Protein As Religion? Perspectives of a Protein Heretic by Anthony Almada
“I’d add FOUR scoops of this into your post-workout shake. Thank you,” confidently added my friend who owned and operated a sports nutrition store. Another happy customer with the keys to the physique universe… and for only $39.95 plus sales tax.
This seasoned veteran of sports nutrition sales had become a close friend over the past year. He all but blowtorched several big-name products after I shared with him several research studies showing they did NOT work (and the companies could not produce research showing they DID). He also became a nightmare to a few other companies by asking a single question about certain products they were pitching: “Do you have any published research studies on YOUR ACTUAL product, showing greater gains in muscle mass and/or strength, compared to a placebo or another product?”
What he received as a response was equivalent to asking a sports car salesman for a copy of an independent road test and receiving a picture of the car in a slick brochure, plus a hefty dose of testimonials, intermixed with mumbling and stuttering.
“Hey Greg…,” I started, his head moving in an owl-like perfect rotation, from the cash register to my eyes, “…those FOUR scoops mean 48 grams of protein. Where did you get that hefty dose recommendation from?” I was placing my inflatable boat into the river and ready to take Greg with me over the falls, 500 feet below. Hopefully, our friendship wouldn’t drown.
“Anthony, have you lost your ability to read? I remember reading in the muscle mags two decades ago that 40-50 grams was the maximum dose your body could use after training. And you showed me the studies saying about 1.5 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight— in ‘unassisted’ resistance-trained athletes— as being the daily dose needed to support mass and strength gains!1,2 Are you gonna tell me to get my nitrogen from breathing air?!”
I had touched a nerve— with a hot branding iron. Greg prided himself on being a very informed sports nutrition retailer— and not informed from reading muscle magazines, web forums, or Wikipedia alone. He had invested a lot of time into being an evidence-based sports nutrition store owner, and was well recognized for his expertise. Through his almost two decades of experience he had become a protein advocate, promoting protein supplements to virtually all of his customers engaged in resistance training and endurance.
I threw up a question to Greg: “Have you ever seen any studies that measured the anabolic effect in muscle of DIFFERENT protein doses in resistance-trained persons, after they finished a workout?” Long pause— I could tell his hard drive was scanning terabytes of info. “Uh… no,” he disappointingly replied. Neither had I, until very recently. And now it’s starting to come in droves.
I also remember reading in the muscle mags— all 145 pounds of me as a high schooler— that your body could digest and use up to 40-50 grams of protein in one dose— and that the rest would be burned off or wasted. Back in those days, muscle protein anabolism studies were as inaccurate as measuring the distance between two stars by holding a yardstick up in the sky and eyeballing. Way off. No magazine article or ‘expert’ ever had a precise number… and they never had a scientific reference to back up this ‘magic number.’
And then out of nowhere, Dr. Stuart Phillips and his team from McMaster University provided an answer to the question of what’s the maximum protein dose to support muscle protein anabolism.3 They found, using resistance-TRAINED males, that a dose of more than 20 grams of egg protein (40 grams) was effectively ‘wasted,’ not increasing muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree.
“Greg, I used to think the same thing, because I read those same magazines and there had never been a study asking the question in resistance-trained athletes,” I humbly offered. “But didn’t you read Robbie Durand’s article in MD, or listen to his interview with Dr. Stu Phillips [http://www.musculardevelopment.com/content/view/1343/79/]? Greg’s protein religion was about to be cleansed in the waters of new research, and his eyes mirrored his acceptance of having to change his prayer. I told him about the study and what it suggested— taking higher doses could blunt the body’s anabolic response to lower doses of protein (less than 20 grams).
“They didn’t test a 30-gram dose, so we don’t know if 20 grams is the max dose, and they didn’t do a different study with whey protein instead of egg, right?” he brightly replied.
“No, and good questions,” I replied. “The egg study did not measure muscle protein breakdown, so we don’t know what happened to muscle protein balance. But let’s move to meat. Another group, led by Dr. Bob Wolfe— the high priest of protein metabolism— did a similar study but in untrained subjects, no exercise bout, and with 30 or 90 grams of protein from low-fat beef patties4 (the study was supported by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association). They also found a lower dose (30 grams) to max-out muscle protein anabolic response, but they didn’t measure the burning of the ‘excess’ amino acids and they also didn’t measure muscle protein breakdown rate. In the egg study, total insulin response was greater over the 4 hours of the study when the 40-gram egg protein dose was given. In the beef study, they measured insulin but didn’t report the differences between the high- and low-dose beef bonanza.”
“So let me try and digest this,” Greg retorted, enthusiastically. “Egg protein hits an anabolic response ceiling somewhere between 20 and 40 grams after training, in trained persons. We don’t know what whey— or any other protein’s— anabolic response ceiling is in trained subjects. Beef’s anabolic response ceiling— in untrained subjects— is between 30 and 90 grams. And we have no clue what the anti-catabolic/muscle protein breakdown response ceiling is with any protein in resistance-trained subjects— we don’t know the NET effect of a protein dose on muscle protein anabolic response. And a higher protein dose means a higher insulin spike, and insulin is a potent muscle anti-catabolic agent5,” he concluded.
“Yes, that’s where we are today,” I passionately confirmed. “You nailed it. And perhaps the biggest question is what would happen to resistance-training athletes if they downsized their max protein dose to between 20-30 grams at a time, and still took in a TOTAL of about 1.5 grams protein/kilo of bodyweight?”
Greg smiled and answered, “They may be richer, leaner, and just as strong, but me and the companies selling protein may be leaner in cash and weaker in sales…!”
1. Tarnopolsky MA, et al. J Appl Physiol, 1992;73:1986-95.
2. Lemon PWR. J Am Coll Nutr, 2000;19:513S-21.
3. Moore DR, et al. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009;89:161-8.
4. Symons TB, et al. J Am Diet Assoc, 2009;109:1582-6.
5. Greenhaff PL, et al. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, 2008;295: E595-E604.