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You Ask, I Answer: Whey Protein/Protein Needs

I was wondering about whey protein powder and your thoughts on protein needs.

Is whey protein really more “bio-available” or better than other protein sources?

How much protein does a person need?

Is more protein necessary for muscle recovery or building after working out?

Does whey protein improve our immune system?

– Michael (last name withheld)
(City unknown), Illinois

The average healthy adult requires no more than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (if you only know your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 to determine the kilogram equivalent).

The 0.8 grams figure solely represents the daily requirement — you can consume up to 200% of that total and still be within a perfectly safe range.

It’s always amusing to me to see protein heavily advertised on certain products, almost as if it were a nutrient we were all severely lacking.

Far from it! The average adult in the United States consumes anywhere from 175 – 200 percent of their daily protein needs.

Let’s break down this ever-persistent myth that athletes (or any regular person who lifts weights and wants to bulk up, for that matter) need to consume tons of protein.

Remember, the average adult requires 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

When it comes to athletes and others engaging in strenuous physical activity, protein needs ARE higher, but we are talking, at most, 1.5 or 1.6 grams per kilogram.

In other words, their needs fall within the “permissible” 200 percent range (which, again, corresponds to average protein intakes in the United States anyway).

A few things worth mentioning here.

Firstly, building muscle has more to do with consuming excess calories and performing weight-bearing exercises that challenge and shock the muscles appropriately.

Overloading on protein but consuming too few total calories and/or not performing the appropriate exercises at the appropriate intensity levels is completely futile.

What athletes and people performing strenuous exercise should focus on is protein quality, not quantity.

This is where biological value comes in.

Biological value is a term referring to how closely a protein matches the amino acid composition required by the body.

Complete proteins – all animal-derived ones as well as soy – contain all 8 essential amino acids.

Incomplete proteins – from vegetable sources – usually lack one or two.

This is not to say that vegetarians are not getting adequate protein.

See, Mother Nature is one smart cookie.

Proof? The amino acid lacking in grains is present in legumes (and vice versa). So, as long as a vegetarian has a diet containing various food groups, their amino acid needs are met.

In fact, many athletes as well as Olympic, Ironman, and Mr. Universe bodybuilding competitors and winners have been vegetarian.

Some names? Billie Jean King, Bruce Lee, Carl Lewis, Joe Namath, and Martina Navratilova.

Back to biological value. If we are speaking about foods, eggs are the absolute best (yes, even better than meat, chicken, and fish).

Whey protein, however, has an even higher score. So, technically, it is the most bio-available protein.

Since biological value also tells us the percentage of the protein used for muscle growth and repair, it is no surprise whey protein is the chosen favorite of weight-lifters.

Again, though, many people fail to realize that protein quality is more important than protein quantity.

Remember, except for extreme circumstances, protein is not used for energy; carbohydrates and fat are. Too much protein simply ends up being stored as fat.

So how about nutrition needs after a workout?

Again, many people immediately think, “protein.” While that is certainly one part, they often forget two other just as crucial nutrients: carbohydrates and water.

Countless studies have determined that consuming protein AND carbohydrates no more than 30 to 45 minutes after a strenuous (approximately 1 hour) workout are more efficient at muscle recovery than protein alone.

Think roughly 30 – 50 grams of carbohydrates.

Another tip: carbohydrates ranking higher in the glycemic index (such as watermelons, dates, potatoes, and cereals) are often preferred during this window of time, since they replenish fuel stores more quickly and aid in muscle repair.

In regards to whey protein’s effects on the immune system, there is a good body of research showing a link between whey protein consumption and an increase in glutathione levels (a protein that plays a crucial role in human immune systems).

It is important to note, though, that other foods (spinach, walnuts, cauliflower, avocado, and broccoli, all in their raw forms) also have the same effect.

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10 Comments

  1. Chris said on April 29th, 2008

    Could you give some examples of a carb high on the glycemic index? Thank you.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on April 29th, 2008

    Chris,

    I just put some examples (in parentheses).

    Thank you for the question.

  3. Chris said on April 29th, 2008

    I appreciate the information. Thanks for such an easy to read blog.

  4. Andy Bellatti said on April 29th, 2008

    Thanks for the kudos, Chris. That’s precisely one of Small Bites’ mission statements — to make nutrition information informative and accessible.

  5. Emma said on April 30th, 2008

    Hi Andy, I wanted to say thanks for giving out nutrition advice that isn’t about fad dieting or quick weight loss gimmicks. I find it so frustrating that the public is constantly being fed (ha) myth after myth.

    A question: Are proteins really not used for energy? Are they more easily stored as fat as opposed to carbs and fats? Thanks.

  6. Big Ed said on May 3rd, 2008

    Wow… I used to work on the ATP/WTA Tour and I never knew Martina was a vegetarian. Thanks for the article. Enlightening. Big Ed

  7. vinny said on September 23rd, 2008

    Dude, thanks so much for setting things straight in a public forum. Its insanely frustrating how ill-informed most people are when it comes to nutrition as it applies to exercise and muscle-building. If I had a penny for every time I heard some of the very commonly held, though erroneous, myths about protein intake, I wouldn’t be working the 60 hrs a week I work now cause I’d be a millionaire! It’s especially frustrating being a near-vegan (like myself) and constantly being asked, usually the first question, “Where do you get your protein?” … like you said, as if there is some protein deficiency in this country. Really makes you think about the hold the animal agriculture industry has on the FDA and the nutritional consciousness of the country. You should check out, if you haven’t already, Diet For A New America by John Robbins, as well as Food Politics by Marion Nestle.

    Anyway, good lookin’ out Andy! Keep setting the record straight!

    xxx

    Vinny

  8. vinny said on September 23rd, 2008

    Dude, thanks so much for setting things straight in a public forum. Its insanely frustrating how ill-informed most people are when it comes to nutrition as it applies to exercise and muscle-building. If I had a penny for every time I heard some of the very commonly held, though erroneous, myths about protein intake, I wouldn’t be working the 60 hrs a week I work now cause I’d be a millionaire! It’s especially frustrating being a near-vegan (like myself) and constantly being asked, usually the first question, “Where do you get your protein?” … like you said, as if there is some protein deficiency in this country. Really makes you think about the hold the animal agriculture industry has on the FDA and the nutritional consciousness of the country. You should check out, if you haven’t already, Diet For A New America by John Robbins, as well as Food Politics by Marion Nestle.

    Anyway, good lookin’ out Andy! Keep setting the record straight!

    xxx

    Vinny

  9. Corey Clark said on August 14th, 2009

    Hey small note. I’ve been sick recently and had some bloodwork done, which revealed very low testosterone. I went to an endocrinologist, who was very concerned that I had used to drink whey protein shakes. Apparently some of them can mimic androgens in the body and suppress natural testosterone production. And before you call him a quack, this doctor was from the Cleveland Clinic, which even attracts international patients. Just an interesting note.

  10. Corey Clark said on August 14th, 2009

    Plus have you seen old Greek sculptures? See how muscular they are? Think they took whey protein shakes?

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