For years, bodybuilders have fed themselves a traditional diet based on egg whites, chicken breasts, canned tuna, and protein shakes. Historically, we've had inadequate science to debate those rigid dietary rules. But today, exercise physiologists are intently researching the best ways to build muscles—without steroids, that is. In particular, they are examining the role of nutrient timing—the impact of when and what you eat in relation to resistance exercise. Rather than focusing on eating large amounts of protein, I recommend paying more attention to when you eat it. Eating small amounts at the right times offers results.
If you are strength trained and in calorie balance, consuming 0.7 to 0.8 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day (1.6 to 1.8 g per kg) is more than sufficient. Given that most athletes eat in excess of the current recommendations, consuming enough protein is generally a moot point, unless you are restricting calories to lose weight. For detailed information on nutrition for bodybuilding, I recommend the book Nutrient Timing by exercise physiologists John Ivy and Robert Poortman.
Q: What should I eat before I lift weights?
A: By eating carbohydrate before exercise, you'll provide fuel for a stronger workout (even just 5 to 10 minutes beforehand offers benefits). By eating a little protein along with the carbohydrate, you'll start to digest the protein into amino acids, which get used by the muscles during and after exercise. Good choices for a preexercise snack include fruit yogurt, low-fat chocolate milk, cereal with milk, a poached egg with toast, and soy milk and an energy bar.
Q: I've heard I should eat as soon as I finish lifting weights, but I'm not feeling hungry then. Why is immediate refueling so important?
A: After a hard gym workout, your muscles are primed for getting broken down: Their glycogen (carbohydrate) stores are reduced, cortisol and other hormones that break down muscle are high, the muscle damage that occurred during exercise causes inflammation, and the amino acid glutamine that provides fuel for the immune system is diminished. If you just guzzle some water after your workout and dash to work, you'll miss the 45-minute postexercise window of opportunity to optimally nourish, repair, and build muscles. You can switch out of the muscle breakdown mode by eating a carbohydrate-protein combination as soon as tolerable after you exercise.
Q: My friend who is into bodybuilding tells me I need to eat protein every three to four hours. Is that true?
A: If you want to get the most benefits from your workout, yes. Just as eating protein before and after exercise optimizes muscle development, so does eating protein throughout the day. When the amino acid levels in the blood are above normal, the muscles take up more of these building blocks; this enhances muscle growth. Thus, eating several protein-containing meals and snacks is preferable to eating one big dinner at the end of the day. But don't get overzealous. I've had more than one client wake up every three hours during the night to consume a protein drink. The body does have a pool of amino acids to draw from, so such extreme measures are not necessary.
Q: Why are protein supplements so popular? Are they better than real foods?
A: In today's fast-food society, a mindless way to get healthful (no cholesterol, low fat) protein is through supplements. Plus, the label tells you exactly how much protein you are eating and takes away the guesswork. But protein supplements are not a whole food and fail to offer the complete package of health-protective nutrients found in natural foods. Use them to supplement wise eating, if desired, but not to replace it.
Q: What's all the hype about whey protein?
A: Whey makes up 20 percent of the protein found in milk; casein makes up the other 80 percent. The two are separated during cheese making. (Remember Little Miss Muffet who sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey?) Whey used to be discarded, but today it is made into whey powder and used in a variety of protein supplements.
Whey is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream faster than other forms of protein such as casein. Whey and casein are rich sources of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, iso-leucine, and valine. BCAAs are taken up directly by the muscles instead of having to be first metabolized by the liver. Hence, whey is "fast acting" and a good source of raw materials for protecting muscles from getting broken down during exercise and for building muscles after exercise.
So does this mean everyone who wants to build muscle needs to rush out to buy whey protein powder? No. Casein supplies a longer-lasting and sustained source of amino acids, and it's also important in the muscle-building process (Tipton et al. 2004). Additionally, whey protein powder can be expensive. The 20 grams of protein in 16 ounces (480 ml) of protein-fortified skim milk offers 1.9 grams of the branched-chain amino acid leucine at $0.40 per gram, and a serving of Met-Rx Ultramyosyn Whey Powder offers 2.1 grams of leucine for a 50 percent higher price of $0.62 per gram.
Milk and powdered milk are good alternatives that offer protein the way nature intended, as well as possible bioactive growth-promoting compounds that are yet to be discovered. Milk offers both rapid and extended protein activity in the body. And remember, whey powders are often void of the carbohydrate needed to refuel muscles. Chocolate milk has been shown to be a popular and effective recovery food (Karp et al. 2006). If you are a casual exerciser, you need not get obsessed about the type of protein in each meal. People of all ages and athletic abilities have been building muscles for centuries with standard food. If you are an aspiring champion who wants every possible edge, you may want to experiment with protein supplements to see if you achieve any benefits. Does short-term stimulation of muscle growth result in long-term advantages? That has yet to be determined. We do know that muscles have a maximum size that is influenced by genetics.
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