Protein is just one of those somewhat controversial topics that there just doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on. How much, how often, what types of protein – fast, slow, whole food or supplements.
The research also seems to be conflicting – until you actually read the studies. The lab of, among others, Stuart M. Phillips have been publishing a lot of interesting research the past few years. He’s sort of the go-to guy on protein synthesis and muscle growth in general since he’s also recently shown that it’s the amount of WORK you do that determines how big your muscles can get – not necessarily the load… but that’s a topic for another time, and something I’ve talked about before.
Here’s their recent review, with a nice summary of the current state of affairs:
I’ll make it easier for you by providing you with the Cliff’s Notes version, as well as my own addendums:
1. Dairy protein seems to be the superior protein source, probably due to a higher leucine content (10-12%) as well as a fast delivery (whey). The rapid rise in amino acid (AA) levels is a determinant in the anabolic response. Whey is suggested as the primary source, but other studies show that a combination of whey and casein is probably much better as it prolongs the effect beyond the first 2-3hrs of meal ingestion, and this ties into the next point:
2. A certain time off from protein is probably better than a constant influx, due to something called the refractory response – meaning that the protein synthesis machinery stops responding to input if it is constantly bombarded with food. Unpublished research from Phillips’ lab shows that 4 meals were 30% better than both 8 meals and 2 meals, and this is in line with research done a few years ago (the PhD dissertation of our own Therese Fostervold-Mathisen) where 3 meals were superior to 6 meals for muscle gains. There’s one minor caveat, though – the 4 meals used a protein intake deemed to be optimal at 20g (providing 2,5g of leucine), whereas the 8 meal group only used 10g and the 2 meal group (which was too infrequent, apparently) used 40g. So 80g total of protein per day, which sounds a little on the low side, doesn’t it? This brings us to the next point:
3. Their studies show 20-25g of protein to be the maximum effective intake on a meal-per-meal basis, at least if you are young and healthy. Older people seem to require more protein, approximately double (40g) to overcome some sort of “anabolic resistance”. We´re not sure what the mechanism is, we just know it exists. Let’s expand on that: 20-25g of whey is 2,5-3g or so of leucine, the branched-chain amino acid which is the primary driver of all the good stuff happening. That’s for someone at an average bodyweight of 80kg, so we can probably round it up to 3,5g if you’re bigger and 2g if you’re smaller. Now, a diet comprised of whey protein drinks isn’t very satisfying, so what happens if you want to eat some real food? Leucine content is about 7-8% in red and white meat, fish and eggs, so the equivalent of whole food protein required for 2g of leucine is 25g (about 100-120g of beef/chicken/fish or 4 whole eggs) and for 3g it’s 40g (170-200g of beef/chicken/fish or 6 whole eggs) – and not too far off from the generic recommendations. This goes to show, though, that protein supplements are quite cheap when you look at how much bang for your buck you get (high leucine content, 80-90% protein content).
4. The next point I’d like to make is the recent study showing a pre-bed intake of a slower digesting protein ensures you get a high anabolic effect throughout the next 8-12hrs until the next meal (or 16 if you belong to the Intermittent Fasting crowd). This was in comparison to 20g of whey ingested after a late workout, though – so in the real world, 40g of protein from casein (found in cottage cheese and quark/curd) isn’t necessarily a requirement. A composite meal with carbs, fiber from veggies, and fats would also slow down the digestion rate of meat and fish. Eggs in particular are even slower digested than casein. So, you should be fine just following the regular Biorhythm Diet concept of having a large meal a couple of hours before bedtime. I tend to have slightly more protein in this meal, anyway.
(Addendum July 15th: In personal dialogue, Stuart Phillips recommended 0.6g/kg for the final meal based on unpublished data).
5. Pre- and post-workout intake is still a little back-and-forth, since many studies have been done in a fasted state, which isn’t necessarily how it’s done in the real world. In fact, one recent study showed that whey + leucine ingested in one big gulp (bolus) 45min before the workout was inferior to the same spread out over the next 3hrs (pulse), mimicking a “slow” protein. The reason for this is probably that with the bolus, amino acid levels were already declining when the workout started. Most people have at least 1 or 2 whole food meals in them before they hit the gym, so unless you are very hungry and/or the last meal was more than 3-4 hours ago, there’s not a real need for any super-magic hydrolysates or BCAAs pre-workout. I do admit that I like to be “better safe than sorry”, so I usually add 5-8g of BCAAs here or some whey with added leucine/BCAA. Post-workout, a 50/50 or 60/40 combination of whey and casein (as in MyoProtein, which I designed for MyRevolution) is perfect, and as the studies indicate, 20-30g (the equivalent of 25-35g product) may very well be plenty unless you’re a heavyweight bodybuilder.
Practical recommendations, based on the above research and my opinion and experience:
- 25-40g of whole food protein per meal x 3-4 meals per day. The final meal of the day could have a higher protein intake of 30-60g with the inclusion of a “slow” protein source such as eggs or casein.
- Add in some (optional) pre-workout whey(15-25g) or BCAAs (4-8g).
- Post-workout, have a whey+casein blend, 20-30g worth. If you’re having a whole food meal within an hour, that’s perfectly fine and you could just have a small amount of whey and some fruits when leaving the gym, then cook and eat when you get home. Or have your girlfriend/boyfriend do it for you, gotta recover those arms, obviously. The 3-4 meal recommendation includes this post-workout protein feeding (either whey+casein or whey with a whole food meal within an hour), but 5 meals is also feasible if you have particularly long days.
- Total protein intake – and I usually don’t count protein from carbs or fat sources, except eggs – is going to be around 1,5-2g/kg bodyweight or even 1,2-1,5 with the predominant use of high-quality whey or milk proteins. This is probably quite a bit lower than what you’re doing now and have been led to believe is needed, and also quite a bit lower than what I’ve recommended in the past. The benefits – less digestion issues, saves $$$, and makes room for more carbs and fats in your diet – are worth it. You’re not going to lose muscle, and you might even gain some muscle (not sufficient research yet, but there are certain indicators).
- If you’re restricting calories for fat loss, there are so many benefits of a higher protein intake (satiety and thermic effect to name a couple), that I think you should increase the recommendations given by 20-30% (2-2,5g/kg bodyweight).
Oh, and I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – white rice is a perfectly fine carb source, whole grains or brown rice can actually inhibit nutrient uptake. Get your fiber from fruits and vegetables.
So is this the final word? Probably not, but for the most part I doubt there will be any major surprises. Over-anal-yzing and going back and forth on a gram here or a minute there is, more often than not, irrelevant in the grand perspective of things. Over the span of months and years where so many other things can go wrong anyway…
Until next time, may your farts smell like flowers instead of rotten eggs.