Saturday, January 4, 2014

Why (and When) You Need More Protein

by By Alex Hutchinson
Over the last few months, I've been spurred to rethink how much protein I need on daily basis, and when I need it. This isn't particularly earth-shattering, of course -- people have long known and debated the role of protein in supporting muscle growth and maintenance. But a few conference talks I've seen recently (by, among others, Stuart Phillips, Luc van Loon, Rajavel Elango, and Douglas Paddon-Jones) have kind of clicked in my mind. This is what I wrote about in my Globe and Mail column this week:
Studying the human body isn’t rocket science – in some cases, it’s much harder.
“I tell my grad students that we can put a man on the moon, but we still can’t come to a consensus on how much protein to give him here on earth,” says Dr. Rajavel Elango, a researcher at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.
Elango and his colleagues are using a new measurement technique to rewrite assumptions about how much protein you need at different stages of life. But just getting the right amount isn’t enough: There’s a limit to how much protein your body can use at once, so to maximize muscle-building you need to spread your intake throughout the day – and for most Canadians, that means ramping up the protein content at breakfast and lunch. [...]
The first point, about recommended daily protein intakes, is interesting from a scientific point of view, but not that crucial from a practical point of view. As Elango points out, revised recommended intakes upward by, say, 30% makes a big difference when you're talking about food aid to areas suffering from famine, where people really are getting the minimum. And it may also be relevant to special groups like pregnant women and older people, who apparently need more protein than previously thought. But the vast majority of people in places like North America easily surpass the recommended protein levels -- so the more interesting point here is timing:
[...] Whenever you eat protein, your body responds by firing up its anabolic (muscle-building) processes. The more protein you eat, the more muscle protein you synthesize – up to a point. Research by McMaster University’s Dr. Stuart Phillips and others has found that if you eat more than 20 to 30 grams of protein at a time, you don’t get any further anabolic boost. Any extra protein is simply burned for energy; unlike carbohydrate or fat, you can’t save it for later.
Unfortunately, typical Canadian dietary patterns involve food choices and meal sizes that provide relatively small doses of 10 to 15 grams of protein at breakfast and lunch, and then a mammoth 65-gram wallop of protein at dinner. The daily total of 90 grams is great, but since more than half of the dinner protein goes to waste, the usable amount of protein is actually below the optimal amount for muscle maintenance.
“You can overconsume protein to your heart’s content, but unless you distribute it appropriately, you can still fall well below the body’s needs,” says Dr. Douglas Paddon-Jones, a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas. [...]
That's the part that was really interesting to me, because I've tended to think of my protein needs on a full-day basis. I always make sure to have some protein with breakfast -- some peanut butter, yoghurt, nuts and seeds, etc. -- but that adds up to far less than the 20 grams or so of protein needed for optimal anabolic stimulus. And I can't make up for it by eating lots of protein at dinner, because you can't "save" protein from one meal to the next for anabolic purposes. Again, this is very old news to people who focus on building muscle, but it's something I'd never really worried about. But as I get older, maintaining muscle mass is becoming a much higher priority.
The result: in the last few weeks, I've been experimenting with different breakfast and lunch patterns, looking to up my protein intake earlier in the day. So if I look bigger after the holidays... it'll definitely be all muscle.

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