A Complete Guide to Protein and Muscle Building

by Brad Pilon

In this guide you’ll learn about how much protein do you need to build muscle mass, as well as its ability to stimulate protein synthesis in your muscle and burn your body fat.

Contents:

What is protein

How Much Protein can you Digest in One Meal

How Much Protein is in a High Protein Diet

Does More Protein Build More Muscle

Do You Need to Eat Protein Right after Workout

Protein Powder Quality

 

What is Protein?

We know that we need protein but what is it? Well, for starters Protein (or sometimes referred to as ’proteins’ with an ’S’) is a macronutrient.

It is one of the four macronutrients that provide us with energy (the other three macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat and alcohol).

The protein in your food is actually made up of something called ’amino acids’. Most people refer to amino acids as the ’building blocks’ of proteins.

Several thousand amino acids linked together in chains form a protein. Every protein in your body and in your food is formed from the bonding of various amino acids into different configurations.

There are 22 amino acids in total. Out of the 22 amino acids, nine are considered ’essential’ meaning you must consume them in your diets since your body cannot make them out of other material.

The other 13 are considered non-essential, meaning your body can make them through various metabolic pathways.

While all 22 are required by our bodies to function properly, it is the 9 essential amino acids that we need to get from our diet that make it important that we eat protein on a somewhat regular basis.

The common view in most fitness magazines is that the main role of protein in the body is to aid in the recovery and growth of the muscles after a workout.

However this view is extremely short sited. It is true that as a major constituent of the diet, protein serves as the foundations for health, repair and replenishment, but not just for muscles.

Our skin, hair and connective tissue are all made up of protein. As are important chemical messengers such as enzymes, neurotransmitters and hormones.

In fact, protein is vital for practically every process that occurs within the body such as metabolism, digestion and the transportation of nutrients and oxygen in the blood. It is this role that makes protein an essential part of your diet

Protein sources

We can get protein from both animal and vegetable sources (and to a much lesser degree fruits and nuts).

In general animal protein and vegetable protein probably have the same effects on our health (however other compounds within the foods such as the fatty acids or phytosterols may have very different health effects).

Some of the protein you eat contains all the essential amino acids, and is thus called a complete protein. Most animal sources of protein tend to be complete.

If a protein source lacks one or more ’essential’ amino acids then they are called incomplete proteins, these usually come from fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts.

Vegetarians need to be aware of this fact since they do run a small risk of creating a nutrient deficiency if they do not ensure they eat a variety of protein from different vegetable sources.

People who don’t eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or dairy products should eat a variety of protein-containing foods each day.

They don’t have to ’protein combine’ at every meal, but they should make a point of consuming protein from a variety of sources.

Interestingly, the same could be said for non-vegetarians as well, increasing the variety of protein sources you consume is probably a good idea in general.

Protein supplements

Protein is also available in supplement form. It can come in powders, bars and gels or, as amino acid supplements. While the protein in supplements is typically the same as found in foods (In terms of nutritive value) it can act differently in the human body.

Highly processed proteins such as whey protein or casein tend to enter the body very quickly (this is true even of the so-called slow release micellar casein protein powders).

This rapid rate of entry can cause a more pronounced insulin spike compared to the proteins from foods (Yes, protein can spike Insulin).

In the vast majority of people this effect is inconsequential, however it may be important for those people who are highly sensitive (such as those on various medications) as they could suffer from something called leucine-induced hypoglycemia.

There is also a small risk of creating amino acid imbalances by consuming large quantities of single amino acids, however this is rare and does not seem to occur with the more popular amino acids supplements such as Branched Chain Amino Acids.

In general, protein supplements are just that – a quick and convenient way to supplement daily protein. With that said, reaching average protein requirements should almost always be possible with food based proteins alone.

In summary proteins are large chemicals found in our foods that supply us with calories (roughly 4 Calories per gram, but it varies depending on the amino acid make up of the protein).

Protein also supplies building blocks for our bodies (amino acids), and act as messengers for many metabolic reactions (leucine ’turns on’ protein synthesis in fat and muscle cells).

Protein is a necessary component of your diet and getting your protein from a variety of sources is a good rule of thumb to follow no matter what style of diet you have.

Vegetarians and especially vegans will need to pay a bit more attention to how they mix and match foods on a daily and weekly basis to ensure they get all of the essential amino acids required for optimal intake and health.

How Much Protein can you Digest in One Meal

There is strong scientific evidence showing that you are able to adapt to the amount of protein you eat.

Meaning, as you eat more (or less) protein your digestive system learns to digest and assimilate more (or less) protein at a given time or meal.

So the amount of protein you are able to utilize is largely dependent on how much protein you typically eat in a meal or a day.

This means whether it’s over a 24 hour period or in one single meal, you will learn to utilize the amount of protein you provide to your body, as long as this new intake is consistent.

However, it will also take several days to your body to acclimatize to a new protein intake Ð these changes aren’t instantaneous.

It takes days for some of the enzymes and receptors to either down regulate or up-regulate in reponse to a change in your typical protein intake.

Some of these enzymes are responsible for the oxidation of the Branched Chain Amino Acids, and their tight regulation is essential to preventing a toxic build up of BCAAs in the blood.

Also, this regulation does not seem to change just because it’s a post-workout meal.

Of course, this does not mean that you will simply build more muscle once your body gets used to the higher protein intake, rather a more reasonable suggested would be that your body is learning to oxidize any surplus protein (basically use any protein you aren’t using for building new tissues as a fuel).

Even if you learn to absorb all the protein you eat, all that extra protein isn’t simply turning into tons of new muscle.

How Much Protein is in a High Protein Diet?

The high protein diet has become as popular in the mainstream media as it is in the fitness media.

It used to be only bodybuilders, sports athletes, and weight lifters who consumed a high protein diet, but now it seems to be all the rage for anyone looking to build muscle, lose fat, or for general fitness and health.

 

So what exactly is a high protein diet?

Well basically it’s a purposeful decision to increase the amount of protein containing foods you eat every day. Dairy products, Lean Meats, eggs, nuts and protein supplements are examples of high protein foods that people would eat on a high protein diet.

The basic premise behind a high protein diet is maintaining a high intake of dietary protein combined with reduced intake of carbohydrates or fats, or a reduction in the intake of both carbs and fats.

The definition of ’high protein’ changes depending on who you ask. If the scientific community was asked the question of ’how much protein is high protein?’ they would generally answer with an amount of grams of protein based on body weight.

On average, a diet consisting of over 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is considered to be high protein. That would be about 0.55 grams per pound of body weight, or about 95 grams in a 175 pound man.

Interestingly, this recommendation would be considered low in the fitness world as the answer to the question ’how much protein’ in the fitness world is typically answered with ’at LEAST 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight’.

In truth, the correct answer to ’how much protein is high protein’ depends on your aims, goals and current training level, amount of lean mass and maybe most importantly how much protein you typically eat already.

However, that being said, whether your goals are to lose body-fat or gain lean mass the amount you need to eat in a day to optimize either process will fall roughly within the ranges suggested in “How Much Protein”.

It’s not a matter of simply eating as much protein as you can, since excess proteins can and will be stored as body fat.

In fact, the Branched Chain Amino Acids, specifically leucine, can signal for an increase in body fat through the mTOR pathway – the same pathway that signals for an increase in muscle protein synthesis.

Protein by itself can also increase insulin secretion, and protein combined with carbs can increase the insulin response to a higher level than with you would get with carbs alone.

Both of these facts are extremely important for you to consider when going on a high protein diet.

The goal of any high protein diet should be to consume as much protein as will help us move towards our goals, but not create a caloric surplus by eating too much protein. After all, protein and protein foods are expensive!

The good news is that the average North American is already on a high protein diet (from a scientific standpoint) – with typical protein consumption being roughly 70-90 grams per day.

Unfortunately, this high protein intake is mostly a result of over eating in general.

They key is to learn how to maintain a slightly increased protein intake while not overeating (consuming more calories than you need).

Funny enough, this suggestion of an elevated protein intake was actually the norm back in the late 1800’s.

Back in the 1890’s ’nutrition’ was simply protein and calories. There were no vitamins and mineral recommendations to worry about as we didn’t know about them yet.

Leading Researchers of the time studied the diets of undergraduate boat crews (I.E. young, athletic rich guys) and showed that during intensive training they had high intakes of protein, – about 155 grams of protein per day.

These findings became the ’Atwater standards’ (named after the head researcher), a set of protein recommendations based on degree of daily muscular work.

 

Degree of Muscular work

Daily Protein Intake

Light

112g

Moderate

125g

Heavy

150g

 

So back in the early 1900’s a high protein diet was the ’go to’ suggestion for protein intake. This soon changed and by the 1920’s when a new lower standard of protein intake (roughly 60-66 grams per day) had been accepted and was even thought to contain a considerable safety margin.

From the 1920’s to the 1950’s protein was not a high priority among nutrition professionals. But in 1950 things changed again dramatically.

From 1950 to 1975 protein was now back in the spot light. The rallying cry of nutritionists around the world was ’Deficiency of protein in the diet is the most serious and widespread problem in the world!’

Since then we’ve settled down a bit, but still argue about the best amount of protein to eat in a day.

Most of the world’s governing bodies agree with a protein intake that averages around 60-66 grams per day. However many researchers agree with an amount closer to the original amounts suggested by Atwater.

And this is for good reason – A slightly high protein diet (roughly 100 grams per day) has been used successfully in many weight trials.

In fact, some research has shown that a high protein diet performs better than a reduced protein diet (lower than average intake) when it comes to maintaining lean body mass during weight loss.

However it should be stressed that in some of these studies, the people in the low protein diet group had their protein intake reduced from their normal intake, which may have caused some of the effect.

This slightly elevated protein intake has also been shown to help with the muscle building process.

Interestingly, high protein diets with extremely high protein intakes do not seem to be more beneficial than high protein diets with only slightly elevated protein intakes in the 70-120 gram range.

So what is the final answer on high protein diets?

Well that depends. It depends on how much protein you currently eat, and what your goals are.

It seems that eating more protein isn’t going to do you any harm as long as you’re not overeating total calories (protein can stimulate insulin release).

It’s fine to eat more protein if you simply replace some carbs and fat to do so. It’s not a good idea to simply overeat in order to get more protein.

What you should do is find out how much protein you’re currently eating, then decide how much more protein you want to eat, then reduce some of the carbohydrate content and fat content from the foods you’re eating to allow for the extra protein.

This way you can increase your total daily protein intake without over eating and risking fat gain.

High protein diets seem to have benefits for people who are working out and trying to gain muscle or lose fat.

How ’high’ you go is up to you.

Each time you increase your protein intake you’ll want to test your results to decide if you need to go higher, stay the same, or even decrease it a bit.

I have not found any convincing evidence that would make me rethink my recommendation in ’How Much Protein?’ however, I do admit that I have also not found convincing research to suggest there is any harm in going higher with your protein intake.

Protein supplements can be used if they are convenient, however I still do not see a large return on investment when it comes to branched chain amino acids or other Amino Acid supplements.

Protein to Build More Muscle

“Eat protein to build more muscle. Eat big to get big.”

You hear this type of advice all the time in the gym, and At the surface, it makes sense. After all it works for our fat right?

The more calories we eat the bigger our fat gets, so it makes some sort of sense that the more protein we eat the bigger our muscles will get.

What we are describing is a basic dose-response relationship. The more protein, the more muscle.

Or a better, more simplified example of a dose-response relationship would be the relationship between calorie surplus and body weight.

If we eat in a way that creates a constant caloric surplus we will gain weight until we are no longer gaining weight, because well…our body could no longer support the weight and the metabolic implications of the excess fat and we have died (morbid, I know).

This relationship is dependent on the form and function of our body fat. Our fat (adipose tissue) is a storage vesicle. Its purpose (or more appropriately it’s function) is to store excess energy in the form of body fat.

And it is the special characteristics of body fat that allow it to store energy so incredibly well. Fat can expand with almost unlimited ability.

It is not uncommon for a morbidly obese person to have more than 60% of their body weight derived from their fat mass!

Unfortunately this same dose-response relationship does not exist with muscle. Healthy human beings (who are not using anabolic steroids) cannot simply grow ever-increasing amounts of muscle by eating ever-increasing amounts of protein.

And even professional bodybuilders on copious amounts of steroids, growth hormones and other drugs still eventually hit an upper limit of muscle growth.

This is because skeletal muscle is not a storage form of protein. Muscle cannot simply expand effortlessly to store excess amino acids.

Its form and function are for contraction (to move our bodies) and thus they are not designed to simply expand and store proteins when we eat more proteins.

So eating a high protein diet doesn’t simply create more muscle.

In fact, the majority of the weight of your skeletal muscles doesn’t even come from protein!

Only 20% of muscle weight is from protein, of which only 50% is actual structural contractile proteins (the rest are cellular proteins like enzymes and the like). The rest is fluid.

If there were a true dose-response relationship between dietary protein and protein organs in our body, then not only would a high protein diet cause our muscles to grow with unlimited potential, but it would also have the same effect on our heart, our gastrointestinal system and most of our other organs.

Obviously this would not be a desirable effect of protein intake!

So this is where a large mistake is often made…treating our muscles like they are fat..able to simply expand and contract depending on our calorie balance or protein balance.

The truth is the form and function of fat tissue is what allows it to react this way to a caloric surplus. To put it simply – that’s its job.

While the form and function of muscles allow us to stand, walk, and pick up heavy things. Contraction is muscle’s job.

Do You Need to Eat Protein Right after Workout

Research published in 2008 by Beelen et al [Beelen M, 2008] suggests that the effect that eating (or drinking) protein during a workout has on protein synthesis is no different then the effect that the workout alone has when you continue to measure after 9 hour of recovery.

Confused? Don’t worry…

I’m willing to bet that anyone who has spent anytime reading fitness magazines or bodybuilding websites has heard that eating protein causes an increase in protein synthesis, however it’s important to take a look and see where this ‘fact’ came from.

Research does show that eating protein before, during or after your workout DOES effect protein synthesis. Research also shows that consuming branched chain amino acids can have the same effect.

Interestingly, a main problem with this line of protein research is that they only measure protein synthesis for a couple of hours (usually around two hours).

After this measurement is made, the researchers then speculate that the difference stays significant for a long enough time to actually cause you to build extra muscle mass.

Sounds great, but unfortunately when this measurement is taken for 9 hours as it was in the trial published in the Journal of Nutrition, we realize that the effect essentially disappears with time.

The two hour period may represent a little bit of a quick start into the muscle building process, but by 9 hours, this quick start disappears, and everything becomes equal.

This is extremely interesting since in this study, the people in the placebo group didn’t eat for over 2 hours before the workout, then completed a 2 hour workout, then did not eat for another 9 hours, essentially meaning they were fasted for over 13 hours and they still had the same anabolic response to their workout as the people who drank a protein shake during their workout then had two more protein shakes once they were done their workout!

The bottom line is that 9 hours after your workout you will have build the same amount of muscle whether you ate a lot of protein, a little bit of protein, or even if you  ate nothing at all.

Leading to the conclusion that the muscle building effects after 9 hours were attributable to the workout alone, and NOT how much protein you eat.

On a positive side, this research does suggest that if you were working out multiple times per day (less than 9 hours per workout) then there may be a benefit to protein supplementation..however this is just a theory that would require more research.

Protein Powder Quality

Protein powders are an extremely popular way for people to ’get’ their daily protein intake.

They come in a wide variety of flavors and formulations, using everything from Whey protein to Hemp protein as their protein source.

Generally, most protein powders actually do provide a quality source of protein to your diet.

However, what most people forget is that protein is a commodity like anything else, and for this reason, your protein powder can change in quality from batch to batch.

These days protein powders such as whey and casein are used in much more than just muscle building protein supplements.

They can be found in everything from yogurt and ice-cream to pizza and baby formula.

Combine this with the increased demand for dairy based protein from China, the middle east and North Africa and you can see how protein prices can rapidly increase.

(Also keep in mind Protein is big business – One of the largest protein suppliers has annual earnings of over 2 billion US dollars annually!)

So when the cost of whey protein goes up because of supply or demand issues (and whey protein is considerably more expensive these days than it was a decade ago) it also increases the cost of making protein supplements, so some companies ’spike’ their protein powder formulas with non-protein amino acids like taurine or creatine.

(note Ð even amino acids see price increases, usually based on popularity. At the moment both beta-alanine and branched chain amino acids are incredibly expensive too, so companies have to be very selective with which amino acids they use in their protein supplements).

So why would you want to spike your protein powder?

Well, both taurine and creatine have at times been much less expensive than your typical whey or casein protein.

And, more importantly, when a protein supplement is tested for its protein content, the test measures not protein per se, but rather nitrogen.

So by adding ingredients that are high in nitrogen, you can trick the tests to think your product is higher in protein than it really is.

In other words, if the protein has been spiked with amino acids, the results of the protein content tests will be similar (or even higher in the case of adding creatine)

You may be wondering how you can determine which companies are cutting corners by performing this stunt? Unfortunately you really can’t.

The easiest thing is to look on the label and hope the companies are ethical enough to include all of their ingredients in their ingredient deck (most are, but not all).

If you see tuarine or creatine, you can assume theyÕve been counted as ’protein’.

An expensive solution would be to pay a lab to perform tests on a protein supplement to measure the molecular weight of its contents – but again, this doesn’t ensure that your protein is ’spike’ free every single time.

It only provides evidence for that one single batch.

Really, you have no way of knowing. This is why I suggest going for the BIG name products from large supplement companies – after all, the more money the company has, the more reason they have to keep everything on the up and up.

The other thing that gets affected by the price of protein is the taste of your protein powder.

Whey protein (probably the most popular protein powder at the moment), is a by-product of the cheese making process.

Different protein suppliers get their whey from the production of different kinds of cheese -mozzarella, Swiss, cheddar, etc.

The interesting thing is that the process of making each type of cheese also imparts a ’uniqueness’ to the whey protein it produces. This can be found in the taste, texture and mouth feel of the protein powder.

If the cost from one supplier goes up, a supplement company could switch to another protein supplier with devastating results on their protein powder.

This means the same brand and product, with the same whey protein concentrate on the label and the same quality of whey protein inside the tub could end up with radically different tastes.

Again, there’s not much you can do to avoid this problem. If anything sticking with big name brands is your best bet, since they by their protein in massive ’6-month’ at a time purchases.

Truth be told this issue is not unique to the supplement industry, as all food companies have to deal with the changing commodity prices – but it does help you to know that if your protein powder tastes different, the protein is still probably high quality – just from a different protein supplier.

The bottom line is that you can use amino acids to spike the protein content of your protein powder, but only by a little bit.

By and large, almost all protein powders meet label claims, and while the taste may vary from batch to batch this is mostly due to the protein source, and not an indicator in the quality of the protein powder.

So if you choose to use protein powders to supplement your high protein diet, you are probably getting roughly the amount of protein on the label.

 

References:

Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Brain Function. Fernstrom J. J Nutrition. 2005

Branched chain amino acid supplementation in patients with liver disease. Marchesini G. J Nutr. 2005.

Brain Amino Acid Requirements and Toxicity: The example of Leucine. J Nutr 2005

Tolearance for Branched Chain Amino Acids in Experimental Animals and Humans. Baker DH. J Nutr 2005

Observations of Branched Chain Amino Acid Administration in Humans. Matthews DE, J Nutr 2005

A randominzed trial of hypocaloric high-protein diet with and without exercise on weight loss, fitness and markers of the metabolic syndrom in overweight and obese women. Mecklin KA. Appl Phsiol Nutr Metab. 2007

Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. Layman DK et al. J Nutr. 2005.

Adipose tissue reduction in mice lacking the translational inhibitor 4E-BP1. Tsukiyama-Kohara K et al. Nat Med. (2001)

Adipose tissue branched chain amino acid (BCAA) metabolism modulates circulating BCAA levels. Herman MA et al. J Biol Chem. (2010)

Mobilization of visceral adipose tissue related to the improvement in insulin sensitivity in response to physical training in NIDDM. Effects of branched-chain amino acid supplements. Mourier A et al. Diabetes Care. (1997)

The actions of exogenous leucine on mTOR signalling and amino acid transporters in human myotubes. Gran P, Cameron-Smith D. BMC Physiol. 2011 Jun 25;11:10.

The biosynthesis of squalene and sterols by the adipose tissue of rat, sheep and man. Durr IF et al. Biochem J. (1966)

Leucine degradation and release of glutamine and alanine by adipose tissue. Tischler ME et al. J Biol Chem. (1980)

Production of alanine and glutamine by atrial muscle from fed and fasted rats. Tischler ME et al. Am J Physiol. (1980)

Leucine metabolism in regulation of insulin secretion from pancreatic beta cells. Yang et al. Nutrition reviews. 2010.

Branched-Chain Amino Acid Metabolism. Harper AE. Annu Rev Nutr. 1984.

Effects of Branched-Chain amino acid supplementation on plasma concentrations of free amino acids, insulin and energy substrates in young men. Zhang Y. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol. 2011