To Whey or Not to Whey - Protein is the Question
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Don't get me wrong here, I believe the majority of sports supplements on the market are gimmicky wastes of money, but a protein supplement is one supplement that I believe has worth.
There are some people who lump protein supplements in with the rest of the supplement industry - as just another money grabbing product you don't really need sold by snakeoil salesmen. While I completely disagree based on personal experience and study, I feel it is important to present both sides of the story in an objective manner as possible so you can make up your own mind. All of the arguments for and against will be supported with published articles from sources such as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which are available online if you wish to research further.
I am not going to differentiate between the various types of whey, soy, and other protein supplements, but rather establish the case for and against protein supplementation altogether.
The basic premise of the arguments against protein supplementation revolves around the belief that the human body does not require protein supplementation - that all protein required can be derived from regular foods obtained from eating a balanced diet. Those against protein supplementation believe it is a fallacy that more intense training demands an increase in protein consumption.
How Much Protein Does the Body Really Need?
This is highly debated. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.8g/kg/d). Some bodybuilders will balloon this figure up to 2.0g/lb/day (4.4g/kg/day) prior to competitions. (Tom Venuto, Fitness Renaissance). In short, there is no definitive resource or study that has concluded with 100% certainty that in all cases for all persons, you should be consuming XXXg of protein per day. The following studies do exist though:
- Effect of resistance training and high protein diets - assessed the influence of dietary protein intake on resistance training induced changes in systemic glucose tolerance and the contents of skeletal muscle insulin signaling proteins in healthy older persons. It concluded "that older persons who consume adequate or moderately high amounts (150% of RDA 1.2g/kg/day) of dietary protein can use resistance training to improve body composition, oral glucose tolerance, and skeletal muscle."
- Effect of isometric exercises on body potassium and dietary protein requirements of young men - The changes in nitrogen balance and body weight observed in this investigation support the concept that protein requirements vary with energy intakes. Conversely, they suggest that energy requirements are influenced by the level of protein intake. The study found that a level of 0.5g/kg/day was insufficient and that 1g/kg/day seemed sufficient.
- Short term protein intake and stimulation of protein synthesis in stunted children with cystic fibrosis - While not directly related to athletic training this study did show a correlation between high doses of protein and improvement of whole body protein synthesis. It concluded "In stunted children with CF requiring tube feeding, the highest stimulation of whole-body protein synthesis was achieved with a short-term dietary protein intake of 5 g/kg/day".
- Protein Metabolism during intensive physical training for the young adult - In this study, although the men did increase body protein stores and muscle mass with high protein diets, the additional body protein did not enhance physiological work performance. It is suggested that in this study 100 g of protein/day was adequate for men performing fairly heavy work.
- Protein Supplements and Exercise - This study concluded that there is strong theoretical basis to expect a beneficial effect for activley training persons taking a protein supplement, especially if it contains the right mix and balance of amino acids. However, no experiments have currently taken place to test this theory. 1.5 - 2.0g/kg/day was tested in this study.
As one can see, there are many studies promoting all sorts of daily requirements. Bodybuilders will swear by the upper end of the spectrum not only because they believe the additional protein helps them build muscle, but also because it helps them burn fat. The process of using protein is metabolically costly, meaning it requires more energy which speeds up metabolism. There is a study to support this theory:
- Long term effects of a long term high protein weight loss diet - Concluded - "A reported higher protein intake appears to confer some weight-loss benefit. Cardiovascular disease risk factors, biomarkers of disease, and serum vitamins and minerals improved with no differences between groups."
This seems to level off after about six months though, so even bodybuilders will only spike their protein levels upwards of 40% of daily intake while removing some carbs from their diets in pre-contest phases in order to induce gluconeogenesis - which speeds up metabolism - using excess energy to burn the additional protein.
I came across two studies which found protein supplementation or nutritional specialization based on athletic requirements to be a futile endeavour:
- Eating for Health and Athletic Performance - This paper suggests that there is no difference between the nutritional requirements of athletes and the rest of us with due awareness of increased caloric needs in some sports. Good nutrition for athletes should be based on sound understanding of energy metabolism, nutrient content of foods, and special needs of athletes.
- Effect of a Protein Dietary Supplement on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy - In this study, thirty male medical college students were placed on a program of progressive resistance exercise. Half of the subjects were given a commercial protein dietary supplement, the other half a placebo. At the end of six weeks of training there were no significant differences between the two groups insofar as changes in body weight, arm volume, upper arm girth or strength were concerned.
Googling high protein diets will yield thousands of articles - some for and some against protein supplementation. What is clearly evident is that discussion and testing has and continues to occur around protein supplementation and each new article, study or test is picking an average daily consumption somewhere between the RDA of 0.8g/kg/day and 4.4g/kg/day (in extreme cases prior to bodybuilding competitions).
There you go. Look over everything you can find on whether protein supplementation is useful or not. Check out all of the theoretical models and controlled studies and then make up your mind for yourself whether you should consider protein supplementation as a convenient and useful source of protein.
And now my less than objective comments...
Every study and every experiment means absolutely nothing unless you perform it on yourself. There is a reason bodybuilders use protein supplements and high protein diets prior to competitions -- because they work. Look at them and deny that. Even those that aren't juiced on steroids move to a high protein, lower carb diet prior to competition in order to burn fat and cause changes in their metabolisms that will give them that "ripped" look on stage.
There is no definitive study that concludes 100% for or against protein supplementation. We simply do not know, so the argument for and against can go on forever. That said, we are all humans and we do basically know how these macronutrients affect metabolism and energy processes in the body. Thus, we have a start state. In the boxing nutrition part of this site, I recommend a diet consisting of 30% protein, 55% carbs and 15% fat to get you lean and mean. This is your start state. From there, it is up to you to tweak and refine because --newsflash--we are all different. Different weights, sizes, makeups, moods, stresses, likes and dislikes.
To do this you need to know what you are eating, and it's nutrient makeup. That is where online meal planning software can help simplify the process. If you truly want to tweak your diet, then I strongly suggest you consider using some method of tracking and then making small changes to assess results.