Disclaimer: I am an ardent fan of protein powder (whey) and love my shake when I am training heavy. I did a small research where I managed to maintain lean muscle mass without protein powder, non-veg, or eggs during the first two months of lock down in India to measure the impact of real food protein (vegetarian) that we eat in our home everyday. I have shared the results via my a research article (link below).
I have seen athletes’ fanaticism towards protein over the years. However it is not just athletes…it seems that people in general have not much clarity on the subject of protein the world over. Some of you have experience of ingesting protein for years, some are new entrants in sports, and a few get influenced by shining bodies out of a gym. But in my opinion ‘protein’ as a substrate needs to be understood better than how it is currently being understood, especially because it can also cause damage to young/old enterprising sportsmen.
Here is how I have understood the role of protein:
Car Analogy: Imagine we have a hybrid car that runs on petrol and diesel both. The car also has an engine that only takes engine oil. Petrol & diesel work as fuel and engine oil ensures the health of the engine to make car run smoothly taking optimal use of fuel.
Situation 1: If we stop putting engine oil in the car engine….do you think we can still run it? Perhaps for few days until the last drop of engine oil is sucked out while compromising the car’s performance. Then what? Sarcopenia syndrome in the car 🙂
Situation 2: If we overfill the engine oil than what is required by our car?
NO…because cars run on fuel and not on engine oil. In our metabolic engine, petrol and diesel are the carbs and fat that work as fuel for our body and the engine oil is protein.
The engine oil protects your engine, it does not fuel it.
USE PROTEIN FOR WHAT IT IS DESIGNED. Do not mistake our body’s protective mechanisms as a source for ‘extra’ energy. Whether you eat a plant based diet or meat, your fuel is always carbs or fat.
This is how I have understood the role of protein in simple language. Let us now dive into a bit of physiology and understand how it works:
Amino Acids: A by-product of protein, amino acids is what we refer to as protein for dietary purposes. Amino acids are nitrogen containing molecules that are building blocks of protein.
Physiology: Protein gets absorbed into the cytoplasm of the small intestine cells. Roughly 50% is extracted by the splanchnic tissues (small intestine, large intestine, pancreas, liver, and kidney etc) and balance makes it into the blood stream.
Protein synthesis in our body: The ratio between the body production and daily dietary consumption is considered to be roughly 4:1. Out of a total of 21 amino acids, the nine, called essential amino acids, come from our diet to complete the protein pool for our body.
Main role of protein: Protein is the building block of your muscles. Protein helps in repairing damaged muscle tissues and promotes muscle growth when we do strength training. It helps increase muscle mass and strength.
Secondary role for energy & glucose: Our body has a mechanism where different type of amino acids can become a source for ATP (energy) production or get involved in production of glucose (gluconeogenesis) either via intermediaries of krebs cycle or pyruvate. For example: Alanine can be converted into Pyruvate, Glutamate to Alpha ketoglutarate, Aspartate to Ostelo Acetate (OAA), Valine to Succinyl CoA etc.; the amino acids can be used for production of ATP or production of Glucose (gluconeogenesis) via these metabolic pathways.
Designed role of ingested Protein: Muscles. The surplus is converted into glucose. We pee out some as well to balance out the nitrogen level.
Protein as a source of energy (ATP): It is not a role that protein is designed for. It is our body’s protective mechanism to use protein as a source of energy if we run out of energy. Normally, exhausting all the energy source in our body is highly unlikely given that we have fat storage of 20k to 50k calories.
Therefore, using protein as a source of ATP is forced and not a natural preference for our body.
Other benefits: Protein is an important element in bones, cartilage, skin, and blood. The amino acids are also used to produce specific hormones, including insulin and growth hormone.
Submission: Protein in not an option. It is a MUST. However, we should consume it as per our body’s requirement. It is not a fuel. Its primary job is to maintain the health of the muscle.
Without paying any attention to protein…we are able to consume decent amounts (50 gms) of this substrate via our diet in the form of roti (wheat), vegetables, lentils, legumes, eggs, curd, milk, etc. every day . According to research, the consumption of protein should be anywhere between 0.8 gms to 2 gms per kilo of your body weight depending on how hard you work your muscles.
Example: for a 70 kg person, the window is between 50 gms to 140 grams per day.
That’s a wide range, and it is this wide range that leads to confusion! Read on…
If you are a non-vegetarian then you reach anywhere around 70 to 80 grams/day or more via your diet depending on your metabolism.
Man Vs Woman: There is no thumb rule that differentiates protein intake between men and women. The only rule one should follow is their body weight, their daily calories intake, and their workout. If men are at 50 grams then recommended marker for women should be around 40 to 45 grams.
Max protein intake: I am a strict believer that this is highly individualistic. What is maximum for someone may not be so for another. It is highly dependent on your genetics, training, and your metabolism. However, putting it simply, as a guide for a regular sportsperson; anywhere between 1.6 gm/kilo to 2.2 gm/kilo is considered as high protein intake and anything above 2.2 gm/kilo is no good and doesn’t provide any benefits. This is researched…you can Google it.
Minimum protein intake: It could be anywhere around 40/50 gms per day depending on other factors as explained above. Unless you are living on absolute total junk food, this number is not hard to maintain through our regular diet and therefore, don’t worry about it much. Our earlier generations never paid attention to this substrate and lived healthy most of their life. Even today, we have a huge population that has no clue about protein and yet manage their protein levels just fine.
GOOD to BAD: Let us now look into where protein becomes a bad substrate.
Let us assume that our body needs 50 grams of total protein every day whereas we are consuming 100 grams. What happens with the excess protein? This is where it can turn from good substrate to bad. Remember…it is the extra that may hurt!
The excess protein – 50 grams (roughly 200 calories) gets processed in the liver and it can be used for:
- Glucose production (Gluconeogenesis)
- Fat production
- Energy production (ATP)
Let’s look at this a little closer:
Glucose production: This is surplus protein’s most favorite pathway where amino acids are converted to glucose as explained above. This is the preferred preventive mechanism of our body.
Fat production: Although a couple of amino acids are known to be ketogenic, it occurs to me that the liver only takes the fat production route if its glycogen stores are full.
Energy production: Amino acids can only be used for energy if needed.
How excess protein can hurt us in my understanding of the subject:
1) Fat/weight gain: How often do you see guys bulking up while training at the gym?Why would somebody gain weight after they add protein powder in their diet?
Well, the fault doesn’t lie with the protein intake in itself. It is the excess protein which gets converted to glucose in our liver which is the culprit. We don’t swap grams for grams with carbs. We add protein to our existing diet and the bulked up version is mistaken to be muscle mass. It is fat and you add it everywhere in your body and not just in muscles. With additional glucose, our body is not able to burn the fat that it otherwise would, in the absence of glucose.
Excess protein disturbs our natural pathway of using fat as a secondary source of fuel. Excess protein puts our body in a preventive mode by converting the excess into glucose. This spikes the insulin in our system further preventing fat from burning. The result is un-burnt fat in our body. This is the only reason I can think of for weight gain when somebody starts taking protein powder. If anybody has any other reasoning then am all ears.
This doesn’t apply to ‘keto’ community because their carbs intake is very little. In the absence of carbs…protein shouldn’t add fat to your body.
2) Non alcoholic fatty liver (NAFL): It is a serious condition which can be a precursor to serious diseases.
Science: Two enzymes – Alanine transaminase (ALT) and Aspartate transaminase(AST) play very important roles in amino acid metabolism both at the muscle level as well as in the liver for energy production. These enzymes are also found in the heart.
However, in case of NAFL or heart condition, both AST and ALT numbers are elevated. In fact, these numbers are critical to determine if somebody has a NAFL. Indeed, these numbers can get elevated due to strenuous gym work out causing severe muscle damage but this is not very common as we don’t get tested with damaged muscles. High ALT in the presence of high protein is a strong indication of fatty liver or liver damage.
What has protein gotta to do with this?
These two enzymes play a vital role in the metabolism of amino acids both in the muscle and liver. Therefore, the high levels of AST and ALT can be linked to high protein intake especially with any pre-existing liver condition. Further, it is only reasonable to conclude that the activity of these enzymes increase with high protein intake. It is not clear to me if protein instigates these numbers and possibly has the potential to damage the liver or it only plays the role of a catalyst in a damaged liver?
If your liver function test shows high levels of ALT, AST and GGT then you must keep a check on your protein intake. In my opinion anybody who takes regular protein via supplements (protein powder) and is high on protein diet must get their Liver Function Test done. Look for ALT level first. Liver is a highly sensitive organ and yet one of the most robust in our metabolism and there could be multiple factors driving it.
UGLY: Bad to ugly!
Growth hormone (GH) is a protein hormone (about 190 amino acids) that is synthesized and secreted by cells called somatotrophs in the anterior pituitary. GH acts on the liver to stimulate IGF 1 (Insulin-like growth factor 1 ) production and most of growth hormone work is mediated by IGF 1. Both GH and IGF 1 together with protein enhance performance by:
- Enabling growth & repair…increase protein uptake in muscles
- By increasing lean muscle mass
- By increasing the growth of new brains cells and preventing cells from dying
However, latest researches have linked high IGF 1 to increased cancer, diabetes, ageing, and overall mortality. High IGF-1 levels increase the relationship between mortality and high protein. IGF 1 doesn’t let damaged cells die and ironically their survival can only cause harm. IGF 1 inhibits autophagy which is body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells.
Caveat: One of the best ways to increase Growth Hormone is strenuous exercise. However one can’t expect to keep increasing Growth Hormone obviously as everything has a peak/time/age and therefore, our body shifts to its preventive mechanism and stop releasing GH over time regardless of continued load of strenuous exercise. What escalates it then?
Please apply logic from this point on:
Role of protein: Protein, IGF 1, & GH is a package to repair and build muscles. This essentially means that protein needs both IGF1 & GH to do its job.
Protein & IGF 1: If we are ingesting proper amount of protein needed for muscles then IGF 1 & GH also gets released in optimal quantity to handle the work. We have a sensible and sensitive machinery but if keep pushing it then……
High Protein: We also understand now that GH senses its limits and stop reacting to exercise stimulus beyond a point. However, few studies have shown increase in GH/IGF 1 production with high protein intake and rightly so considering their association.
My hypothesis: In my opinion, our body has preventive mechanisms against all endogenous pathways. It indeed has preventive mechanisms for exogenous pathways as well, as long as, they are in line with our metabolic machinery. So where excess protein is handled in the liver…excess IGF 1 and GH hormones are also handled in a certain manner. Example: some children grow their height suddenly whereas the rest of their body takes time to catch up. It is only after a few years that their entire body match up to their height – their RNA, DNA, organs, or muscles are proportionally grown. But this can happen up to an age until our machinery starts ageing and start losing its robustness. Right? You don’t overgrow anytime in life!
Ques: Up to what point can our body handle excess GH/IGF 1? There must be a limit….
Analogy: Our body has a mechanism to store excess food as fat. Until such time we are feeding it optimal amounts, it keeps us lean even though we might be having 30k of calories stored in us as fat anytime. But if we don’t stop overfeeding ourselves then we start gaining fat everywhere because our storage capacity is full.
But if we don’t stop at this point… then fat starts depositing at organs – visceral fat, which is an invitation to different diseases.
In the similar context our body can handle Growth Hormone up to a point. But if our body keep finding stimulus to create extra hormones then, in my opinion, it is bound to trouble us just like anything else.
It is obvious that IGF 1 is directly related to high protein intake and higher amounts of IGF 1 can give birth to several diseases. Therefore it is pertinent to keep a check on your protein intake especially if it is consistently high in your diet.
Proof: IGF 1 reduction have shown to improve longevity by increasing the expression of stress resistance genes and boosting the anti-oxidant genes expression in several studies. Therefore, the best solution is to exercise to boost lean muscle mass and increase expression of genes via metabolic health.
Conclusion: We do not get involved in strenuous workout all through the year. This obviously should vary the demands of protein in our body. Therefore, it is advisable to vary our protein intake as per the demands of our body instead of treating it as a regular dietary compulsion. We understand now… just like any other substrate, protein can make or break our metabolic health, and therefore we must consume it sensibly.
Here is my submission how I understand it:
a) Average adult should consume protein from their regular diet and natural food. They do not need any extra supplements unless their lean muscle mass starts to go down or their exercise intensity demands more. There is a possibility that you may not consume sufficient protein via your diet in which case protein is a need.
b) People who are gaining weight and eat non-vegetarian food on regular basis must keep a watch on their carbs intake. Excess Protein + Excess Carbs = Fat. Add sugar to this and your heading for a disaster.
c) Athletes/sportsmen can have extra protein only in their active form to the tune of 1.2 gms to 1.6 gms per kg of body weight. Again, keep a watch on your food and if you are consuming non vegetarian food then you may not be needing any extra protein supplement. If you love protein then swap it with carbs.
d) Athletes who train heavy in the gym can go up to 2 gms per kilo of their body weight in my opinion. But this only applies to the time when they are training heavy which is not the case throughout the year. So consuming high protein all through the year may not fetch you better results.
e) Use protein supplement/powder only when you do not get enough protein in your food or you are training heavier than usual. It is definitely a good source of protein but one must create requirement for it by training. Or, like I said…swap it.
Keto diet (low carb high fat) & protein: I find people equally confused in the keto community with regard to protein intake. All the above facts/rules apply to this community also with an added caution of ‘nutritional ketosis’.
Of course your carbs intake is so low that you are unlikely to gain weight with high protein intake.
Let us demystify:
- Best time for excess protein to glucose conversion: Fasted state
- Best time for fat consumption leading to nutritional ketosis: Fasted state
Make a choice: Yes, its not a situation you would like to be in but you have to make a choice. Excess protein intake should ideally inhibit the ketosis pathway. However there would be those who are not affected. But if you understand why it happens then you will find ways to live around it and not get out of ketosis.
Example: I manage fantastic lipid numbers with 20% carbs intake and protein powder by squeezing maximum carbs in lunch before my workout in the evening. I get to eat it as well as use it and still not cause any harm in fat’s way 🙂
Below mentioned are some questions which are asked frequently:
Ques: How much protein should one ingest at a given time?
Ans: It depends on the individual however anywhere between 20 grams to 50 grams is considered good.
Ques: What is the best time to consume protein following an exercise?
Ans: It is strongly dependent on your workout intensity/duration. Anywhere up to 2/3 hours post workout is good. Having said that, of the total protein stored in the body, almost half is stored in skeletal muscle so we do have a mechanism in place for any immediate requirement.
Ques: Is it a myth that one should consume protein immediately post workout?
Ans: Yes, I couldn’t find any evidence in science supporting any such notion. The window could be 2 to 3 hours or more as mentioned above. Having said that, it does no harm either, if you can consume protein after finishing your workout.
Ques: Is protein good for weight loss?
Ans: Protein has nothing to do with weight loss from how I understand it. If you restrict your carbs intake and increase your protein intake to safeguard your lean muscle mass then the weight loss is because of the calorie deficit. Right amount of protein (with good training) in the absence of carbs besides ensuring lean muscle mass also increases our muscles ability to absorb more protein.
Ques: IS it a good idea to swap protein with carbs?
Ans: Yes and no…it depends on your liver. However extra protein in my knowledge does nothing. Yes, it can produce ATP but why would you shift your top energy source – carbs with emergency energy source. Given the several repercussions of high protein diet…this swap is only good if you have a healthy liver and you do not like eating carbs.
For example: You can skip your lunch and have a good protein shake when you don’t feel like eating after a training session.
Ques: How do I know if I am taking the optimal amount of protein in my diet and do not require more?
Ans: By looking at your lean muscle mass. If your lean muscle mass is maintained then your protein intake is sufficient and you don’t need to worry about it. Do not mistake lean muscle mass with fat loss though. Read through my research on diet for more insight.
Ques: IS protein supplement/powder a necessity?
Ans: NO…only when your protein requirements are not met by your regular food. Yes, if you are a vegetarian athlete who trains hard and not able to find enough protein in your diet. I don’t see how a vegetarian person can reach greater than 100 gms of protein without having to ingest too much food in the Indian context.
Ques: Do elderly people also need protein?
Ans: Of course…all human beings need protein. Like I said most people with ordinary energy requirements meet their protein requirements via regular food unless they are eating junk food. Its not the age that defines your protein requirement; it is your muscles that drives it.
Up to 1 gm/kg of body weight is considered safe for elderly people however it could be more. The consumption must match body’s requirement.
Ques: Does extra protein have any effect on kidney?
Ans: It depends on the individuals organ health. For a healthy person, protein has shown no effect on kidney health. Anything in excess is bad!
I am happy to hear from you if you have anything to add or contradict any of the above.
PS: My diet research: Part 1, 2 & 3