Is PROTEIN really Muscle-Building Magic?

PROTEIN. It’s the answer to all things bodybuilding, and maybe life in general for those living the “Bro way”. The golden chalice of youth and gains is filled with chocolate-flavoured whey and chicken breast. But how do us mere mortals know how much protein we need to take in every day? And why is protein such an important aspect of getting that optimum, muscular physique?
Is protein the golden macronutrient for muscle growth?
Eating protein does one essential thing for our bodies: it increases Muscle Protein synthesis (or MPS). MPS refers to the rate of protein synthesis of actual muscle fibres. This is used as a marker of muscle growth. Consistent increases in MPS will result in visible muscle growth over time.
*In order to have muscle GROWTH, our MPS must exceed muscle breakdown.
Layne Norton released a study in 2012 suggesting Leucine, an amino acid (there are 21 that make up proteins in foods), may be the most important determinant of MPS in the body.
The bottom line? Amino Acid availability (aka protein we consume) has been found to increase the stimulation of MPS and can result in higher muscle anabolism (building) than if we don’t eat adequate amounts of protein.
So we increase our MPS by eating more protein, and lots of it, right?
Well, yes and no. Just like everything else in the science world, nothing is that black and white. Yes, consuming bolus amounts of protein DOES increase our muscle protein synthesis, but there are other factors that also play a large role, like:
Resistance training increases MPS up to 24-48 hours

1. Resistance training has huge effects on increasing MPS 24-48 hours after your lifting session. Resistance exercise and proper nutrient intake has been shown to be significantly more effective for increasing MPS than simply nutrition or exercise on their own.

2. Hormones also play a huge role. Insulin and testosterone are the two most important.
The effectiveness of MPS is not maximized without the presence of insulin, which is increased the most with ingestion of carbohydrates. Studies using protein ingestion paired with carbohydrates tended to increase lean body mass more than just a protein source alone (here, here, here). This may be through insulin’s ability to stimulate nutritive flow into muscles and receptor signalling. Research suggests insulin can inhibit the increase in muscle breakdown following exercise also.
Increases in testosterone are seen after bouts of resistance exercise like weightlifting. Testosterone plays a role in our physique by decreasing protein breakdown, increasing MPS, and may improve the efficiency with which our bodies use animo acids to build new proteins. While the role of testosterone is still not fully understood, studies have shown that supplementing with testosterone increases lean body mass in test subjects (no pun intended), yet some studies have failed to see an increase in MPS just from higher testosterone levels alone. But like anything about the human body, reactions are not usually dictated by one single mechanism or hormone but rather a cascade of stimuli. 
So, how much protein do we NEED?
Higher performance needs? You probably need more protein too

The current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 0.8g per kg body weight, or 0.36g per lb. This is considered the absolute MINIMUM to meet your daily nutrient requirements. It does NOT take into account physical activity, let alone resistance training. So if you don’t do anything active and aren’t looking to change your physique in any way, use those guidelines.

The higher your performance needs (or the more intensely you workout) will affect your protein requirements. If you are any kind of athlete, you need to consume more than the RDA in order to reach your physique or performance goals. 
Eric Helms released a systematic review finding sufficient levels of protein for resistance-trained athletes to be 2.3-3.1g per kg (about 1.05-1.40g per lb) of fat free mass (NOT total bodyweight). Menno Henselmans’ article regarding the current research found that 0.82g per lb bodyweight to be sufficient for maximizing protein synthesis. Anything more ceases to yield any benefits, even when dieting.  
So the general “golden rule” of 1g per lb bodyweight circulating the gym-rat world may not be entirely necessary, but if you’re a beginner it may be a nice round number to start off with.
What about protein timing?
Nutrient timing may be beneficial when it comes to gaining muscle

A 2006 study showed an increase in muscle mass and strength in people who consumed protein pre- and post-workout (versus people who didn’t, but still ate the same amount of protein throughout the day).  A 2010 study found that consuming protein immediately after a strength training session improved recovery compared to a placebo. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether it was the timing itself of the protein, or the overall protein intake that resulted in the faster recovery. Either way, there is a multitudinous amount of research pointing towards pre- and post-workout nutrition as being an important factor in your fitness goals. Research points to MPS rates being elevated up to 24 hours after your weights session, so ultimately it’s your overall intake throughout the day that matter the most. 

To MAXIMIZE your protein synthesis, Layne Norton’s research suggests consuming at least 3g of leucine per meal, and eating larger doses of protein every 4-6 hours may help maximize muscle protein synthesis (aka an anabolic effect). If you have the extra time, meal frequency might help you maximize your MPS. Eating a bolus amount of protein (30-60g) in one sitting every 4-6 hours may help to keep MPS elevated throughout the day, making your muscle building potential more consistent throughout the day. 
What happens if you eat MORE protein than the recommended amount?
Well, first let’s get this out of the way for you #bros: ** EATING EXTRA PROTEIN DOES NOT MEAN BUILDING MORE MUSCLE ** The key is to balance out your daily caloric intake between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in order to maximize your physique or performance goals.
But on that note, let’s address the critics on too much protein. 
Too much protein – bad for the kidneys?

The biggest concern with too much protein is kidney damage, as protein does modulate renal function. if you have healthy kidneys and are not on a protein-restricted diet, there isn’t much research to suggest higher protein intake over time is damaging. Research suggests that potential damage occurs when subjects eat “too much, too fast” as opposed to increasing your protein intake over a time period. A 2000 review suggests that protein intake under 2.8g per kg (1.27g per lb) does not impair renal function in athletes. 

Same goes for the liver. There is no current evidence to suggest consistently “higher” (but still normal) protein intake is harmful to the liver, unless you consume a ton of protein after a 2-day fast of no food at all or have an unhealthy liver to begin with. 
There is also some evidence that regular exercise can help to alleviate any possible adverse effects of a higher protein intake on organ function. 
Truth or myth? Our bodies can only absorb so much protein at one time.
Pair your protein with other macronutrient sources, like carbs and fats.

Well, kind of but not really. The small intestine, where protein is digested and absorbed into the blood stream, is very efficient at slowing digestion over time in order to absorb all the protein you consume. Keep in mind, though, that eating more protein in one sitting won’t increase your MPS past its maximum, which is usually achieved at 30-40g of animal protein to get the minimum benefit from leucine, as stated above. 

Since the potential benefits of consuming higher levels of protein include building and preserving muscle mass, burning fat, and increasing performance output, why is 20% of our daily intake suggested?
Well, for one protein is a terrible energy source. If we only need specific levels to maximize MPS, then the rest of our calories should be coming from fats and carbohydrates (Check out my Beginner’s Guide to Macronutrients for a breakdown of why they’re important). Other aspects of health like proper digestion (and getting enough fiber), blood sugar regulation, hormone regulation, brain function, and diet variety should also be considered- their ideal functioning needs to come from other macronutrients. Other than the present-day cave men, who really wants to eat chicken breast and tuna all day, every day? Not me, that’s for sure #GiveMeBread&PeanutButterAmIRight?
Protein intake won’t matter is calories aren’t controlled too

So, Protein = muscles, right? Yes, protein is a fuel for your body. But you still need to pair it with consistent resistance training and recovery over an extended period of time to see real physique changes like weight loss or muscle growth. 

The biggest thing to remember, though, is that protein will have no effect on your physique if your caloric intake is not controlled. Simply eating more protein may land you in an over-eating phase and cause you to gain fat. No matter the macronutrient, calories are calories and extra calories will be stored as fat. Also keep in mind that consuming foods high in protein doesn’t mean protein is the ONLY macronutrient in that food- it could land you in the high-fat or high-carb levels as well, so be sure to do your homework on nutrition (learn how to interpret nutrition labels here) before raising your whey-filled chalice of gains.
Some High-protein Foods Include:
– Meats (Chicken, beef, fish, pork, etc)
– Dairy (Yogurt, cheese, milk, etc -preferably low fat options)
– Soybeans/soy products
– Eggs/Egg whites
– Protein Powders or bars (vegan or non, like whey)
– Roasted Peanuts (while low in overall protein and higher in fats, peanuts contain the highest levels of leucine per gram of protein)
– Beans/Lentils (keep in mind these are also higher in carbs)


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EVLV fit is not a physician or registered dietician. This website, the information disclosed on it and all of its contents are not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any medical health problems. It should not be used in replace of advise from a medical physician. Always consult your doctor, physician, or qualified medical health professional for health matters.