Protein is a hot topic and, sometimes, a contentious one. Protein myths abound about protein – how much you need, what type to consume, and how often you should eat it. Let’s look at some of these myths and facts more closely and see which ones are actually supported by science.
Protein Myths: You Can’t Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet
Plant lovers rejoice! You CAN build muscle and gain muscle strength eating an exclusively plant-based diet. Just pick up a copy of the magazine Vegan Health and Fitness if you don’t believe it. The bodybuilding vegans they feature are looking pretty ripped! Plants contain protein too but it does take a little more planning if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
Vegetarians have it easier since dairy foods are a good source of protein. Most plant-based foods, with the exception of amaranth, quinoa, and soy, are incomplete proteins. That’s because they lack one or more essential amino acids your body requires but can’t make, you need to eat a variety of protein sources. If you do that, getting enough protein shouldn’t be a problem.
One advantage of animal-based protein sources is they’re typically higher in leucine, a branched-chain amino acid that strongly activates muscle protein synthesis. Plants aren’t devoid of leucine though. In fact, firm tofu has almost as much leucine per calorie as milk. Black beans, mushrooms, and peanuts are other plant-based foods rich in leucine. If you’re plant-based, make sure you’re getting some of these foods and eating a diversity of protein-rich plant foods.
Fact: You Should Eat Protein Before Bedtime
The idea behind consuming protein before turning in at night is that it helps prevent muscle breakdown during the 7 to 8 hours of fasting during sleep. However, evidence doesn’t necessarily support this idea. Assuming you’re eating a healthy balanced diet, a night of sleep isn’t going to sabotage your muscle gains. However, your body, including your muscles, repair during the deep stages of sleep and it’s muscle repair that leads to growth. You can make the repair process more efficient by supplying your muscles with amino acids an hour or two before bedtime. You don’t need a huge amount either. A study published in the journal Nutrients found that 3o to 40 grams of protein before bedtime is sufficient.
Protein Myths: Protein Supplements Give You an Edge
Protein shakes and powders are more about convenience. There’s nothing inherently better about getting protein from supplements, whether it’s whey, soy, or casein. The advantage is that it’s easy to mix a protein shake and drink it right after a workout. But with this approach, you miss out on the joy of getting your protein from real food. All in all, studies show that protein powders are no better or worse than food, so it comes down to the convenience factor.
The drawback of protein supplements is that independent testing by Consumer Reports found some protein supplements contain contaminants, including heavy metals. Do you know what the highest quality source of protein is? It’s not a protein powder, but eggs – and they taste better than a gritty protein powder.
Fact: Protein Keeps You Full Longer
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. Not only do studies support its satiety benefits, diets higher in protein help preserve lean body mass when you’re restricting calories for weight loss. Some studies even show that diets higher in protein are more effective for weight loss than diets higher in carbohydrates. What makes protein so satiating? It’s a stronger activator of satiety hormones that help curb your appetite and keep it under control for hours.
Protein Myths: The More Protein, the Better
Talk to most bodybuilders and you’d walk away thinking the more protein the better. Yet, your body can only utilize a certain quantity of protein at a time. Research shows 20 to 30 grams of protein is about the limit your body can absorb and utilize at a single sitting. A study carried out in older individuals found that a 30-gram serving of protein boosted muscle protein synthesis but tripling that amount to 90 grams didn’t lead to further increases. So, supersizing your protein intake at a single meal probably won’t boost your muscle protein gains. Better to spread your protein intake evenly across the day.
Fact: Protein Needs Change with Age
Once you hit your mid-60s, anabolic resistance can make it harder to build lean muscle. Anabolic resistance is where your muscles don’t respond as readily to anabolic stimuli that turn on muscle growth. In a young person, even 10 grams of protein is enough to fire up muscle growth but that quantity of protein will have less of an impact on an older people. Why this happens isn’t clear but it’s a factor in age-related muscle loss and sarcopenia. For this reason, once you reach retirement age, you may need more protein to help overcome anabolic resistance.
Why does anabolic resistance happen? One theory is that the architecture of the muscle changes with age and muscles develop a higher fat content. This may throw off the signaling that occurs at the surface of the muscle cell membrane, making the muscle cell less responsive to anabolic stimulation from amino acid and from strength training. Inflammation also appears to be a factor. Inflammation increases as we age and as we accumulate more body fat. One way to compensate for anabolic resistance is to consume more protein, especially leucine-rich foods, and avoid gaining body fat as much as possible. Supplementing with long-chain omega-3s also may help by reducing inflammation.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, this clarifies some of the protein myths and facts. Bottom line – you need it and, if you’re older, you need more than a younger person. You can also get it from a variety of sources. If you eat an exclusively plant-based diet, you can still build muscle but you’ll need to consume a lot of plant-based protein from a variety of sources.
Nutrients. Paul J. Arciero, et al. Protein-Pacing from Food or Supplementation Improves Physical Performance in Overweight Men and Women: The PRISE 2 Study, May 2016.
Consumer Reports. “Health Risks of Protein Supplements”
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J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Sep 1; 109(9): 1582–1586.doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2009.06.369
Medscape Family Medicine. “Anabolic Resistance of Muscle Protein Synthesis with Aging
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