Myths and Facts about Protein
Separate fact from fiction and learn how eating the right amount of protein at the right time can help you get better results from your workouts. By: Marie Spano, MS, RD
Though fat and carbohydrates continue to battle the nutrition paparazzi, protein seems to narrowly escape most of the negative press and come out shining brightly. This macronutrient is the backbone of many diet plans and a consistent topic of conversation among gym-goers. Despite its seemingly popular status, there are still a few old lingering myths and some new confusion about dietary protein. Here we put 9 of the most common myths about protein to rest.
Truth: The quality of a protein is determined by its ability to provide the 8 essential amino acids, which are necessary for the growth, maintenance, and repair of body tissues. Proteins from animal sources including eggs, dairy, meat, poultry, and fish in addition to one vegetable protein, soy, are all considered high-quality because they contain all of the essential amino acids in the necessary proportions.
Truth: There is no research to support the notion that animal protein causes cancer. However, according to the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research, there is convincing evidence that red meat, including pork, beef, lamb, and goat increases the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. And, increased intake of processed meat is associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer.
Truth: There is no evidence that a diet containing 20-35% of calories from protein is harmful to otherwise healthy people. And therefore, a diet of up to 35% of calories from protein is considered acceptable according to the Institute of Medicine. However, higher protein diets may lead to a greater decline in kidney functioning in those with impaired renal functioning or chronic kidney disease. In addition, a high protein diet may increase risk of developing gout in some people.
Truth: The total amount and quality of protein you consume at each meal matters because we build and repair muscle throughout the day, not in one sitting. Healthy, young adults should aim for approximately 20 grams of high-quality protein at each meal and after resistance training. For maximal gains, they should consume 20 grams of high-quality protein at regular 3 to 4 hour intervals throughout the day. Older adults need about 30 grams of protein per meal and up to 40 grams after resistance training to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Truth: As we age, we gradually lose muscle mass, a process called sarcopenia, which starts at about 40 years old. However, resistance exercise (such as lifting weights) and a sound diet, which includes slightly more protein than the RDA, can help minimize the loss of both muscle mass and strength. As we age, our protein needs increase because older individuals require higher doses of protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Truth: Endurance athletes need more protein than their sedentary friends. Protein can improve recovery from endurance exercise and help decrease soreness and inflammation resulting from the breakdown of muscle tissue. In addition, adding protein to your post-exercise carbohydrate-rich meal may improve your body’s ability to refuel your muscles with glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate in your body).
Truth: Though protein is necessary for gaining muscle mass, size, and strength, athletes must consume enough total calories to also facilitate weight gain. This is especially important for young men with high calorie needs. Consume too much protein and you may actually hamper your plan to gain weight. Higher protein meals trigger the release of hormones to your brain, telling it that your stomach is full. Therefore, a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat is necessary for building muscle and gaining weight.
Truth: Our bones are like an old house, constantly undergoing renovation. Old bone is broken down and replaced with new bone tissue. Protein is necessary for both bone formation and for building muscle tissue (like a good teammate, muscle pulls on bone tissue making it stronger). However, protein also increases calcium losses. How can you get the best of both worlds? Consume a diet that provides an adequate amount of both protein and calcium to meet your daily needs.
Truth: Eating 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal may help with weight loss by enhancing feelings of fullness and preserving muscle mass while you are losing weight (so you lose more fat and less muscle tissue). And initially, a higher protein diet may facilitate greater weight loss than a high carbohydrate diet. However, reduced calorie diets with a wide intake range of fat, carbohydrate, and protein can promote weight loss. The optimal diet is one that is tailored to your personal preferences and lifestyle.