the science to back up your claims then your information is worthless. That’s why I’ve got the science 🙂
In a study by Arnal and colleagues, the researchers evaluated the changes in fat-free mass in subjects who consumed either 79% of their daily protein intake over 4 evenly spaced meals throughout the day, or 1 meal per day. At the end of the study the researchers found no difference in fat-free mass between the two groups.
Furthermore, in a separate study, researchers found better muscle protein retention in subjects who ate 1 high-protein meal per day as opposed to several meals throughout the day. Not only does this refute the claim that our body “throws away” excess protein, but it brings up the question of whether or not eating fewer meals with higher protein content is more advantageous than more frequent meals with less protein.
Finally, with all of the studies recently done on Intermittent Fasting, which I briefly discussed here, we are able to see clear evidence which points to the fact that our bodies are more than capable of digesting large amounts of protein consumed in a single sitting. Notably, in a study performed by Stote and colleagues, the researchers tested the difference in body composition between groups who either ate 1 or 3 meals during the day. Interestingly, the researchers found that the group which ate 1 meal per day (consuming about 85g of protein in this single meal), exhibited better changes in body composition than the 3 meal per day group. Needless to say, this finding is extremely intriguing and will require further research.
In conclusion, the dogma that the body is only capable of absorbing a set amount of protein in a single sitting is false. However, the truly great news about this finding is that it allows for more flexibility in a persons diet. If you enjoy eating 6 small meals throughout the day…do it! If you’d rather eat 3 large meals or 2 massive meals or even 1 GINORMOUS meal, that’s fine as well. As long as your total protein intake is consistent with your goals, the amount of protein consumed at each meal simply doesn’t matter.
Myth # 3: Eating too much protein is harmful to your kidneys
This myth brings about a funny memory from my annual check-up when I was but a wee 14 year old chap. I had recently begun lifting weights and had obviously bought a massive tub of the worst tasting protein imaginable to make me “totally anabolic, bro!”
Hilarities aside, when my doctor asked if I had made any significant changes to my diet, I immediately told her that I was supplementing with protein, expecting to see her light up with delight that I had taken the initiative to support my ever-so-important muscle growth! Unfortunately, she suddenly became shockingly stern and went on to lecture me for an excruciating 15 minutes about the dangers of excess protein, notably on kidney function. Fortunately I wasn’t worried about my kidney’s and was more focused on becoming nice and jacked 🙂 Had I payed more attention, I might have actually believed the nonsense my doctor was reciting to me based off of old and cherry picked studies, and cut down on my protein intake…catastrophe avoided!
Anyway, lets take a look at what the research says:
In this study performed by Poortmans and colleague, researchers examined body builders and elite athletes who had a diet of either a “high” or “medium” protein intake, respectively. At the end of the study the researchers concluded that “protein intake under 2. 8 g.kg does not impair renal function in well-trained athletes.”
Additionally, in a recent study Knight et al. established whether or not protein intake influenced renal function in women over an 11-year period. At the end of the study Knight concluded:
high protein intake was not associated with renal function decline in women with normal renal function. However, high total protein intake, particularly high intake of nondairy animal protein, may accelerate renalfunction decline in women with mild renal insufficiency.
Meaning that a high protein intake alone will not contribute to kidney problems, but if you have pre-existing issues with your kidney’s, a high protein intake could lead to renalfunction decline. That’s a shocker, now isn’t it?
Finally, I found it extremely interesting when I learned that men in the Lewis and Clark expedition purportedly ate upwards of 8lbs of meat each day….That’s over 600g of protein…EVERY DAY!!!! I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like heaven.
In conclusion, unless you have pre-existing concerns with your kidney function, a “high” protein intake will not overload your kidneys. A safe recommendation for most people to follow is anywhere between 1-1.5g/lb of lean body mass.
If you have any questions feel free to post them in the comments section below.
I’ve gotta be honest, all this talk of protein has got me craving a steak…gotta go!
Until next time,