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Protein: The Bodybuilder’s Best Friend

In college I majored in Food Science and Dietetics, ultimately graduating with my four year degree. As I was taught more and more in the program, I became more and more cynical about the information I was being taught. For example, I was taught that athletes do not have greater protein requirements than those of sedentary individuals of the same weight. Really? How fascinating! I learned something very important in college. I realized that sometimes scientific knowledge has yet to catch up with common knowledge, and that sometimes we have to learn to trust what we know to be true versus what we are taught to be true.

Of course, it is now widely accepted that athletes do have increased protein requirements. I guess that million dollar question is, how much more? I like to simplify the whole protein issue through the following example. Your body, in a very basic sense, is like a factory. This factory has to constantly work to produce a product called protein. This product is made up of 20 different parts, eight of which are totally unique and must be shipped in from an outside source. These parts are referred to as amino acids, with the eight unique parts being referred to as the essential amino acids. We also have workers in the factory, utilizing these parts to build these proteins. All 20 parts are necessary to build this product, and if one part is missing, production stops, either temporarily or completely, depending on which part is missing. Now, this is where the information I learned in college becomes laughable. There are things you can do that will increase your need for product (protein). Things like training, drugs, sickness, etc. If we increase the number of workers, but don’t increase the number of parts, we simply stop production faster, correct? But what happens if we increase the number of workers and parts at the same time? More product is manufactured, and we become bigger!

So, how much more protein is required by athletes? Who knows! To be perfectly frank, I don’t care about how much protein a tennis player needs, or how much a figure skater needs. I concern myself with the needs of bodybuilders. Bodybuilders have protein requirements far greater than that of any other athlete because their success in the sport is based on breaking down muscle tissue during a workout. During the recovery phase, this muscle tissue is repaired, and hopefully comes back slightly thicker than it was before. This constant tearing down and rebuilding is what causes muscular hypertrophy. In order to ensure that the “factory” has all of the necessary “parts” in order to produce protein, I advocate a protein consumption of 3 gm a day per lb of bodyweight. What?!!! That would mean that a 250 lb bodybuilder would consume somewhere in the range of 750 gm of protein a day. This equates to about 3000 kcals from protein alone on a daily basis for this particular bodybuilder. If you’re not prepared to do this, I guess you’re not prepared to succeed in bodybuilding

Meal timing becomes critical in bodybuilding. It’s vitally important that protein is consumed every 2-3 hours, even throughout the night if possible! When we look at newborn babies, we see a similar pattern. Babies will tend to eat every 2-3 hours, even throughout the night. Primarily, they feed on protein. Instinctively, babies know that they need to consume large amounts of protein on a continuous basis. Now, the growth we experience as bodybuilders can’t compare with that of a baby. But we also need to constantly keep our body in as anabolic a state as possible. Consuming large amounts of protein helps maintain positive nitrogen balance.

Glutamine is vitally important because it is the most abundant amino acid in the body. While glutamine can be made from the amino acid glutamic acid, it’s known as a conditionally essential amino acid. Basically what this means is that although the body can synthesize glutamine, there are times when the bodies need for glutamine outstrips its ability to manufacture this amino acid. Glutamine supplementation acts to prevent muscle catabolism by providing free glutamine in time of increased need. Glutamine has also been shown to increase cell volume and increase protein synthesis. Glutamine should be supplemented daily, with 20-30 grams being an effective dose.

What about branched chain amino acids (BCAA)? Briefly the amino acids L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine, and L-Valine are the three essential amino acids that are referred to as BCAA. These amino acids make up a large portion of your muscle mass and must be present in large amounts for growth to take place. BCAA’s should be taken immediately after a workout along with glutamine to facilitate recovery of the muscles you’ve just trained.

Now for the next question. What kind of protein should I be using? Well, we all know that whey protein is the best right? Whey is certainly a great protein. But whey is not a perfect protein. Let’s examine the major kinds of protein sold on the market today.

Whey Protein

For the longest time, whey protein was considered a waste by-product of cheese manufacturing. Unrefined whey is very sweet and syrupy and contains large amounts of lactose. Through advents in food technology, processes have been developed to extract the proteins from whey, yielding an extremely high quality, low lactose protein. These two processes are micro filtration and ion exchange. Whey protein has several advantages over other proteins, the most important of which is it’s extremely high branch chain amino acid (BCAA) content. Whey also seems to have immune system enhancing properties due to it’s high content of immunoglobulin proteins. On the down side, whey is tremendously expensive. Many bodybuilders cannot afford to pay the cost associated with a high quality whey protein. Whey protein is also relatively low in glutamine, which is vitally important to any hard training bodybuilder.

Soy Protein

Why the hell are you wasting your time talking about soy? Well my friend, soy is a surprisingly superior source of protein. Although it comes from plant sources, it is a complete protein, given that it is a soy-protein isolate. Let me repeat this. Soy is a great source of protein, but it must be a soy protein isolate, the trade name of which is Supro. Soy protein is very high in both BCAA’s and glutamine. Soy-isolate is also very inexpensive when compared to high quality whey proteins. Unfortunately, soy is somewhat low in the amino acid methionine, which reduces it’s effectiveness as your sole source of supplemental protein.

Casein (Milk) Protein

Here’s the old standby. How many of you think that a milk protein powder is cheap crap? Well, it’s a actually a very good source of protein, as long as it’s purchased from a reputable manufacturer. There are good brands of milk protein and there are brands that really are crap. However, if you stick with a brand from a major company, you can be fairly confident that you are getting a quality product. Casein has a very high glutamine content, which as we all know is crucial to any hard training bodybuilder. However casein tends to contain high amounts of lactose which can cause problems for some people.

Here’s the old standby. How many of you think that a milk protein powder is cheap crap? Well, it’s a actually a very good source of protein, as long as it’s purchased from a reputable manufacturer. There are good brands of milk protein and there are brands that really are crap. However, if you stick with a brand from a major company, you can be fairly confident that you are getting a quality product. Casein has a very high glutamine content, which as we all know is crucial to any hard training bodybuilder. However casein tends to contain high amounts of lactose which can cause problems for some people.

Egg Protein

Before the advent of whey, egg protein was the king, reigning supreme over all others. Egg protein is still a great choice for a protein powder. Additionally, don’t forget about real eggs! Just don’t eat your eggs raw, as the avidin content in raw eggs can deplete your body of biotin, and you can also get salmonella poisoning. With so many protein powders out there, many often forget to eat high quality protein sources of real food. Egg whites should be a part of every bodybuilders diet.

Well, what to do? Ideally, the best protein supplement on the market would combine the best qualities of these proteins in one formula, the combination of which would overcome the weaknesses or amino acid deficiencies of the others. Let me know when it comes out. Until then, I recommend that you do the following. Buy equal amounts of whey, casein, and soy protein and mix them together in an equal ratio. I know this sounds like a lot of work but it’s relatively easy to do and gives you the perfect supplemental protein. Realistically this can produce 6 lbs of protein that is superior to the highest quality whey at a cheaper price than if you had purchased six lbs of whey alone.

As I stated before, some bodybuilders get away from eating quality whole food sources of protein because they supplement with so many high quality sources. Remember from earlier that production will slow or stop if any one part is missing. So the choices you make at each and every feeding is crucial to your bodybuilding success. I’ll be the first to advocate the use of junk food in the off season. It’s almost a requirement to eat foods with a high fat content in order to consume the calories necessary to attain the muscular size seen on stage today. Anyone who’s seen a pro’s diet in the off season knows the chicken and rice thing only comes into play pre-contest. What I recommend is that bodybuilders combine complimentary sources of protein, even when eating junk food. If you’re going to KFC, down a protein shake along with your chicken. If your going to eat a big steak, eat it with some beans and wash it down with milk.

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