Q: I read a lot of conflicting information about protein intake. Mostly, how much I should eat. I find that when I eat a lot of protein, I start to get fat. However, the magazines keep saying to eat 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. What are your thoughts?
. . . Randall Wallace
A: Hi Randall,
When it comes to protein, absorption is more important than consumption. It’s not the amount you "eat" that matters but, rather, the amount you actually use. For example, people on drugs (i.e., steroids) can easily benefit from eating a lot of protein, since they’re going to use it more efficiently than the body will naturally. If you want to stay on the "natural" path, though, you must find ways to optimize your protein uptake (not intake). That "1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight" rule can guide you in some way, but I have to say that I don’t especially rely on numbers when designing a diet plan for someone who wants to get into bodybuilding. I do calculate grams and calories, but mostly to make sure that I respect the ratio I want for carbs, fat and/or protein. I prefer to focus on strategies to improve macronutrients utilization.
Always remind yourself that the human body is a machine designed to adapt itself to its environment. If you keep eating high amounts of protein every two to three hours, your body will get used to the process and will actually desensitize itself to protein due to the overabundance of food. That means that even if you eat a lot of protein, you’ll soon realize that you don’t get what you expect from it (and might even accumulate "extra" calories). That’s why you’ll hear some people saying that eating a lot of protein doesn’t enhance anabolism, and some others will tell you that it’s "bad" for the kidneys anyway. Well, everything can be bad if taken to the extreme. I don’t know where the idea came from but there are no studies to back that "30 grams a meal" rule or the kidney stuff. You’ll see that the only reported cases are isolated ones where the person either had a pathological condition he didn’t consider, overate, wasn’t drinking enough water, was using other supplements and/or drugs (like diuretics or others), or a combination of all five! Unfortunately, in bodybuilding there are a lot of myths and you hear a lot of things, but few people really know what they’re talking about (or take the time to put things into context when analyzing a situation). Nonetheless, one should always check for the presence of any pathological condition before beginning any specific program.
One other thing you might want to check regarding protein is the actual acidity of your stomach, which could prevent you from absorbing the proteins you ingest. In that case, you might want to consider using supplements like HCL capsules to eliminate the possibility.
Protein utilization is also closely related to food allergies. You could get a test for food allergies, but it’s really expensive. I prefer to tell my clients to be more attentive to their body and try to determine which foods benefit them the most. You might even notice yourself that you react to some protein sources in a good or a bad way. For example, you could feel energized right after eating red meat (compared to chicken), or vascular after eating fish, or even bloated after eating milk products. That way you can then specifically design an individualized diet plan.
This photo was taken just three weeks before Denis placed 4th at the 2009 IFBB World Bodybuilding Championships held in Doha, Qatar.
As a bodybuilder, your goal is to take the right amount of protein, in the right form (source), and at the right time. Like the late Mike Mentzer used to say: In bodybuilding more is not better, precise is better! In fact, protein consumption can be very anabolic if you know how to apply some simple principles and techniques.
One way to enhance protein absorption is to cycle your protein intake during the day and/or the week (I explained that in my article on "bulking up"). The fact is that eating more protein will enhance anabolism as long as you carefully design a plan that optimizes protein utilization. What you want to do is keep the body in a state where it feels a need for protein and is prone to use it. To do that, you can choose specific times when you increase your protein intake and others when you voluntarily lower it. For example, protein absorption is far greater after a fast (sleep) or a strenuous activity (training). That means that in those cases you can increase your consumption to a much higher level (I could go as far as 50-60 grams) and benefit from that short but beneficial anabolic "boost." That’s why I personally think that the practice of waking up in the middle of the night to eat in order to "stop" catabolism is a BIG mistake because, apart from the fact that you’re short-circuiting your sleep (when you actually build muscle), you won’t benefit from the fast that would have sensitized your body and put it into an environment favorable to protein utilization for the next day. Catabolism takes a matter of weeks to occur if you’re training. Your muscles won’t go away overnight. This summer, I tested my body fat before and after a week on a detoxifying diet composed of only fruits and vegetables (no protein at all) and I didn’t lose any lean body mass. In fact, I now use that practice once every 3-6 months to clean the body and reset the metabolism.
I also cycle my proteins during the week, increasing my intake on weekdays (training days) and lowering it to very small amounts on the weekends (days off), again to sensitize my body to protein. I immediately notice a significant difference every time I start a client on that kind of program. Cycling must also be applied to the protein sources, as your body will get used to those too. This means that it’s as important to alternate between "meals" of chicken, red meat, eggs, or fish as it is regarding "species" of either meat or fish.
Another way to make protein more anabolic is to increase the concentration of anabolic amino acids in your shakes. For example, instead of doubling your portions of whey to increase amino acids uptake, I suggest you add one scoop of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine into the shake to make it more anabolic. High concentrations of fast-acting proteins increase oxidation (waste) anyway, so you’re better off using small but more concentrated amounts. At that point, you could also use protein pulsing and have this little mixture between meals or whenever you feel the need to feel energized.
As you can see, food can be very anabolic if you know how to use it effectively, but anabolism is also a very complex topic. Whatever the problem might be, the best way to overcome it is always to look for strategies to work on the cause instead of trying to find the "magic" drug or supplement.
Keep training hard!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006, 2009