If you’ve got a workout program going, if you are building muscle — congratulations! You are taking an important step towards building your health. But if you are following conventional advice, you may be actually hurting your health! That is because the typical advice is to eat more protein if you are exercising; yet excess protein intake, particularly from animal sources, is inflammatory!
The conventional reasoning for more protein with an exercise program goes like this: you are burning protein, and you need protein to build muscle; therefore, you need more protein. Further, you could actually lose muscle because the body breaks down muscle protein to get energy. What’s wrong with that reasoning?
Exercise and energy
Obviously exercise requires energy. Protein can be broken down for fuel, but that is not your body’s preference. The first fuel it uses during exercise is sugar. Protein breakdown isn’t fast enough to refuel effectively, and when available sugar is depleted, the easiest fuel source is carbohydrate. Fat is the next choice. Protein is the last resort.
Your body won’t consume muscle protein for fuel if other fuel is readily available. Consuming more protein to avoid muscle loss isn’t helpful in most cases. Let’s see why…
Exercise and muscle repair
The argument that exercise breaks down muscle, requiring protein to rebuild, is true, but deceptive. Exercise “damages” muscle in a way that your body repairs, generally better than before, which is why exercise makes you stronger. Yes, when muscle fibers are broken down, your body will search for protein to repair them. But the amount of protein required is partially met by the recycling of the amino acids, the building blocks of protein, that are released by the muscle damage. Also, this process of searching for recyclable protein in the body targets defective proteins to break down, which can help cellular repair throughout your entire body, not just the muscles.
Protein is actually consumed by other portions of your body beyond muscle tissue. Hair, nails, and skin that sloughs off all remove protein from your body. For most of us, the amount of protein loss from these sources is greater than the loss from muscle exercise. Protein from muscle breakdown is still in your body, and available for recycling.
Muscle build-up does require protein. But the amount required is probably much less than you think.
Too much protein is an unnecessary load on your system. An article published by the National Institutes of Health states, “…higher protein intake is also known to up-regulate the IGF/Akt/mTOR cascade, which acts as a key driver of the aging process. It also states that higher protein intake tends to drive up inflammatory biomarkers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP). Lots of protein leads to an acidic environment, which favors disease and loss of bone mass, and is an extra strain on your kidneys and liver.
We often hear about the need for protein with exercise. Even “health food” stores promote high protein drinks to give you more protein when you work out. Does anyone really need that much protein? Excess protein is simply an unneeded, inflammatory load on the body.
An article in Practical Pain Management sums it up this way: “Despite what fitness pros and the makers of protein supplements may imply, most people don’t need a whole lot of extra protein in their diets. What most people really need is more exercise!”
Protein source matters
Protein are combinations of a set of twenty-two amino acids. Nine of those amino acids cannot be manufactured by our bodies, and are considered essential to forming “complete proteins.” Along with the other thirteen that our bodies can synthesize, they comprise the full set of aminos necessary for muscle building. Animal proteins are already complete proteins because the animal bodies have combined the full set of amino acids into the proteins, but they are still broken down into their individual amino acids when we eat them, and new protein is built. Some plant proteins (hemp, chia seeds, quinoa, spirulina for instance) are “complete” as well, containing the nine essential amino acids we cannot make. Many plant proteins lack certain of these aminos; however, providing the remaining essential amino acids from different incomplete protein plant sources will also provide the building blocks for complete proteins. So long as the necessary amino acids are available, the body can build the protein it needs. Since proteins are broken down first into amino acids and then recombined, your body doesn’t care if you ingest a complete or incomplete protein, so long as the other essential amino acids are all available when it builds new protein. Balancing plant amino acids is not that hard to do. As a general rule, with nuts and seeds added to a green vegetable diet, you get all the essential amino acids. Since amino acids can be stored in the body for a little while, there is no need to eat all essential amino acids in the same meal.
Why bother with plant proteins, when animal proteins are automatically complete? Published in Science News, a study conducted by the University of Finland found that those whose primary source of protein was animal-based had a 23% higher risk of death over a 20-year period. Animals are higher on the food chain, so their meats have built up more toxins from the lower level foods they ingested, and these toxins are particularly inflammatory to the digestive tract. When meat is heated, the problem is made worse as additional toxins are created during the cooking process; though, to be fair, cooking plants also creates some toxins. While animal-based proteins are good proteins, they come at a cost to your body.
The protein source matters. Vegetarians can get sufficient protein even when on a major exercise program without the damage caused by animal products.
One study proves the point: published in the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study of adults between the ages of 40 and 64 — an age group where muscle mass loss becomes a significant issue. They divided the participants into a moderate-protein group and a high-protein group. After ten weeks, their measurements found no significant difference between the muscle mass of the moderate-protein group and the high-protein group! The extra protein did nothing to help them build muscle. What they did find, however, was potential damage to their health: in the high-protein group, bad gut bacteria was growing much more than in the medium-protein group. And bad gut bacteria opens the door to leaky gut and numerous health issues.
Was more protein better? This study shows it was not. Once the body has sufficient protein, additional protein becomes a burden to it. Have you heard that from workout coaches? Probably not — they seem stuck in the “more is better” paradigm.
How about fat?
We’ve heard about the advantages of being a “fat burner”. Fat is chosen as a fuel source over protein, and therefore is a great high density fuel for exercise. Your body can get used to burning fat if simple sugars are not readily available, and fat is so energy-dense that a little goes a long way. With adequate dietary fat, your body can preserve and recycle existing protein rather than consume it for energy.
Consider the avocado, which happens to contain about 3 grams of high quality protein (containing 18 important amino acids) as well as providing “good” fat. Avocados may do more for your strength-building goals than a steak!
Don’t hurt your health in pursuit of health
Misguided health programs can do more harm than good. What have you gained if your strength-building efforts bring on disease?
Balance is key in every area of health. Just get enough protein: that’s not hard to do. Protein deficiency is rare in America, but inflammation and diseases are prevalent, and that is where excess animal protein is likely to take you.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
So the AJPEM study showed that when you eat more protein it actually causes more inflammation. The gut microbiome is critical to your overall health and you do not want to upset that balance with excessive inflammatory animal protein that leads to pathogenic gut bacterial overgrowth. The best approach is “moderate”, which means you do not go looking for protein, because it is naturally in everything that you eat. A head of romaine lettuce has over 5 grams of protein. Three tablespoons of flaxseed has 6 grams of protein. The big message is this: your body recycles amino acids from cells that have died, worn out, self-destructed (autophagy) and from denatured enzymes, hormones that have broken down, and neurotransmitters that are no longer necessary just to name a few. Even when muscle is broken down with exercise it recycles the broken down amino acids to use them once again to build in the body. Studies have shown that the limiting factor in muscle growth is not the high protein level, but caloric density of the food, where raw plant fats top the charts.
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