You're Not Eating Nearly Enough Protein!

Men's Fitness|March 2016

You're Not Eating Nearly Enough Protein!

We all know protein is the single most important building block of muscle growth. But, amazingly, science is only now discovering exactly how much protein we should be getting and—just as important—when we should be getting it.

Michael Behar

A small plastic pouch filled with dark brown, organic matter arrived at my doorstep today.

No, I didn’t immediately bolt down the stairs in hot pursuit of some teenagers. Instead, I took a closer look and found that the bag actually contained something else entirely: dead crickets.

Alex Drysdale, founder of Crik Nutrition, was so eager for me to sample his flag ship product that he shipped it overnight via DHL from his office in Winnipeg, Canada. I just hadn’t expected it so soon. Drysdale, a former communications technician who quit his job last year to cash in on today’s protein boom, swears that his critters “are loaded with nutrients because they’re made from whole, crushed-up cricket—you’re eating the exoskeleton and all the organs.” I try not to picture cricket guts when I open the pouch and take a whiff. Surprisingly, the smell is sweet and nutty. Feeling ballsier than usual, I shove a spoonful in my mouth. Compared with gritty and bitter whey and soy powder varieties, this stuff dissolves instantly on my tongue and tastes like almonds and honey.

Crik is just the latest form of protein I’ve happily eaten lately; the others include protein-infused granola, protein pancakes, high-protein Greek yogurts, and the gamut of powders—whey, soy, pea, hemp, and now cricket. The protein industry reaps about $9 billion annually, a figure that’s quadrupled since 2005. Some dismiss this as just another fleeting food fad, the result of a connection to certain popular high-protein diets, such as Paleo. A few experts—along with new federal dietary guidelines announced in January—claim we’re eating too much protein. But, I’m happy to report, scientists who study protein insist otherwise.

For the record, the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) officially recommends just 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. “That’s designed for the average person to just exist—hang out, watch TV, do whatever,” says Mike Nelson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and founder of Extreme Human Performance, a fitness coaching firm that espouses a high-protein diet. It was also written during the wartime 1940s to recommend the minimum amount for good nutrition when Americans were rationing food. “But,” says Nelson, “if you’re not the average person, and you’re exercising more intensely, you’re going to need more protein.”

At 160 pounds, the RDA puts me at 58 grams per day, which is a scant more than a cup of Greek yogurt at breakfast and a small chicken breast for lunch, with zero protein for dinner. But based on recent findings, protein scientists now advise at least 0.68 grams per pound and up to 0.75 grams if you’re doing intensive weight training (more than two hours daily) and want to bulk up fast—which would put my recommended intake at 120 grams per day, divided into four servings, consumed roughly four hours apart. Because I exercise five or six days a week, Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, who studies how protein supports muscle growth, tells me that 110 grams per day should be ample. I bump up my intake accordingly, almost doubling it.

Two weeks later I’ve dropped five pounds—most of it off my belly. I’m stacking on extra weights for chest and shoulder presses. But the most profound change is in recovery. The throbbing quads and calves I’d suffer after long runs? Gone. And when I overload my muscles while lifting (think: big burn), the soreness lasts for mere hours instead of days.

Right now I crave protein like a drug. I eat it in the morning and, as you’ll soon learn why, even before bed. I eat everything from omelets to salmon to pulverized insects that look like shit. And here’s the thing: I’ve never felt better. 

Later, when I convey my experience to Robert Wolfe, Ph.D., one of the early pioneers in protein science and now director of the Center for Translational Research in Aging and Longevity at the University of Arkansas, he’s not surprised. “When you look at the research, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the benefits of a higher proportion of protein than the RDA in the diet,” he says. Eat more protein and “by and large, you’re going to be fitter. That’s the reality.”

WHAT'S “ENOUGH” PROTEIN — AND WHAT’S TOO MUCH ?

Despite everything we know about the connection between protein and muscle growth (for the record, protein refers to the amino acids from foods that our bodies require to be healthy and strong but don’t produce intrinsically), it wasn’t until very recently that scientists began to determine just how much protein we should be eating, what types (animal or plant), when (morning or evening), and how much.

“Back in the early 1980s, we used to think that if you averaged out your recommended protein intake over a week, you were OK,” says Nancy Rodriguez, Ph.D., a professor of nutritional studies at the University of Connecticut. “But fast-forward 10 years, and we realized it wasn’t just having protein every two or three days. You should be eating it every day and distributing it among meals and snacks.” 

For decades, dietitians and trainers generally adhered to the RDA. But Donald Layman, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois, suspected this number might be too low. Often regarded as a leader in protein requirements, Layman had been investigating how humans metabolized amino acids and whether there was a threshold amount required to trigger protein synthesis, the biological mechanism that spawns muscle. In 1999, Layman conducted experiments on rats and found that a specific amount of the essential amino acid leucine, contained in all protein, is necessary to kick-start synthesis. Leucine alone can’t create muscle—you need all nine essential amino acids to do that; leucine is just the catalyst that ignites the process. “Until you get enough leucine, protein synthesis won’t run at 100%,” Layman explains. When he extrapolated his data to humans, he determined that for someone like me to optimize post-workout muscle growth, I should be consuming upward of 30 grams of protein per meal, which provides 2.5 grams of leucine. (For that, a whey- or soy-based protein smoothie with a half-cup of yogurt added would do the trick; so would a four-ounce T-bone steak.)

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March 2016