Five Tips for Optimal Protein Intake When Trying to Improve Your Body
by Poliquin Group™ Editorial Staff
6/30/2014 1:44:00 PM
Protein foods have a profound effect on changing your body composition.
Protein builds muscle in the absence of exercise, and the effect is enhanced when you pair it with smart training.
It helps you gain strength when training and possibly power of will in the process. Truly. Protein enhances brain function, motivation, and focus for a more rewarding life.
It promotes fat loss and bolsters health, but only when balanced with other beneficial foods and an approach that promotes well being.
This of course is one reason there’s so much argument about high-protein diets and fat loss: Unhealthy behaviors, such as sedentariness and diets composed of processed foods but lacking plants, are the norm. These are high-protein diets done wrong.
This article will tell you how to do a high-protein diet right by giving you five tips for optimizing protein intake to change your body. Note that for tips #2 to 5 a specific body composition goal is discussed.
#1: Always eat the highest quality, most digestible proteins.
All protein sources are not created equally. Foods differ in regards to their digestibility and nutrient content, which is why the two most important questions you should ask before putting a food in your mouth are:
1) Is this food nutrient rich?
2) Can my body digest this food easily?
Animal proteins tend to be well digested if you chew them properly and have a healthy gut—neither of which are a given in this high-stress modern world. Therefore, it’s most important to make sure you’re not eating a protein source for which you’ve become intolerant of.
Next, you want protein that has all the essential amino acids and as many non-essential aminos and other nutrients as possible. Again, animal proteins top the list, rounding out at least the top five protein foods, and taking up most of the top 10 spots.
What about vegetarian sources of protein such as seeds and beans?
Because the body can’t use vegetable-derived protein sources from beans, grains, and plants as efficiently as animal proteins, the evidence indicates that a higher total protein intake is needed to achieve the same physiological effects. Simply, you may need to bump your daily protein goal up from recommended numbers if you’re getting your protein from vegetarian sources.
In addition, you’ll be hard pressed to get optimal levels of the amino acid leucine, which appears to be the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis. Seeds, soy, and some vegetables like watercress do contain leucine, but the concentration is small compared to whey protein or eggs.
One solution is to get the majority of your protein from the top five list below, using vegetarian proteins as condiments. Sprinkle ground seeds and beans on salads and sautéed veggies. Yellow peas, lentils, and fermented soy foods like miso and tempeh (if you eat soy) can add variety and flavor as well as a moderate amino acid profile.
Your five best protein sources are as follows:
• Eggs are a perfect source of protein, sporting the second highest concentration of leucine after milk.
• Whey protein is the best supplemental protein source because it stimulates protein synthesis more than all other sources and has performed best in long-term muscle and strength building studies.
• Grass-fed, grass-finished beef provides an excellent profile of essential amino acids (it’s packed with the powerhouse branched-chain amino acids isoleucine, leucine, and valine) and it performs well in metabolic studies.
• Salmon has 20 grams of protein in one 3 oz serving, just slightly less than beef, and its amino acid profile is superior to chicken.
• Chicken has the highest protein content per gram, but it’s lower in leucine than all other protein on this list. Still, it performs well in fat loss studies with participants who eat chicken frequently losing more body fat than those who eat primarily beef.
#2: Shoot for 1.6 g/kg/bw of protein to lose fat with zero hunger.
Fat loss and achieving a lean, strong body is not about starving yourself or spending hours in the gym.
Rather, it is about eating the right foods that energize you, fill you up, and give you the most nutrients per calorie. Protein foods happen to be the best macronutrient for achieving all three of those goals. They are a pivotal component of any diet aimed at changing your body for the following reasons:
• Protein raises your metabolism because it costs the body more calories to process protein than carbs or fat.
• Protein is filling because eating it causes the release of gut hormones that keep you satisfied.
• Protein helps manage blood sugar and insulin, decreasing cravings for carbs.
• Protein triggers protein synthesis, preserving (or building) lean muscle mass so your body burns more calories at rest.
All these factors can add up to allowing you to burn more calories than you consume so that the body loses fat. Unfortunately, people make a lot of mistakes with higher protein fat loss diets:
1) Their macros are off and they are either eating too few or too many carbs. People respond differently to low-carb diets, so you’ve got to figure out how many you need to eat for your unique genes and activity levels.
2) They aren’t eating enough fat. The body needs the nutrients from fat to produce hormones that play a pivotal role in metabolism and health.
3) They are eating too many processed foods and not enough fruits and vegetables. You’ve got to eliminate all the high-carb, processed fat foods like bread, cereal, and sweets and eat veggies instead.
How to do it: Plan meals around a whole protein source and then add a fat and a vegetable or fruit. For example, if you pick eggs or salmon, your fat is already taken care of and all you need is some sautéed greens or a salad. If you’re eating non-fat Greek yogurt, you could add some walnuts and berries, or opt for whole-fat yogurt instead.
#3: Distribute a high-protein intake evenly at meals to build muscle and lean tissue.
Eating protein stimulates an increase in muscle protein synthesis and suppresses protein breakdown for several hours so that you end up with more lean tissue.
Based on the availability of amino acids, the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish that pool of building blocks by eating protein, it’s a good thing, promoting muscle development.
For example, a new study in The Journal of Nutrition showed that when participants ate 30 grams of protein at each meal, protein synthesis levels were 25 percent higher than that of people who skewed their consumption by loading up on protein at dinner. Spiking protein synthesis throughout the day gives your body more opportunity to add muscle.
How to do it: Pick a daily protein goal—research recommends 1.3 g/kg/bodyweight is the absolute minimum amount trained athletes should eat daily to put on muscle. Distribute your protein goal evenly over meals, eating about every 3 hours.
#4: Try bumping protein intake up to get shredded if you’re already lean.
Science consistently shows that if you’re athletic and already fairly lean, a high protein intake is essential if you are cutting calories to get shredded because it preserves muscle mass. There’s no one definition for “fairly lean” but it obviously means “not overweight” and somewhere in the “normal weight” category as measured by body fat.
For example, a recent study found that when young, normal weight military personnel went on a calorie restricted diet, those who ate 1.6 g/kg/bodyweight of protein a day lost body fat and sustained lean mass for a higher metabolic rate than a group that 0.8 g/kg of protein a day.
A third group that ate 2.4 g/kg of protein a day didn’t experience greater fat loss or preservation of muscle. That doesn’t mean that you might not want to go this high in protein when trying to cut a few pounds, just that the average person did not see a benefit in this study.
How to do it: Assuming you’re well trained and hitting it hard in the gym (as you should be if your goal is to get shredded), try strategically increasing your protein intake to coincide with muscle building or high volume phases because research suggests that if you can increase your protein intake by about 60 percent over normal, you’ll experience superior gains.
Of course, this is easier to do if you’re a moderate protein eater in the 1.5 g/kg or less range because you could easily bump it up to 2.4 g/kg. But, if you’re already at 2 g/kg, you have little room to increase protein much without serious force feeding.
#5: Use a high-protein, higher calorie diet to gain strength and muscle with training.
Are you surprised to know that getting extra protein leads to greater strength development with training?
For example, when college football players consumed 2 g/kg/day of protein over 12 weeks they had 14.3 kg greater increase in maximum squat strength than a group eating less.
A large analysis of the issue supports this, showing that getting extra protein produced a 13.5 kg greater increase in leg press strength over control groups.
Now, telling you to “just eat a lot or protein” doesn’t do justice to how to get the best results. The age-old advice that you need to get protein in the hour after training only stands up in a few cases:
1) You haven’t eaten a decent protein meal (in the 30-gram range) in the few hours pre-workout and/or you’re not planning on eating one in the few hours after training. Evidence suggests every three hours is ideal for eating protein to sustain protein synthesis in the body.
2) You’re older. Better results have been seen in older people come from consuming protein immediately after exercise compared to 2 hours after. Larger doses in the 35 to 40 gram range are superior for muscle growth than 20 grams in older folks.
3) You’re trying to pack on muscle by going very high in protein. The first super high-protein study was recently published and it found that when lean, trained people ate 4.4 g/kg of protein a day, of which a large portion was whey protein, they gained 1.9 kg of lean mass and reduced body fat percentage by 0.6 percent.
This study was particularly noteworthy because the high-protein group was supplementing with protein to the tune of an extra 800 calories a day compared to a control group that ate their regular high-protein diet.
How to do it: A high-protein, high-calorie diet will be best for improving body composition by building lean muscle, but probably isn’t indicated if your primary goal is fat loss.
But how high in protein should you go? Is 4.4 g/kg a smart move?
Probably not. This is the first study testing such a high dose of protein dose and the diet was hard to maintain. In addition, it didn’t measure health markers and there’s evidence that very high-protein diets cause inflammation.
A protein intake between 1.6 and 3.3 g/kg of bodyweight is more reasonable based on the bulk of research. Some ancestral populations ate 30 percent protein daily, corresponding to about 3 g/kg/bw a day, making this peak amount a more intelligent approach.