If there’s one dietary component fitness buffs are obsessed with it’s protein. When you take in dietary protein, your digestive tract breaks this macronutrient down into smaller components called amino acids. Then, your body uses the amino acids to build a variety of structural and functional proteins essential for health. The structural protein most fitness-focused people are concerned about is muscle protein. For good reason! It’s this type of protein that makes you stronger and your muscles more defined. Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle protein. Despite the importance of protein for building muscle and for overall health, lots of myths still prevail about protein. Here are 5 common protein myths – busted.
Protein Myths: Athletes Don’t Need to Consume Extra Protein
Believe it or not, the idea that you don’t need more protein when you work out still exists. Even some dieticians still support the general guidelines of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for sedentary people AND athletes. Whether you do mostly strength training or endurance training, research shows you need more protein on a daily basis than a sedentary person does. Why might this be?
Both endurance and strength exercise increase protein turnover, and if you don’t increase your protein intake, you could end up in negative protein balance. In other words, you lose muscle mass. The amount of additional protein you need on a daily basis varies with how much and how hard you work out. If you’re doing yoga workouts and taking a 30-minute walk every day, your protein requirements are lower than someone who does HIIT routines and intense strength workouts.
How much protein is enough if you exercise? At a minimum, 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and up to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight if you do intense resistance training. Endurance athletes will be towards the lower end of this range, around 1.2 grams of protein daily. Why do you need more protein if you do a lot of endurance exercise? High-intensity and long duration endurance exercise taps into your muscle glycogen stores. When glycogen is depleted, your body turns to amino acids from protein as an auxiliary fuel source and that comes from muscle. When you consume enough protein, it spares your muscle tissue. Ideally, you want to consume enough carbs to prevent glycogen depletion AND protein.
Protein Myths: Protein Needs Don’t Change Significantly Over the Course of Your Life
Protein needs are higher at both ends of the age spectrum. Babies and children require more protein per pound of body weight than adults because they’re actively growing. At the other end of the age curve, older adults need more protein than younger adults due to age-related changes in the way they process and metabolize protein. Older adults often don’t have the same anabolic response to protein intake that younger people do. By consuming more, they can make up for this difference to some degree.
Loss of muscle tissue with age is one reason older adults fall more and are less functional. Adults age 65 and over should aim for 1-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and highly active adults even more. Some research suggests older adults need up to twice the recommended amount daily. This assumes they’re healthy and don’t have underlying kidney disease.
Protein Myths: Consuming More Protein is Bad for Your Bones
How can protein be harmful to bones? The thinking goes something like this: When you eat a diet high in protein, metabolism of the protein lowers the pH of blood, making it more acidic. To buffer the excess acidity, calcium is released from bone tissue, leading to a loss of bone density. It sounds logical, but a number of studies now dispute the idea that diets high in protein negatively impact bone health. When the Framingham Osteoporosis study looked at this issue in 2000, it showed that eating LESS, not more protein was linked with bone loss in the legs and spine.
So, protein may actually be good for your bones. One way in which protein may enhance bone health is by enhancing the release of IGF-1, an anabolic hormone that turns on bone and muscle protein synthesis. As far as the excess acidity created by the metabolism of protein, you can balance it out by eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as these foods have an alkalizing effect.
Protein Myths: You Need to Consume Protein Powder after a Workout
Yes, you need carbs and protein after a workout, in about a 3 to 4 to 1 ratio, but you don’t need to invest in an expensive protein powder to get your macros. Tests on protein powders show some protein powder isn’t as pure as they’d like you to believe. For example, some brands were found upon analysis by Consumer Reports to contain arsenic and heavy metals, including cadmium, a metal that’s toxic to the kidneys and difficult to eliminate from your body. Cadmium is bad news when it comes to your health.
Think beyond protein powder. If you’re looking for a good recovery drink, try chocolate milk. It has a 3 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein and contains whey protein, a rapidly digested source of protein that sends amino acids speeding to your muscles. As far as meeting your protein requirements for the rest of the day, you should be able to easily meet your protein needs without tapping into protein supplements or powders. The only advantage of using a protein powder is that it’s quick and convenient.
Protein Myths: You Can’t Get Enough Protein without Eating Meat
The number of vegetarian and vegan athletes is growing. In fact, the winner of Mr. Natural Universe in 2009 was a vegan, and Germany’s strongest man also eats a vegan diet. You can get adequate amounts of protein from plant-based foods alone, but you’ll have to consume more of these foods. If you don’t eat meat, get your protein from a variety of plant-based sources, including whole grains and lentils, as a way to get all the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make. A number of plant proteins lack the essential amino acid lysine but you can get it by eating lentils, beans and soy-based foods.
The Bottom Line
Yes, protein is an essential macronutrient and one important for muscle growth and maintenance. Hopefully, this article has dispelled some of the common myths about protein.
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