Unravel the Mystery of Protein

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How to Build Muscles the Right Way

By: Dean Ochi, ATC, CSCS

You've probably heard so many different things about protein from so many different people that now you don't know what to believe.

Sure, you know about protein powders and bars, but why are some people so hyped about protein as a performance-enhancing supplement? You probably have tons of questions about protein and want to separate the fact from the fiction. We're here to help.

This Q & A gives you the real info on protein and how it can help you achieve your athletic goals. So, read on and join the protein craze.

Q: What is protein, and why is it important to athletes?
A: Protein is composed of amino acids. It is very important to athletes because protein both builds and repairs muscle tissue. Picture a wall built of bricks. Each brick represents the amino acids in foods and supplements. When you exercise—whether lifting weights or running a marathon—you essentially break down the wall brick by brick or amino acid by amino acid.

To rebuild the wall or to build it taller and stronger, you need to add more bricks (amino acids). So there is a great need for additional protein after exercise. Think of it this way—if you continually break down the wall without repairing it, eventually, the wall weakens and becomes a smaller wall. Now your walls are muscle tissue, built by protein. That's why you need protein in your diet.

Q: Do certain types of athletes need more protein?
A: Athletes in anaerobic sports (foot-ball, baseball and basketball) need to consume slightly more protein than endurance athletes. However, because anaerobic athletes have a tendency to eat more than endurance athletes, the need for protein supplementation may end up being the same for both. Endurance athletes still need to consume protein at a higher rate than non-athletes due to the muscular breakdown caused by intense exercise.

Q: How do I know if I'm getting enough protein?
A: Use the following formula to determine how much protein you need per day:

REQUIRED DAILY PROTEIN INTAKE = 0.81 or 0.91 grams of protein x pounds of body weight

Example (for a 165-pound athlete): 0.91 x 165 = 150.15 grams of protein per day

It is very important to understand that you will get a substantial portion of the protein you need from your regular diet. Here's how to determine exactly how much protein you are getting from your meals.

Protein has four calories per gram. The average non-vegetarian diet should be about 15 percent protein.

Example: 3,000 calories total (caloric total for one day) 3,000 cal x 0.15 (the percent of protein in the diet) = 450 calories from protein, 450 cal/ 4 cal per gram protein = 112.5 grams of protein

Thus, a 165-pound athlete who consumes 3,000 calories a day would have to supplement about 37.5 grams of protein per day to reach his or her required daily protein intake.

Q: What are my best sources of protein?
A: Protein supplements are the easiest sources of protein, but not necessarily the "best." It is possible to get all the protein you need without using supplements. If you choose this route, organize your diet around high protein foods. It is also a good idea when trying to increase your protein intake to replace some of your regular "filler" foods with high protein foods. For example, eat scrambled eggs instead of pancakes for breakfast; use peanut butter on your toast rather than butter; and choose yogurt, nuts and cheese over other snacks.

Q: I've decided I want to supplement my diet with protein. What type of protein should I buy?
A: There are two main types of protein supplements: whey and soy. Whey protein is made from a by-product of cheese and milk production. There are several different methods used to extract this protein, but cross flow micro filtration is widely viewed as the best. Soy protein is made from the soybean. Some believe its plant origin renders it "incomplete" in terms of amino acids. However, all research suggests that there are actually few differences between the two types of protein. Nonetheless, soy protein seems to be quite a bit more expensive per serving than whey protein.

Q: When is the best time to take my protein supplement each day?
A: After exercise, your muscle tissues are in danger of breaking down if you don't consume some sort of protein. You must consume protein following your workout. However, it is best to spread the intake of protein through meals and supplementation evenly over the course of a day.

For example, if you were eating three meals a day, breakfast at 7:30 a.m., lunch at 12:30 p.m. and dinner at 5:30 p.m., you would probably want to take your protein supplement at 10:30 p.m. That way your protein intake is spread evenly throughout the day. Please note that if you should consume 150 grams of protein per day like the 165-pound athlete, each of your meals and your one protein shake/bar should provide 37.5 grams of protein. In reality, there's not a lot of data on this subject, and the only real rule of thumb is to consume protein after a workout when your body will need to use it to rebuild the broken down muscle tissue.

Q: Is protein safe?
A: Excessive protein intake in the most severe situations can result in kidney failure. Don't worry though you would have to consume about 20,000 calories of pure protein to experience such negative side effects. So protein is very safe, possibly the safest nutritional supplement on the market. One thing to remember when supplementing with protein is that if you do increase your protein intake and don't exercise, the additional protein will be converted to glycogen and stored as fat. In other words, if you consistently take in more protein but don't exercise or work out, you may experience weight gain in the form of fat rather than muscle.

Final Thoughts

Protein intake is essential for athletes looking to build strength and size because your muscles cannot rebuild themselves without it. The majority of athletes do not consume enough protein in their daily diet to achieve the strength and size gains for which they are looking, so protein supplementation is absolutely necessary.

There are literally hundreds of different protein supplements on the market and no clinical research has shown one particular supplement to be better than any other. So when looking to purchase a protein supplement, the best way to make a smart purchase is to make sure you get the most protein for your money. In addition, no two athletes are the same, so over time, try different protein supplements and find the one that works best for you. Finally, protein supplements are not being questioned by any athletic regulatory committee, so don't be worried about negative consequences when adding these supplements to your diet.

Tuna fish
0.5 cup
36.4 g
Turkey—white meat
3.5 oz.
32.9 g
Chicken—white meat
3.5 oz
32.3 g
Baked ham
3.0 oz.
26.3 g
Roast beef
3.0 oz.
23.3 g
Hamburger patty
3.0 oz.
21.8 g
Peanut butter
2 tbsp
8.5 g
1 large
7.1 g


1 large

6.3 g

(All data from dietdata.com)

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock