Playing Devil’s Advocate with Protein

Playing Devil's Advocate with Protein

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So, when I wrote Playing Devil’s Advocate with Carbs – my first article for CXP Nutrition – I knew I wanted to follow up and continue the “trifecta” at some point. You could say that there was something of a sense of inevitability to the fact that [down the line] I would go on to write about Protein… and so, if we consider this to also be something of a ‘sneak peek’, then yes – you can expect the final “Devil’s Advocate” article to be about… FAT!

For now though, let’s dissect the proverbial “House of Bricks”…

Would you say that it’s coincidence that Protein and its constituents (Amino Acids) are often referred to as the ‘Building Blocks’ of the Body? Amino Acids – which we’ll look into more momentarily – are the Building Blocks of Protein, and Protein makes up the Building Blocks of… well, a lot. But in this case, we’re mostly concerned with Muscle Tissue!

You often hear Gurus and the like refer to the Body as a “temple”, and they say how we should treat it as such. Well, most temples are built using ginormous *blocks* of stone. You don’t hear people telling you to treat your body like a Wooden Shack… Not the most inspiring, right!?

After all, we all know the story of the Three Little Pigs – one with the House of Straw, one with the House of Sticks, and the other with a House of Bricks… Hopefully, you see where I’m going here! (The bricks are a metaphor for Protein, the Sticks are for Fat, and the Straw is for Carbohydrates).

Now, it’s not to say that your House can’t incorporate all three – it absolutely can, and should. But it should be obvious (using this analogy/metaphor) which “materials” [*macros*] you’d want to prioritize!

Okay, hold up… hold up! I know – there may be some of you freaking out right now about the Sticks & Straw. I mean, sure – we can all accept that the Bricks represent Protein in the metaphor. But why the hell didn’t Sticks equate to Carbs, and Straw equate to Fat? (I’m guessing that’s a burning question on your mind right now, right?).

Well, it is incredible simply – if you remember in Playing Devil’s Advocate with Carbs, I come right out the gates and drop an epic “truth bomb” on you when I explain that out of the three [protein/fat/carbs], only Protein and Fat are *essential*. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate; it simply doesn’t exist. So, for that reason alone (though there are plenty more to back it), Carbs get allocated the Straw descriptor. You’d want to build your House with Bricks or Sticks before resorting to Straw.

Now, in case you’ve forgotten (or simply haven’t gotten round to reading that post yet), let me remind you of the process known as: Gluconeogenesis…

‘Gluconeogenesis is the creation of glucose [usually] from [excess] protein/fat. So, actually if you have plenty of protein and fat in your diet, then you have your essentials covered, and if your body really needs any glucose – for whatever reason – it can just make some from unneeded protein or fat.’

Again, I reiterate that I do not want to render Carbs the “villain” here. In fact, I will even concede that Gluconeogenesis is not exactly the ideal way for the body to produce glucose (carbs), as it involves a lot of extra work for the body to do so; therefore, simply fuelling the body with enough carbs from your diet is preferable, but just don’t go overboard with it!

But okay, let’s better define the Role of Protein and why it is so paramount in forming the linchpin of your Nutrition…

Fact is, if you do any form of Training (not merely ‘Exercise’), so anything that involves some degree of intensity – whether it’s High Intensity Interval Training, or Weight Training (for Strength / Endurance / Muscle Building), or Training as part of a Sport you enjoy – you’re most likely causing some level of breakdown of muscle tissue (through tiny micro-tears) that then requires *protein* to repair/rebuild!

As I mentioned earlier, Protein itself is made up of its own Building Blocks – known as Amino Acids. The cool thing about Amino Acids is that they each serve unique functions in the body; and it’s not ALL about muscle building either.

Let’s glean over a few:

Glutamine – now this is the “hallmark” ‘recovery block’ of the Aminos… it is primarily used for muscle repair.

Leucine – this is very much an ‘anabolic’ Amino Acid, and is also tied in to the promotion of Protein Synthesis, which will rebuild muscle, and can even lead to the creation of new muscle cells.

Tryptophan – now here’s an example that peels away from the muscle building side of things; this Amino is needed for the production of a highly important neurotransmitter known as Serotonin (which correlates to your mood and ability to sleep). Massively different role, but crucial!

Arginine – an Amino that has an important impact on Nitric Oxide in the body, which in turn, affects vasodilation (the ability of your veins and arteries to constrict/dilate normally), thus translating into promoting a healthy cardiovascular system.

So, those are just a few examples, and as you can see – it’s not all about muscle, but actually everything from neurotransmitters to heart health are all interconnected here!

This is really just “tip of the iceberg” stuff here, but it’s important to consider not only how vital Protein is to the body on a “structural” level, but for many of its functions too. Brain health. Heart health. Muscle health. It’s ALL affected!

This leads me to perhaps the most controversial aspect of what I want to discuss here…

Government Guidelines…

See, the Nutrition Labels you find on your food is all Government regulated – wherever you live in the world. And the ‘Recommended Daily Intake’ (‘RDI’ for short) is the starting point for what most Nutritionists, Dieticians [and Personal Trainers who know the basics of Nutrition] will all base their recommendations off.

Calorie-wise – it’s based on a very simple scientific formula; if you’ve read The Misconception of Calories you will have an understanding as to how the ‘2000kcal [for women] and 2500kcal [for men]’ recommendations are conjured up. And you will also realize that unless your unique Basal Metabolic Rate (added to other numbers I cover in that post/podcast) equate to these *average* numbers, then you’ll want to ensure you’re getting the numbers right based on YOUR Total Daily Energy Expenditure (i.e. your individual energy requirements).

My gripe is not with the Calories though, as this is based on averages. No. What ‘grinds my gears’ is the recommendations for Carbs / Protein / Fat…

The recommendations are as follows (evened out between Men’s needs and Women’s):

Carbs – 300(+)g

Protein – 50g

Fat – 90g

Now, let’s quickly consider that Fat has just slightly more than *double* the calories than either Protein or Carbohydrates. Fat contains 9kcal per gram, where Protein and Carbs have just 4kcal per gram (each).

But let’s do some quick math here. Let’s look at what you’re being told to consume…

300g Carbs = 1200kcal

50g Protein = 200kcal

90g Fat = 810kcal

Total Calories = 2,210kcal (which is roughly in the middle of what the average Man and/or the average Woman needs).

Getting approximately a third of your calories from Fat… I’ve got no problem there. As long as the sources [of Fat] come from a healthy variety (so, Omega-3’s / MCTs / Saturated / etc). After all, as we’ve established more than once now [between articles/podcasts]: Fat is essential!!

But why the actual f*ck would you want SIX times more Carbohydrates than Protein!??

Six times more of something that you don’t really need much of, versus a tiny amount of something that is…. Yes, you guessed it: ESSENTIAL!

Now, there are already plenty of Netflix documentaries out there that delve into the theories behind WHY the government advocates Carbs over anything else, so I won’t go down that road. But I will just say that the math doesn’t make sense. I mean, come on! Six times more…

Let me give you a quick analogy to highlight how absurd this is:

It’s like going camping for the weekend and deciding that you should take triple the amount of tent pegs – ya know, just in case. But you only take a single match to start a fire with.

Now, this wouldn’t be “Devil’s Advocate” if I didn’t take it to another extreme… so, how else can we look at this? Well, when you think of people who eat nothing but protein, who usually comes to mind? I hate to be stereotypical here, but… Bodybuilders are definitely top of mind for this one.

This isn’t by chance. In fact, it makes absolute sense. Typically, a Bodybuilder will aim to have at least 1.5g of Protein for every Lb that they weigh. Some even swear by a minimum of 2g/lb. Let’s add this up for a moment…

So, if I weighed 200lbs then I would need to consume between 300-400g Protein per day!

That is monstrous! But then, Bodybuilders tend to have monstrous appetites – naturally! I mean, when you have that much muscle mass to fuel, you have to get plenty of calories in, and when you need such high levels of muscle repair, your protein intake has to cater to this.

Generally though, most of us aren’t aspiring to have the physique of a Bodybuilder. But let’s just consider one interesting fact: if your goal is to lose fat, get leaner, and generally look “more toned” (a phrase that I hate!)… well, looking at what a Bodybuilder does both in the gym and in the kitchen isn’t such a bad idea! After all, their livelihood is dependent on being as “ripped” as possible. And they achieve this by training hard, and eating big!

So, let’s draw a middle-ground here…

Clearly, 50g of Protein just doesn’t cut it. It’s not enough. You need more!

And obviously, 400g of Protein is way more than anyone needs.

But there is an amount of Protein that you can easily tailor to YOUR individual needs that most of the Fitness Professionals out there would agree with as a solid “baseline”:

1g/lb

That’s all. One gram of Protein for every pound that you weigh. In my case, that would be 180g (as I weigh in at 180lbs). This may sound like a LOT… but the reason this is considered a “baseline” is because science has shown that optimum protein synthesis and muscle recovery occurs with this intake of Protein.

Consider the caloric side of things: it’s only 720kcal worth of Protein. Approximately one *third* of the average person’s caloric needs! And considering how there are THREE macro nutrients from which your calories are derived from, I would say it is more than reasonable to make this gram/pound intake your new standard!

You may be wondering what sources of Protein to get this “gram-per-pound” intake from…

Well, an average serving of most meat-based Proteins (Pork/Chicken/Beef/Tuna, for example) will be roughly 30-40g*. Therefore, one serving of each of those [four] would equate to around 120+g of Protein. If I ate four meals per day, it would be pretty easy to include one of those sources in each meal.

*This is massively generalized, as a typical tin of tuna will usually yield about 25g, a chicken breast about 35g, and a steak may be about 50g (depending on cut/size). But you get the idea.

Other sources include Eggs (a three-egg omelette would come to just over 20g of Protein); Whey or Casein Protein [Shakes] – again, these are typically around 20-25g per serving.

‘What if I’m Vegetarian or Vegan?’, I hear some of you ask. No problem – there are plenty of plant-based Protein sources too! You’ve got Chickpeas, Lentils, Almonds, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds, and more. You’ll just have to keep an eye on calorie intake with most of those as they all typically have relatively high amounts of Fat – in most cases, more Fat than Protein. But again, we NEED both, so don’t be scared off by that.

Having just reeled off several sources of Protein, it’s now a good idea to consider the rate at which they are digested; this may sound a little odd, but trust me – it’s a) very relevant, and b) important!

In the case of Whey Protein, this is a very fast absorbing/digesting protein. It is very readily used by the body, which is why it is touted as being the most important thing to consume immediately post-workout.

Now, honestly, there has been much chatter for *decades* about the “window [of opportunity?]” within which we ‘must’ consume Protein after a workout. There are those who believe that you MUST smash a protein shake within half an hour of completing your workout… ya know, because otherwise you’ll lose your “gains”… Some are a little more liberal and suggest that as long as it is within an *hour*, then you’ll be fine.

There is some degree of truth behind this. And it is optimal to consume some source of protein soon after you’re done hauling iron… but it’s not like you’ll wither away just because you left it three hours! As long as you are meeting your Daily Requirements (i.e. consuming about 1g/lb of Protein), then your body will utilize it and rebuild/repair just fine.

Whey gets put to work the quickest. But even if you decided to wait until lunch (or dinner) and eat some Chicken with your meal – the protein the chicken contains will still get used, and your body can (and will) use it all the same.

But now, let’s consider Chicken (and Eggs/Beef/Tuna/etc) – these are “Medium Digesting” protein sources. In other words, they’re not “fast acting”… nor are they slow to digest. But right down the middle – they will get absorbed at a “medium” (average) pace.

Then, of course, you have ‘Slow-Digesting’ proteins such as Casein. Both Casein and Whey are derived from milk; they are the two primary [protein-based] constituents of dairy. But Casein’s structure is not as readily absorbed as Whey’s. That’s why supplement companies market it as being ‘great before bed’ – the idea being that if you consume something rich in Casein (could be a Casein Protein Shake, or even just some Cottage Cheese) just before bed, it will gradually get digested/absorbed/utilized by your body throughout the night [while you sleep].

Again though, this is very much idealistic. But not necessary. If you want to be super specific about “timing” and get all obsessive about it, then Whey post-workout, Casein before bed, and everything else filling in the gaps in between technically does work just grand.

What I believe to be more important here though, is that you are getting your Protein from a variety of sources! I’ve given you a dozen different sources here (both meat-based and plant-based), so already you have a decent number of options to start with. You just need to do a simple bit of math and add up each serving to ensure you’re getting what you need per day.

Let me give you an example of what I eat in a day to show you how easily you can get up to and over just 150g in a day:

Breakfast – Omelette (three Eggs) and Protein Shake (one scoop of Whey, one scoop of Peanut Butter [powder], one scoop of Flaxseed [Meal])… that’s 50+g Protein at the start of my day.

Lunch – “Tuna Surprise” (A tin of Tuna whipped up with some Pasta & Sauce) – comes to about 40g Protein.

Post-Workout – Protein Shake … OR… a cheeky serving of Chicken Meatballs (as a “snack”). That’s 25g [in either one]. Plus a handful of nuts (Almonds / Walnuts / Macadamias are my go-to). Racking up an extra 10g or so.

Dinner – Steak and Veggies. I go for a nice Eye of Round, which is about 50+g Protein.

Total for the Day = 180g (roughly)

For me, this is very sustainable and easily replicable. And better yet, as a mere guideline, I can tweak it very subtly, but in ways that totally transform the “dish”. For example:

At breakfast, I could have Scrambled Eggs or Poach them instead – throw in some Veggies too! One day whip ‘em up with Jalapeños for a little spicy kick, the next you could whip in some Shiitake Mushrooms and Broccoli…

Lunch can easily substitute Tuna for Pork or Chicken or Minced Beef… Stir in Arrabbiata [like I do], or go Alfredo…

At dinner you can go all “Veggie-holic” and have a gorgeous legume stew – I love to make Chickpeas, Lentils, Button Mushrooms, Black Olives, Jalapeños and stew them with a tin of diced Tomatoes!

You just have to use your imagination a little!

The last thing I want to consider here is the saying: ‘You are what you eat!’…

I mean, this sounds so cliché and nonchalant… but it is – at its core – an absolute truth.

Look at Bodybuilders – they are [as a populous] the #1 consumers of Chicken Breast – one of the leanest meats out there. And Bodybuilders – in turn – are super lean.

Consider the image of ‘Doughboy’… enough said with that!

But hey, let’s also consider another commercial example: the Green Giant. Big. Healthy. Strong. If you eat enough veggies and reach adequate levels of Protein, you’ll be the picture of health too.

You might argue that those examples leave a loaded gun on the table when it comes to the proverbial politics behind it all, but the fact is, this isn’t about politics. This isn’t about the Government and their recommendations. It isn’t about the Corporations that sell us their Food & Beverages. It’s all about YOU! Your health. What you eat. What you put inside your body. How you treat your temple. Whether you decide to build your House with Bricks or Sticks… or Straw.

That is IT for today’s post. I promised you epic, and I hope you’ll agree that I delivered! Simple truths. Science-based facts. And impartial advice. I hope you seriously consider what we’ve gone over today, and that it helps you make some positive changes to your Nutrition. Remember: Diets are short-term solutions that ultimately yield lacklustre results. Focus on your Nutrition as a lifestyle choice that you can sustain for a lifetime!

I’ll catch you in the next post, but until then remember: Eat Healthy, and Eat Smart!

Yours in Training,

Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO

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