Those of you who follow this blog undoubtedly know about Alan Aragon. Fact is, there’s no one in the field of nutrition I respect more. Alan holds a master’s degree in nutrition, consults with a legion of famous clients (including Pete Sampras, Derek Fisher, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin), and serves as the nutritional expert for Men’s Health Magazine. He also edits the excellent newsletter, Alan Aragon’s Research Review.
Most importantly, though, Alan Aragon is the epitome of an evidence-based professional. First and foremost, he is a student of the literature; a veritable walking encyclopedia on nutritional research. Ask him a question about a given nutritional topic and he’ll answer not only by rattling off the results of relevant studies, but also cite the names of the authors and the year of publication as well. It’s quite amazing, actually.
Yet what really sets Alan apart from the pack is his keen understanding as to how research should be applied in practice. He has an astute ability to sift through the body of literature and provide practical recommendations based on a person’s individual needs. His approach is always thoughtful and balanced; a voice of reason. That’s why when I need a get an opinion on a given nutritional topic, Alan’s the guy I turn to for answers. I’ve taught nutrition at the university level. I stay abreast of current dietary research. But Alan is on another level. Call him the “Yoda of nutrition”!
So it goes without saying that I’m pleased to have interviewed Alan for this blog post. Here he shares his knowledge on some of the most controversial and heavily debated topics in nutrition today. As always, Alan is not afraid to speak his mind. Sit back, read, and enjoy!
First, thanks so much for consenting to this interview Alan. For those who might not be aware of your work, can you tell the readers a little about your background.
Thanks for inviting me to unleash hell on your audience, Brad. Anyone who doesn’t know who I am has not done enough trolling through the seedy corners of the internet…. In all seriousness though, I’m an educator more than anything else. I have a passion for getting the truth out and seeing learners find their way out of the dark, so to speak. My main vehicle for this is writing, so I guess you could say I’m like Gary Taubes, except I’m not afraid to report the totality of evidence instead of choosing the bits that fit my brand. I used to do fitness training and counseling full-time, but now I maintain a small stable of clients to keep a foot in the trenches while the rest of me is immersed in the research.
You have written about post-exercise protein intake and state that it might not be as important as some claim. But you also discuss that the relative importance is a function of a person’s goals. Can you explain your position?
Let’s first set the stage with some background. Postexercise protein intake has been promoted in both lay and academic circles as an urgent, universally imperative tactic, but it’s rarely ever put in the proper perspective. The origin of the postexercise “anabolic window of opportunity” began with research examining postexercise carbohydrate timing on the rate of glycogen resynthesis after depletion. Delaying carbohydrate intake resulted in significantly less glycogen replenishment, but this finding was limited to an observation period of only a few hours. On a related tangent, subsequent research showed no difference in the amount of post-depletion glycogen replenishment at the 24-hour mark, despite major differences in dietary fat content (originally presumed to impede the process).
Protein got lumped into the supposed ‘magic’ of the postexercise period after studies showed that protein expedited glycogen resynthesis when co-ingested with carbohydrate (particularly in the case of insufficient carbohydrate). Furthermore, research has also shown that protein consumed in the postexercise period can work synergistically with the trained state to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS). However, these studies have two main limitations. First off, in most studies the protein was given to subjects who trained after an overnight fast, minus a pre-exercise meal. Secondly, the bulk of the research showing the benefit of immediate postexercise protein is acute (short-term). The majority of chronic (long-term) studies lasting several weeks has failed to corroborate the acute findings. Many people – even smart folks in the industry – are unaware of this, probably because the bulk of the research with null findings began in 2009 & onward.
This isn’t to say that the body of research on this topic is vast or comprehensive enough to be adamant about the unimportance of protein timing. However, it does provide grounds to assume a wider margin of timing flexibility as long as the total for the day is hit. Hopefully future investigations will compare the timing effects of carbohydrate co-ingested with larger protein doses that max-out acute MPS in trained subjects on diets that provide sufficient total protein that’s matched (including supplemental protein) between groups. Thus far, the research in this vein is scarce, but would help provide an important puzzle piece. In the mean time, hitting the total protein target for the day remains the primary objective, while timing and distribution of its constituent doses is the distantly secondary concern. At best, specific timing is the icing on the cake. But, you have to have the cake down-pat, otherwise the icing means crap.
Any benefit to consuming one type of protein over another (i.e. whey vs. casein)?
In the larger picture, the answer for the most part is no. Assuming that someone is consuming sufficient total daily protein from a variety of high-quality sources, then their bases will be covered, regardless of differences in protein type. Short-term data indicates the superior effects of whey (compared to casein or soy) on MPS at both the resting & postexercise periods. It’s been speculated that this is due to the greater overall rise in circulating amino acid (particularly leucine) levels yielded by whey. However, studies that dragged this type of comparison out for several weeks have shown equivocal outcomes. Whey, as opposed to casein or soy, has not emerged as the dominant winner for improving muscular adaptations to training. This serves to reinforce the principles that a) total daily amount of high-quality protein is of prime importance, b) differences seen shortly postexercise will not automatically translate to long-term adaptations, and c) the body of evidence is subject to evolve.
How important is macronutrient ratio with respect to weight loss?
People have varying total energy demands, and this can differently influence their macronutrient requirements. Ratios per se shouldn’t be the focus since they’re merely a default result of figuring absolute needs. For example, those with a moderate to high energy output (through formal training, non-exercise activity, or both), can typically consume a higher amount of carbohydrate and still lose weight. In contrast, sedentary or barely active folks have lower overall energy demands, thus a high carbohydrate intake wouldn’t likely be optimal. Nevertheless, there’s rather interesting, yet unreplicated research examining the effects of insulin sensitivity on weight loss (low-carb worked better for insulin-resistant subjects while high-carb worked better for insulin-sensitive subjects). Unfortunately, body composition wasn’t assessed, nor was there any structured exercise protocol. My hunch is that a well-designed, progressive training program would greatly diminish the influence of pre-existent differences in insulin sensitivity on weight loss.
Are you a proponent of cutting carbs for someone who wants to get really lean?
For losing fat past the initial stages, I’m a proponent of imposing a calorie deficit, and depending on the individual situation, this can involve a decrease in caloric intake, an increase in caloric output, or a combination of both. In the case of intake reduction, it doesn’t make sense to hack into critical nutrients – especially protein, whose requirement actually increases in a caloric deficit. So, for the most part, it’s carbs that will get the brunt of the reduction when it’s time to cut calories, while protein & fat remain somewhat stable (I typically set protein slightly higher than it needs to be). The degree of carb reduction varies individually, but the underlying aim is to consume the highest amount of carbs that still allow a satisfactory rate of fat loss. This approach accomplishes two main things – it enables the highest possible training performance (in terms of both strength & endurance), and also the lowest chance of undue hormonal downregulation from prolonged bouts of dieting. Carb reduction can then be strategically positioned as a trump card. In other words, carbs can always be incrementally reduced on an as-needed basis, depending on how results are proceeding. Starting off with minimal carbs from the get-go leaves fewer options in the toolbox to break through progress plateaus once training volume is maxed-out.
Intermittent fasting has gained popularity recently. What are your thoughts? Panacea or fad?
I think the popularity of intermittent fasting (IF) is, for the most part, a good vindication of science. Academics have known for a while now that research has not supported the lore of frequent, small meals to stoke the metabolism better than the equivalent in larger, fewer meals. Furthermore, research has not supported the idea that small, frequent meals are necessary for preserving muscle mass. The evidence as a whole has not indicated any threat to muscle preservation during dieting when meal frequency is reduced – either daily or intermittently through the week. In fact, some studies have shown superior lean mass retention with IF during hypocaloric conditions. However, this could have been due to measurement error inherent with bioelectrical impedance analysis. It should also be noted that the IF research thus far has not involved structured exercise protocols.
At the same time that IF has vindicated science, it also created its own over-zealous following who preaches its universal necessity for optimizing body composition and health. Viewed more objectively, IF presents an effective option for those who prefer the convenience and luxury of larger meals – not to mention, less preparation & transportation of meals through the day. Any special or superior metabolic effects of IF compared to conventional meal patterns are speculative at this point. While IF has consistently shined in the department of lean mass retention while dieting, its comparison to conventional meal frequency on gains in muscular strength & hypertrophy is uncharted ground, at least in formal research. There are plenty of hypotheses flying around this area, but nothing demonstrated under controlled conditions. For the time being, meal frequency for optimal size & strength gain remains mysterious. This mystery is likely to begin unfolding with short-term data that one camp will excitedly embrace. If history means anything, the acute data will be followed by long-term data that shakes the confidence in former beliefs. Either way it goes, I’ve got my popcorn ready.
On a final note, I’ve seen the greatest client success come from letting individual preference dictate meal frequency. Some people do great on small frequent meals, others do great on the opposite (and all points in between). The theoretical advantages of any given dietary approach go straight out the window if it’s at odds with someone’s personal preference & adherence capability.
Tell us a little about your research review and how you came to start the service.
In a nutshell, my research review (AARR) is a monthly romp through the current and past research on nutrition, training, and supplementation. I do my best to present both the theory and application of the concepts and findings. The idea to start AARR was born from my own dissatisfaction with my knowledge level despite having vast client experience, multiple training certifications, a graduate degree in nutrition, and being active in attending & presenting continuing education lectures. I felt like there had to be some way to further “force” myself toward the top tier of expertise. Putting AARR together each month was the logical solution for my self-directed learning tendencies. I’m now enjoying the process of sharing my ongoing enlightenment with like-minded folks inside and outside of the field.
Great stuff, Alan. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your views!
Check out Alan’s blog Here
Check out Alan’s excellent research review (AARR) Here
Myths just made life a lot harder. That’s because fitness and nutrition misinformation fool men and women into being confused and frustrated in their journey to creating a healthier lifestyle. Even when you’re already achieving results, a small myth or hear say conversation can throw you off. Thankfully, I’m about to inform you about fitness and nutrition misinformation.
Here are five fitness and nutrition fallacies you can forget about for good.
Myth #1 - Dude! You have to eat “X” amount of protein…
The myth we usually hear about protein intake is, we have to eat an “X” amount of protein at each meal because only an “X” amount of protein can be absorbed by the body at a meal. Let this fabrication stop here, once and for all. The body has an extremely high capacity for amino acid absorption. Even if you absorb 100% of the amino acids from a meal containing protein, doesn’t mean it will all reach the skeletal muscle & induce muscle mass. In fact, a very small percentage is used for that role because other organs and tissues extract them and utilize them. (1,2) Studies have shown that it appears that maximizing skeletal muscle protein synthesis requires approximately 15g of essential amino acids (EAA). (3) It has been shown that the amino acid leucine is responsible for the stimulatory effect of muscle protein synthesis and 15g of EAA would contain 3.2g of leucine. For example, whey protein is 12% leucine; therefore, about 27g of whey protein would need to be consumed to reach that threshold for maximal anabolism. So really what it comes down to is the maximum benefit level for protein at a meal varies depending upon the source of protein and the leucine content at each meal.
The bottom line is there is no set number to how much protein one should consume at each meal. Everyone’s body is different and if you have specific goals, your protein intake could vary. Shoot to eat your body weight in grams of protein daily.
If you’re 200 pounds, then have 200 grams of protein a day and divide that number by however many meals you eat a day. This is a good starting point and if you’re eating animal proteins this should get you over the leucine threshold.
Myth#2 - Man! How many times have I told you fasted cardio burns more fat than fed cardio!
Ahh the ever so popular fasted cardio burns more fat than regular cardio myth. Fasted cardio has been around for decades and the theory behind it is by being on an empty stomach, more fatty acids will be dumped into the blood stream and be burned as fat. Also, the notion of being glycogen depleted (no carbs stored in muscle and liver) will maximize pure fat oxidation. Not so fast Amigos! New research has shown that lipolysis (fatty acid release from fat tissue) is not the rate limiting step of fat burning; it’s the oxidation process (fatty acids being burned by tissues). This means the oxidation process is either the same or better if you eat before cardio. This study found that the actual rate limiting step of fat loss isn’t any different or could be better. The reason why it could be better is because studies have shown greater thermogenic (body causing heat) response to exercise when you eat before-hand (4).
In the end, studies have shown there are really no differences in fat loss, whether it be fasted or after a meal.
People get too focused on the substrates to burning fat. They think we have to be glycogen depleted because we don’t want to burn carbs, just fat. But, it doesn’t really matter because over a 24 hour period there’s no difference. You burn more fat during cardio; you burn more carbs during the day. You burn more carbs during cardio; you burn more fat during the day.
Your body makes these adjustments and this is something people don’t really understand. Also, you preserve more muscle mass with a meal in you beforehand and have more energy during cardio to burn more overall calories.
Myth #3 - I’m a woman and if I lift weights, I’ll become buff like a guy right?
Wrong!!! How many times have we heard this one before? This is one of the biggest fitness dogmas that have been around and it still persists. I’ll start off with some science to back my point up: Women on average have about one tenth the testosterone of men, the level of testosterone varies greatly among women and influences women’s strength development more than is typical in men. Women who have higher testosterone levels may have a greater potential for strength and power development than other women. An individual woman’s testosterone level fluctuates, so a woman who is near the upper limit of her testosterone threshold may have an advantage in developing strength compared with other women. Also, Men average about 39 to 48 lbs more lean body mass and 6 to 13 lbs less fat than women. This is why a woman must not fall into the myth of her becoming buff if she uses weights. Truth is, women can build a very sexy and feminine body by lifting weights.
They could also reap the benefits of increasing their metabolic rate, strengthen bone and joints, improve confidence and self esteem, and increase libido. So, step off the treadmills and ellipticals and get under some iron!
Myth #4 - Hey bro! You have to eat 7-8 times a day and every 2 hours!
This myth has been around a long time in the fitness industry and yet we are still confused about meal frequency. We always hear that it takes 7-8 meals to get big or shredded, sometimes even 10, which is absolutely ridiculous! Then we have the whole eat every 2-3 hours myth. Well, time to stick a fork in this one too folks. A study found that after consuming a balanced meal rich in protein, carbs, and fats showed that the duration of protein synthesis (the way you synthesize new muscle) lasted approximately 3 hours long. This shows that the duration of a complete and balanced meal prolongs the duration of protein synthesis.
What was interesting about this study is once protein synthesis levels went back to baseline after 3 hours; there were still plasma amino acids and plasma leucine levels still elevated.
This data was also supported by another study and finding showing that the duration of protein synthesis in response to a mixture of amino acids was only 2 hours long even though the essential amino acids were saturated for six hours! This is why it’s not a good idea to eat every 2-3 hours because you have amino acids that are still elevated throughout your body and it doesn’t make sense to eat another meal and try and promote a rise in protein synthesis again. It could actually be counterproductive.
Therefore, you might be better off consuming larger does of protein at each meal and wait longer between protein doses, rather than the typical 2-3 hours. I recommend having 4-6 meals every 4-6 hours instead of 7-10 meals and eating every 2-3 hours (5).
Myth #5 - It’s better to do high reps, rather than low reps and vice versa. You know that right?
Why must we live in a world of ‘hear say’ and then completely negate everything else, without even doing some research or experimentation ourselves? If someone ever tells you that it’s better to do high reps, rather than low reps and vice versa. Just nod your head and walk away. I believe that every rep range from 2-20 (and even higher in some cases) has value and there are benefits to every range.
Lower reps – 1-5
This range creates more contractile muscle tissue, trains the muscle to store more glycogen, allows the muscle to handle the biggest load which activates all fibers, and helps develop overall strength to handle more weight and thus overloading the muscle even more and creating more hypertrophy (muscle building).
Mid range reps – 6-12
This rep range is the king of all rep schemes because it has many of the benefits from higher reps and many of the benefits of lower reps.
Studies show that this rep range is the best for causing the most hypertrophy. The reason being the rep range is low enough to have our muscles under heavy loads and enough reps are performed to have them under tension with those heavy loads.
High reps – 15+
High repetitions cause enormous glycogen depletion during the workout. The body will compensate for this in the post workout period by increasing the amount of glycogen (stored carbs in muscle and liver) the muscle stores. Since glycogen has a strong affinity for water, this means more water from carbs will be stored into your muscle cells and thus induce more protein synthesis and causing the muscle cells to stretch.
This is a good thing because when muscle cells are volatized, there is greater potential for nutrient assimilation and promotion of growth factors, thus leading to greater anabolic effects (6).
Now that I have told you the truth about these fitness and nutrition myths, you should be able to have a sigh of relief or possibly be pissed off at the person that has been telling you these myths all along. Not to sound like a smart ass or anything, but just because someone tells you something, don’t automatically assume it’s true. Have them explain it to you, so that it will make sense. Make sure there is some science or a study behind the claims, science doesn’t lie. Also, do your own research or experiment yourself.
There’s nothing better than learning through trial and error. Hope you learned something today my friends, I’m out!
(1) Paddon-Jones D et al. Amino acid ingestion improves muscle protein synthesis in the young and elderly. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2004
(2) Tipton KD et al. Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. Am J Physiol. 1999
(3) Norton LE, Layman DK. Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. J Nutr. 2006
(4) Schoenfeld B. Fasted Cardio. J Strength & Conditioning
(5) Norton LE. Protein: How much and how often? 2009
(6) Baechle, Thomas R and Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning/ National Strength and Conditioning Association. USA: 2008 by the National Strength and Conditioning Association
It goes like this, a client looking to lead a healthier life hires me, a nutritionist, to help him improve his diet. I analyze what he’s been eating, factor in his food preferences, and together we create an eating plan that fits his lifestyle and goals.
Soon after, he’s noticeably leaner and more energetic a happy customer. That’s when the trouble starts. After a coworker asks him for the details of his diet, my client suddenly finds himself in a heated interrogation. Doesn’t your nutritionist know red meat causes cancer? And that potatoes cause diabetes? Shouldn’t he tell you to eat less salt, to prevent high blood pressure?
Myths just made my job a lot harder. That’s because nutrition misinformation fools people into being confused and frustrated in their quest to eat healthily, even if they’re already achieving great results. Thankfully, you’re about to be enlightened by science. Here are five food fallacies you can forget about for good.
Myth #1: “High protein intake is harmful to your kidneys.”
Back in 1983, researchers first discovered that eating more protein increases your “glomerular filtration rate,” or GFR. Think of GFR as the amount of blood your kidneys are filtering per minute. From this finding, many scientists made the leap that a higher GFR places your kidneys under greater stress.
What science really shows:
Nearly 2 decades ago, Dutch researchers found that while a protein-rich meal did boost GFR, it didn’t have an adverse effect on overall kidney function. In fact, there’s zero published research showing that downing hefty amounts of protein—specifically, up to 1.27 grams per pound of body weight a day—damages healthy kidneys.
The bottom line:
As a rule of thumb, shoot to eat your target body weight in grams of protein daily. For example, if you’re a chubby 200 pounds and want to be a lean 180, then have 180 grams of protein a day. Likewise if you’re a skinny 150 pounds but want to be a muscular 180.
Myth #2: “Sweet potatoes are better for you than white potatoes.”
Because most Americans eat the highly processed version of the white potato—for instance, french fries and potato chips—consumption of this root vegetable has been linked to obesity and an increased diabetes risk. Meanwhile, sweet potatoes, which are typically eaten whole, have been celebrated for being rich in nutrients and also having a lower glycemic index than their white brethren.
What science really shows:
White potatoes and sweet potatoes have complementary nutritional differences; one isn’t necessarily better than the other. For instance, sweet potatoes have more fiber and vitamin A, but white potatoes are higher in essential minerals, such as iron, magnesium, and potassium. As for the glycemic index, sweet potatoes are lower on the scale, but baked white potatoes typically aren’t eaten without cheese, sour cream, or butter. These toppings all contain fat, which lowers the glycemic index of a meal.
The bottom line:
The form in which you consume a potato—for instance, a whole baked potato versus a processed potato that’s used to make chips—is more important than the type of spud.
Myth #3: “Red meat causes cancer.”
In a 1986 study, Japanese researchers discovered cancer developing in rats that were fed “heterocyclic amines,” compounds that are generated from overcooking meat under high heat. And since then, some studies of large populations have suggested a potential link between meat and cancer.
What science really shows:
No study has ever found a direct cause-and-effect relationship between red-meat consumption and cancer. As for the population studies, they’re far from conclusive. That’s because they rely on broad surveys of people’s eating habits and health afflictions, and those numbers are simply crunched to find trends, not causes.
The bottom line:
Don’t stop grilling. Meat lovers who are worried about the supposed risks of grilled meat don’t need to avoid burgers and steak; rather, they should just trim off the burned or overcooked sections of the meat before eating.
Myth #4: “High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is more fattening than regular sugar is.”
In a 1968 study, rats that were fed large amounts of fructose developed high levels of fat in their bloodstreams. Then, in 2002, University of California at Davis researchers published a well-publicized paper noting that Americans’ increasing consumption of fructose, including that in HFCS, paralleled our skyrocketing rates of obesity.
What science really shows:
Both HFCS and sucrose—better known as table sugar—contain similar amounts of fructose. For instance, the two most commonly used types of HFCS are HFCS-42 and HFCS-55, which are 42 and 55 percent fructose, respectively. Sucrose is almost chemically identical, containing 50 percent fructose. This is why the University of California at Davis scientists determined fructose intakes from both HFCS and sucrose. The truth is, there’s no evidence to show any differences in these two types of sugar. Both will cause weight gain when consumed in excess.
The bottom line:
HFCS and regular sugar are empty-calorie carbohydrates that should be consumed in limited amounts. How? By keeping soft drinks, sweetened fruit juices, and prepackaged desserts to a minimum.
Myth #5: “Salt causes high blood pressure and should be avoided.”
In the 1940s, a Duke University researcher named Walter Kempner, M.D., became famous for using salt restriction to treat people with high blood pressure. Later, studies confirmed that reducing salt could help reduce hypertension.
What science really shows:
Large-scale scientific reviews have determined there’s no reason for people with normal blood pressure to restrict their sodium intake. Now, if you already have high blood pressure, you may be “salt sensitive.” As a result, reducing the amount of salt you eat could be helpful.However, it’s been known for the past 20 years that people with high blood pressure who don’t want to lower their salt intake can simply consume more potassium-containing foods.
Because it’s really the balance of the two minerals that matters. In fact, Dutch researchers determined that a low potassium intake has the same impact on your blood pressure as high salt consumption does. And it turns out, the average guy consumes 3,100 milligrams (mg) of potassium a day—1,600 mg less than recommended.
The bottom line:
Strive for a potassium-rich diet, which you can achieve by eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and legumes. For instance, spinach, broccoli, bananas, white potatoes, and most types of beans each contain more than 400 mg potassium per serving.
The following represents the entirety of Chapter 8 from The Protein Book: A Complete Guide for the Coach and Athlete.
Before looking at whole proteins and protein powders, I’d like to address some of the most common controversies that tend to surround the high protein intakes typically seen in and recommended to athletes. The major ones are kidney function, bone health, and heart disease and colon cancer. Related to the issue of bone health, I’m also going to address the topic of metabolic acidosis and the impact that dietary protein intake has upon it.
A common criticism of high protein intakes/diets is the concern that they are damaging to the kidneys. This belief seems to stem from the fact that, in individuals with preexisting kidney damage, protein intake often has to be reduced to prevent further development of the disease. Incorrectly, this has been turned around to suggest that high-protein intakes are damaging to the kidneys (1).
There is at best a weak case to be made for a risk of high protein intakes on kidney function; quite in fact, some research suggesting a beneficial effect of higher protein intakes on kidney function (2). Simply put, the adaptations to kidney function that are often cited as indicating ‘strain’ or damage are more likely to simply be normal adaptive effects of varying protein intake (1).
Unfortunately, very little research has directly examined the impact of high protein intakes on kidney function in athletes. One study examined the impact of 2.8 g/kg protein on the kidney function of bodybuilders, no negative effect was seen (3). To my knowledge, higher intakes have not been studied.
Empirically, it’s worth considering that athletes have been habitually consuming large amounts of protein for at least several decades without any reported increase in the incidence of kidney problems. If such a problem were going to occur, it seems likely that it would have shown up by now. While this certainly doesn’t prove that high protein intakes aren’t potentially detrimental to kidney function, the data in support of that idea would seem to be lacking both from a scientific and real-world point of view.
Interestingly, while it’s always been stated that high dietary protein intakes increases fluid requirements, this idea appears to have originated from a military study examining nitrogen balance under conditions of water and energy restriction (1). There is no indication that individuals who are sufficiently hydrated need to go out of their way to increase fluid intake when they are consuming large amounts of protein.
Perhaps one of the most pervasive criticisms of high protein intakes has to do with the impact of protein on bone health and calcium status. This goes back to early nutritional studies which gave purified protein diets and saw a loss of calcium from the body.
Later studies, using whole food proteins (which included other nutrients such as phosphorous) found very different effects. Frankly, the early studies on this topic are irrelevant to normal human nutrition since the consumption of protein in the total absence of other nutrients would be extremely rare; all whole food proteins and protein powders contain micronutrients.
The impact of protein on overall calcium status is more complex than having a simple positive or negative effect as dietary protein can impact on both calcium excretion as well as calcium absorption and utilization. It is the combined effect of these processes which determines the end result in terms of bone health.
In epidemiological studies, a high intake of animal protein increases the risk of bone fractures; as well, a high ratio of animal to vegetable protein intake has also been associated with an increased risk of bone loss (4). In contrast, high intakes of protein improve bone healing, following a fracture for example. This is mediated both by increased calcium absorption as well increased levels of insulin-like growth factor 1(IGF-1), a hormone involved in tissue growth (5). How can this contradiction be reconciled?
Fundamentally, it’s too simplistic to look at protein intake in isolation in terms of its effects on bone health as the protein content of food interacts with other nutrients in that food or in the total diet (6). For example, recent studies suggest an interaction between protein and calcium intake.
When calcium intake is low, high protein intakes appear to have negative effects on bone health. In contrast, when calcium and vitamin D intake are sufficient, protein intake has a beneficial effect on bone health (7). This suggests that ensuring adequate calcium intake (through a sufficient intake of dairy foods, or calcium supplements) is crucial for bone health when a high protein intake is being consumed.
This most likely serves to explain the above contradiction. In the studies where dietary protein intake was found to have a negative impact on bone health, there were other dietary factors playing a role. Calcium or Vitamin D intake may have been insufficient causing an overall negative effect. However, when sufficient calcium and Vitamin D are provided (as they typically are following bone injury), dietary protein has a beneficial impact.
Related to the issue of dietary protein and bone health is a concept referred to as net renal acid load (NRAL). When foods are consumed, they have the potential to produce either a net acidic or net alkaline (basic) effect, which the body, primarily the kidneys has to deal with. NRAL refers to the total amount of acid produced that the kidneys have to process.
Simplistically, protein foods tend to increase the net renal acid load, as does a high intake of sodium relative to potassium. In contrast, fruits and vegetables, along with foods high in potassium, tend to buffer this net acid load and have an overall alkalizing effect on the body. With an excess of acid forming foods in the diet relative to the number of base producing foods, a metabolic acidosis can occur.
The modern diet, with its high reliance on animal proteins and high intake of sodium, along with a low intake of fruits, vegetables and potassium is thought to generate a sub-clinical metabolic acidosis (8). Even a slight increase in the overall acid status of the body can have a number of negative health effects, not the least of which is an impact on hormones important to athletes (9). Ensuring sufficient intake of basic foods (fruits and vegetables) to balance out the acid produced from a high protein intake is one key to avoiding this problem.
From both a bone health and performance standpoint, any athlete consuming a high protein diet must ensure sufficient intake of other foods including plenty of fruits and vegetables to buffer any potential negative effects (10). Using a potassium salt or mixed sodium/potassium salt to ensure adequate potassium intake to offset the high levels of sodium in the modern diet is not a bad idea either.
As a final comment related to this issue, it has been suggested that the impact of diet on the body’s acid balance can impact on exercise performance. It’s well established that low-carbohydrate diets tend to decrease the body’s ability to buffer acid produced during high intensity exercise, for example. This hurts performance during those types of events. Reducing protein intake and increasing carbohydrate intake for 3-5 days prior to an important event has been theorized to increase exercise performance in events lasting 3-7 minutes (11).
Colon Cancer/Heart Disease/Overall Health
A large meat intake, especially red meat, is often claimed to be involved in the development of a number of diseases, especially heart disease and colon cancer. A great deal of this research is based on observational work where individuals consuming a meat-based diet are more likely to get such diseases. As well, there is ample evidence to suggest health benefits with vegetarian diets (12).
However, as with the protein and bone health issue, you can’t simply isolate protein/meat intake from other aspects of the diet. This is important when looking at the research as most of it tends to be epidemiological in nature, that is it looks at large populations of individuals and tries to draws correlations between different measured variables. This can lead researchers to draw incorrect conclusions.
For example, modern meat based diets are also typically very high in fat with typical cuts of red meat being high in saturated fat, a known risk factor for various diseases. In contrast, lean red meats, trimmed of visible fat, have a drastically different impact on the risk of cardiac disease (13). As well, unprocessed lean red meat doesn’t increase markers of inflammation or oxidation (14). In addition to potential cancer promoting factors, meat also contains a number of cancer preventing factors (15). Replacement of carbohydrate with lean red meat has also been shown to lower of blood pressure (16). The key here, of course, is that lean red meat, as opposed to the fattier cuts commonly consumed were studied.
Diets high in meat are often low in fruits and vegetables (meaning a low intake of important micronutrients as well as fiber) and research suggests that it is the lack of those foods (fruits, vegetables) more so than the presence of red meat that is responsible for any increased cancer risk (17). High fat intakes have also been associated with low food variety and low intakes of fruits and vegetables (18); this would further contribute to the apparent link between consuming fatty meat and health risk.
Put differently, there is going to be a fairly large difference in the overall impact of a diet that is high in animal protein, high in fat, low in fruits and vegetables (and thus low in fiber and other important nutrients) which may be accompanied with other health risks such as inactivity, being obese, etc. This would be held in complete contrast to an athletic diet containing large amounts of lean meats along with a large fruit and vegetable intake, high levels of activity, maintenance of a low level of body fat, etc.
As I mentioned above with regards to bone health any diet high in animal protein must be accompanied by a high intake of fruits and vegetables. As well, leaner cuts of meat (especially red meat) should be chosen whenever possible.
A number of health risks have been attributed to the consumption of high protein intakes, this includes potential problems with the kidneys, bone health, metabolic acidosis and certain types of cancers. For the most part, these risks tend to be extremely overstated.
While high protein intakes may cause problems when there is pre-existing kidney disease, no research suggests that high protein intakes cause kidney damage. While there is potential for high protein intakes to cause body calcium loss, this appears to only occur when calcium intake is insufficient in the first place; high protein intakes with high calcium intakes improves bone health. Ensuring sufficient vegetable intake along with a high protein intake is a key aspect not only to bone health but to preventing a small metabolic acidosis which may occur when large amounts of protein are consumed by themselves.
Concerns over heart disease and cancer are more related to the high fat content of many cuts of meat, along with other nutritional factors such as insufficient fruit and vegetable intake that contributes. Other lifestyle factors that typically accompany the consumption of higher fat cuts of meat are also a likely contributor to the overall health risk. The consumption of lean cuts of meat has actually been shown to improve overall health; both athletic and diets for general health should ideally contain plenty of fruits and vegetables for this reason.
- Martin WF et. al. Dietary protein intake and renal function. Nutr Metab (2005) 2: 25.
- Millward DJ. Optimal intakes of protein in the human diet. Proc Nutr Soc. (1999) 58(2): 403-13.
- Poortmans JR and Dellalieux O. Do regular high protein diets have potential health risks on kidney function in athletes? Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2000) 10(1):28-38.
- Dawson-Hughes B. Calcium and protein in bone health. Proc Nutr Soc. (2003) 62(2): 505-9.
- Bonjour JP. Dietary protein: an essential nutrient for bone health. J Am Coll Nutr. (2005) 24(6 Suppl): 526S-36S.
- Massey LK. Dietary animal and plant protein and human bone health: a whole foods approach. J Nutr. (2003) 133(3):862S-865S.
- Dawson-Hughes B. Interaction of dietary calcium and protein in bone health in humans. J Nutr. (2003) 133(3):852S-854S.
- Frassetto L et. al. Diet, evolution and aging–the pathophysiologic effects of the post-agricultural inversion of the potassium-to-sodium and base-to-chloride ratios in the human diet. Eur J Nutr. (2001) 40(5):200-13.
- Wiederkehr M, Krapf R. Metabolic and endocrine effects of metabolic acidosis in humans. Swiss Med Wkly. (2001) 131(9-10):127-32.
- Barzel US and LK Massey Excess dietary protein can adversely affect bone. J Nutr. (1998) 128(6):1051-3.
- Fogelholm M. Dairy products, meat and sports performance. Sports Med. (2003) 33(8):615-31.
- Sabate J. The contribution of vegetarian diets to human health. Forum Nutr. (2003) 56:218-20. 13. Li D et. al. Lean meat and heart health. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. (2005) 14(2):113-9.
- Hodgson JM et. al. Increased lean red meat intake does not elevate markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in humans. J Nutr. (2007) 137(2):363-7. Links
- Biesalski HK.Meat and cancer: meat as a component of a healthy diet.
- Eur J Clin Nutr. (2002) 56 Suppl 1:S2-11.
- Hodgson JM et. al. Partial substitution of carbohydrate intake with protein intake from lean red meat lowers blood pressure in hypertensive persons.Am J Clin Nutr. (2006) 83(4):780-7.
- Hill M. Meat, cancer and dietary advice to the public. Eur J Clin Nutr. (2002) 56 Suppl 1:S36-41
- Elmadfa I, Freisling H. Fat intake, diet variety and health promotion. Forum Nutr. (2005) (57):1-10.
Protein not sugar stimulates cells keeping us thin and awake, new study suggests.
A new study has found that protein and not sugar activates the cells responsible for keeping us awake and burning calories. The research, published in the scientific journal Neuron, has implications for understanding obesity and sleep disorders.
Wakefulness and energy expenditure rely on “orexin cells”, which secrete a stimulant called orexin/hypocretin in the brain. Reduced activity in these unique cells results in narcolepsy and has been linked to weight gain.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge compared actions of different nutrients on orexin cells. They found that amino acids – nutrients found in proteins such as egg whites – stimulate orexin neurons much more than other nutrients.
“Sleep patterns, health, and body weight are intertwined. Shift work, as well as poor diet, can lead to obesity,” said lead researcher Dr Denis Burdakov of the Department of Pharmacology and Institute of Metabolic Science. “Electrical impulses emitted by orexin cells stimulate wakefulness and tell the body to burn calories. We wondered whether dietary nutrients alter those impulses.”
To explore this, the scientists highlighted the orexin cells (which are scarce and difficult to find) with genetically targeted fluorescence in mouse brains. They then introduced different nutrients, such as amino acid mixtures similar to egg whites, while tracking orexin cell impulses.
They discovered that amino acids stimulate orexin cells. Previous work by the group found that glucose blocks orexin cells (which was cited as a reason for after-meal sleepiness), and so the researchers also looked at interactions between sugar and protein. They found that amino acids stop glucose from blocking orexin cells (in other words, protein negated the effects of sugar on the cells).
These findings may shed light on previously unexplained observations showing that protein meals can make people feel less calm and more alert than carbohydrate meals.
“What is exciting is to have a rational way to ‘tune’ select brain cells to be more or less active by deciding what food to eat,” Dr Burdakov said. “Not all brain cells are simply turned on by all nutrients, dietary composition is critical.
“To combat obesity and insomnia in today’s society, we need more information on how diet affects sleep and appetite cells. For now, research suggests that if you have a choice between jam on toast, or egg whites on toast, go for the latter! Even though the two may contain the same number of calories, having a bit of protein will tell the body to burn more calories out of those consumed.”
Great article by one of my favorite pro natural bodybuilders, Eric Helms (Pro Natural Bodybuilder, BS, CSCS, CPT, PES) about protein intake and the research to support the truth.
By Alan Aragon (via)
A longstanding belief in fitness circles is that the body can only use a certain amount of protein per meal, and the excess is either oxidized or excreted. The ballpark range thrown around is 20-30 grams, with 30 grams being perhaps the most common figure.
This guideline has led many trainees to go through the pains of consuming multiple doses of protein throughout the day, banking that it will maximize muscle anabolism or muscle retention.
Well, true or not, this concept fits in nicely with another longstanding fitness “rule” that you have to eat at least six times per day in order to keep the body’s metabolism revving high. Since the meal frequency and metabolism dogma has been thoroughly debunked [1-5], it’s time to dig into the topic of whether there’s a limit to effective protein dosing, and if so, what that limit might be.
Looking at simple logic first
Let’s imagine an experiment involving two relatively lean 200 lb individuals. For the purposes of this illustration, I’ll assign a daily amount of protein known to adequately support the needs of the athletic population. We’ll give Person A 150 g protein spread over five meals at 30 g each. We’ll give Person B the same amount of protein, but in a single meal. Let’s say that this meal consists of a 16 oz steak, chased with a shake containing two scoops of protein powder.
If we really believed that only 30 g protein can be handled by the body in a single meal, then Person B would eventually run into protein deficiency symptoms because he supposedly is only absorbing a total of 30 g out of the 150 g we’re giving him. At 30 g/day, he’s only getting 0.33 g/kg of bodyweight, which isn’t even half of the already-low RDA of 0.8 g/kg. If the body worked this way, the human species would have quickly become extinct. The human body is more efficient and effective than we give it credit for.
The body will take all the sweet time it needs to effectively digest and absorb just about whatever dose you give it. Person A will have shorter digestion periods per meal in order to effectively absorb and utilize the small meals. Person B will have a longer digestion period in order to effectively absorb and utilize the large meal. While the truth in this logic seems self-evident, the important question is whether or not it’s supported by scientific research. Let’s look at the evidence, starting with immediate-effect (acute) studies, then move on to the longer-term trials.
The most epicly delicious protein shake ever concocted. I would of used chocolate whey, but I am all out currently so I had to make it work with the cocoa, sweetener, vanilla whey and syrup. Oh, but it was delicious. It was like drinking a Reese’s peanut butter cup. In fact it was so sweet I couldn’t even finish it. Not to mention there was quite a lot of it. I placed rest of it in the freezer and will enjoy it as ice cream later. Also, using almond milk as opposed to skim milk will keep the carb count low for it. Nutritional Profile
The most epicly delicious protein shake ever concocted.
I would of used chocolate whey, but I am all out currently so I had to make it work with the cocoa, sweetener, vanilla whey and syrup. Oh, but it was delicious. It was like drinking a Reese’s peanut butter cup. In fact it was so sweet I couldn’t even finish it. Not to mention there was quite a lot of it. I placed rest of it in the freezer and will enjoy it as ice cream later.
Also, using almond milk as opposed to skim milk will keep the carb count low for it.
ehekic asked: Your blog is one of the most informational and supportive I have ever seen. I've learned most of what I know about nutrition from reading your archives, and comparing it to what other pages are out there offers no contest. Yours is an accessible, readable primer to nutrition, fitness, and general health and wellness. So, as someone who, until recently, was pretty generally ignorant of all of these topics, thank you so much for finally making it seem manageable. You even offer motivation to supplement it. Thanks for everything you do.
Also, what're the top three ways you take whey protein? Do you use it principally as part of bigger recipes, or do you ever mix it into premade items, like milk or ice cream or something?
Thank you! Receiving a message such as this makes me feel that I am actually helping people further their efforts to become healthier, fitter versions of themselves.
For a little background information: I spent many of my overweight years unable to distinguish good, factual information from misleading research or bro-science. In the last year I’ve focused a lot of my fitness/nutrition studying into asking questions. Why and what being the two I use most frequently to try and determine if what I’m reading or whom I’m talking to can be considered actuality and why it’s a fact. In a large profit industry like this one there are a lot of companies whose purpose is to give you a result, present you with a hook, reel you in and never let you get to the honest outcome. Their job is to mislead and misdirect.
When I started my blog I wanted to cut through the bullshit and give people what I never could find early on. The truth.
Alright, alright.. I could talk about how bogus the majority of this industry is until I was blue in the face, but you get the general idea of my views. Now when it comes to the way I blog I don’t post it unless I can back it up with scientific research and facts. I will always try and tell the people who read my blog honest answers and direct you in a manner that gives you the knowledge to better yourself. Thanks for appreciating that.
Moving on to the rest of your message.. mmm, whey protein.
You asked if I mix my whey protein in with anything else. Oh, heck yes! I absolutely mix it in with recipes and other pre-made foods. I make and eat delicious stacks of protein pancakes about every other day. They have been a nutritional saving grace for me. When I eat them I feel as if I can enjoy a very healthy food that is so delicious I feel like I’m cheating while on a cut (strict fat loss nutrition plan for lowering body fat).
My top two, since I don’t have three, ways that I take my whey protein:
- Recipes - pancakes, ice cream, oatmeal, brownies, cheesecake
- Shakes - 2 scoops and mix with milk for calorie/macronutrient density.. not to mention taste
I don’t endorse products often. In fact, this will be the first time I ever directly tell any of the followers of my blog that they
should need to purchase something for any reason whatsoever.
First, let me start by saying that my philosophy on standard protein bars (Detour, Builders, Pure Protein, etc.) is that they are just glorified candy bars. In fact, they’re worse than candy bars in my mindset for one major reason. Deceit. You think you’re eating something healthy when you completely are not. Yes, they have a good source of protein in them unlike their candy bar little brothers, but it comes at a very hefty price — 200+ calories in each one, 30g+ of processed carbohydrates, only 2g fiber if any, 20g+ of fat, 10g+ of sugar. Wow! I can eat a piece of lean beef that’s 300 calories, 30g of protein, 0g carbs, 0g sugar. Which do you think is a better protein source?
Alright, I didn’t make this post to get on a soapbox about how bad most protein bars are and how you should be eating whole foods over bars anyways.. yadda, yadda, yadda. What I wanted to do was tell you that if you want a protein bar, go buy Quest’s protein bars right now.
The macronutrient makeup of these bars is phenomenal.
- Calories: 170
- Fat: 6g
- Carbohydrates: 24g
- Fiber: 19g
- Net Carbs: 5g
- Sugar: 1g
- Protein: 20g
I bought one box of the Chocolate Brownie and have tried all of the other bars. The box of Chocolate Brownie protein bars is by far the best tasting, then Apple Pie, Peanut Butter Supreme, Vanilla Almond Crunch and then Mixed Berry to round it out. I won’t lie to you, the taste of the majority of them (outside of the Chocolate Brownie) is not incredible, but it’s good. I mean, it’s not candy bar tasting, but it tastes better than most protein bars I’ve ever had. If you do end up buying them please also note that after warming them up in the microwave for about 10-15 seconds they are much better tasting and the consistency is much more to my personal liking. So, my fellow warriors, if you are going to need something in the future like an in-between snack, a protein source while on the run or even want to use it as a desert, which is what I often times do, then these protein bars need to be on your “to buy” list right now.
Unfortunately they are not available in stores, but you can click the title link to visit their site for more info and to order.
I give The Spartan Warrior seal of approval for Quest Protein Bars.