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You don’t have to eat massive amounts of protein to maximize muscle synthesis; you just have to be a little more clever with how you apportion it.” Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, associate professor, Department of Physical therapy and Internal Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston

How Much Protein Can Muscles Use?

More Efficient Meal Planning for Muscle Building and Calorie Control

How much protein do health-and-fitness minded individuals need? Surprisingly, the answer began taking shape a million or more years ago when we started cooking our food and walking erect.

Cooking (animal and plant food) made us human, according to Catching Fire (Basic Books, 2009), a meticulously researched and persuasive book by Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Now, however, it threatens to wreck our health. Fortunately, there is a simple solution.

Cooking made food softer, easier to digest, taste better, and more energy efficient, allowing us to live on the ground, develop bigger brains, smaller guts, bigger bodies, bonding between males and females, and more. Modern man has taken it another step forward (or backward) with processed food, which makes us fat. Excessive calories from any source, including protein, are in the same category.

Food writer Michael Pollan and others have the right idea, says Professor Wrangham. The answer is to choose real food, not nutrients. “Real food is natural or only lightly processed, recognizable and familiar,” Wrangham explains. “By contrast, nutrients are invisible chemicals, such as essential oils and amino-acids and vitamins, objects of scientific expertise whose significance we must take on faith. The less processed our food, the less intense we can expect the obesity crisis to be,” the anthropologist concludes.

That raises the question bodybuilders and many others ask over and over. I see it repeatedly in my emails. Eddie (not his real name) wrote recently: “I keep carbs low, and fat moderate, [because] I believe that if I don’t consume a gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight I will lose muscle mass. I hate to think that drinking protein all day is necessary. That’s no way to live!”

Well, Eddie can relax. He doesn’t have to live on protein drinks. There is a much more appealing—and healthy—alternative. By the way, a low protein, vegetarian diet is not the answer. Ample high-quality dietary protein is required for building and maintaining muscle mass and function.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston provides evidence that strongly challenges the idea that high-protein drinks and meat-heavy diets are necessary to preserve and build muscle mass.

More Is Not More

The study, led by Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, and reported in the September 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, compared muscle synthesis (formation) and anabolic efficiency in response to meals with moderate and high amounts protein in 17 young (average age 34) and 17 old (average 68 years) volunteers. The subjects were healthy and physically active. Both meals were made up of gently warmed precooked ground beef. One meal contained 30 grams of protein (the rough equivalent of 4 ounces of chicken, fish, dairy, soy, or, in this case, lean beef). The other meal contained three times as much protein, 12 ounces of lean beef and 90 grams of protein.

“We recently demonstrated that a single moderate-size serving of a protein rich food (4 oz. lean beef) acutely increased muscle protein synthesis above fasting values by 50% in both young and elderly individuals,” the researchers wrote in introducing the study. “A 4 oz. serving of 90% lean beef (220 calories) contains approximately 30 g of protein, 10 g of essential amino acids (EAA) and represents 50% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for a 75-kg [165 lbs] individual.”

The question they set out to answer was whether more protein would stimulate additional muscle building. “[We] sought to determine whether a three-fold larger protein and energy-rich meal (12 oz. lean beef, 90 g protein, 30 g EAA, 660 calories), representative of the exaggerated portion size available in many restaurants, can be justified by an increased ability to acutely increase muscle protein synthesis in healthy young and elderly individuals.”

The answer is “No.” Here’s how they measured protein use and what they found.

Using blood samples and thigh muscle biopsies, they found no added muscle gain in the subjects eating the larger meal. Young and old volunteers responded the same. “Despite a three-fold increase in protein and energy content, there was no further increase in protein synthesis after ingestion of 340 g lean beef in either age group,” they reported. “Ingestion of more than 30 g protein in a single meal does not further enhance the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis.” (The analytical method used monitored the blood samples and muscle biopsies, before and after ingestion of the meal, for changes in an amino acid necessary for growth and protein metabolism; details are in the study.)

As indicated earlier, the researchers say it is agreed that “the ingestion of high quality protein [egg, milk, chicken, fish, and beef are examples] is of paramount importance in the maintenance of muscle mass and function.” Moreover, recent research "suggests that moderately increasing dietary protein intake above the recommended dietary allowance of 0.8 g protein/kg/day may enhance muscle protein anabolism." (Emphasis mine) The key finding is that nothing is to be gained by piling on protein in a single meal.

(The researchers acknowledge that some additional protein may be useful in the hour or so after strenuous exercise.)

Paddon-Jones and his colleagues suggest that moderate amounts of protein from various sources be consumed over the course of the day. Unfortunately, few Americans follow this advice.

Efficient Eating Patterns

“Usually, we eat very little protein at breakfast, eat a bit more at lunch and then consume a large amount at night,” Dr. Paddon-Jones told reporters. “When was the last time you had just 4 ounces of anything during dinner at a restaurant?” he asked. “So we’re not taking enough protein on board for efficient muscle-building during the day, and at night we’re taking in more than we can use. Most of the excess is oxidized and could end up as glucose or fat.”

Paddon-Jones suggests a more efficient and healthy pattern.

“You don’t have to eat massive amounts of protein to maximize muscle synthesis, you just have to be a little more clever with how you apportion it,” he says. (Are you listening, Eddie?) “For breakfast consider including additional high quality protein. Throw in an egg [see below], a glass of milk, yogurt or add a handful of nuts to get to 30 grams of protein, do something similar to get to 30 for lunch, and then eat a smaller amount of protein for dinner. Do this, and over the course of the day you likely spend much more time synthesizing muscle protein.”

That’s great advice. Include some complete protein with each meal and most snacks, and you’ll be fine. Forget protein supplements. Stick to whole foods, with all the water and fiber intact. Avoid processed foods, especially those with sugar or fat added. Do this, and you’ll get all the protein you can use. What’s more, you’ll be unlikely to overshoot your calorie needs.

Keep the evolution of humankind moving forward with good quality protein from real food.

(Along with mixed whole grains, fruit and vegetables, my current breakfast includes one hard boiled egg—cooking increases the protein value of eggs by about 40 percent; see FAQ—two cups skim milk, and one-fourth cup mixed nuts. The Paddon-Jones study tells me I’m on the right track.)

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