You know what they say, you are what you eat. But in the case of protein, the old saying is especially true. Did you know your skin, bones, even your hair and fingernails are composed almost entirely of protein? And perhaps, most importantly, protein fuels the muscle-building process. But for as common as protein is, there's a lot to understand about how it works and the ways in which we can reap the most benefits from this all-important nutrient. And like with anything related to fitness and nutrition, there are a lot of half-truths and myths that simply won’t go away. Today, we set the record straight.
Men need protein
Most adults would benefit from eating more than the USDA recommended daily intake of 56 grams, says Donald Layman, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois. The benefit goes beyond muscles, he says: Protein dulls hunger and can help prevent obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So how much do you really need? Step on a scale to find out. Men regularly need about half a gram per pound of weight. So an active 180-pound guy should be taking in about 80 grams of protein a day. However, make sure you’re balancing it out with carbs and vegetables. New research suggests popular low-carb, high-protein diets can decrease testosterone by up to 37%.
Increasing protein will increase muscle mass
It is a fact that your body can’t properly repair or generate muscle without the full suite of essential amino acids found in food sources of protein. But just downing protein won’t build or maintain muscle mass. You need exercise and strength training on top of that. If you're not working out and challenging your muscles, they won't need all the extra protein you're packing in.
You need protein right after a workout
This is something of a half-truth. You will need some protein. But you don’t have to slam a shake as soon as you’re done lifting in order to maximize your gains. Jamie Baum, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and protein researcher at the University of Arkansas says the clock isn’t exactly ticking like that. If you’re a professional bodybuilder, then you probably need protein every four hours or so. As for the rest of us, she says consuming protein with our meals will provide our muscles with everything they need to build and repair.
Protein supplements are the same as getting it from food
We love a good protein shake and bar. They're convenient when you’re on the run and they’re often easily absorbed by our bodies. But that being said, don't equate drinking a shake to cutting into a slab of steak or eating a couple hard boiled eggs. While powders are a great protein source, they shouldn't act as a substitute for whole food sources. In fact, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming protein along with other nutrients in whole food sources is more effective than just simply downing the protein alone (i.e. the kind found in powders, pre-mixed shakes and bars). That’s because “all of these non-protein food components may be helping dietary amino acids to support the post-workout muscle building response,” says one of the study’s authors.
As long as you eat enough, it doesn't matter when you consume protein
Don't simply rely on a big protein-rich dinner to supply a large shot of protein. When you do that, you're only fueling your muscles (and their growth) for a few hours after dinner. The rest of the time, you're breaking down muscle. Plus, the body can only process so much protein in a single sitting. According to a University of Texas study, consuming 90 grams of protein at one meal provides the same benefit as eating 30 grams. Think of it like a gas tank - once you hit your limit, the rest is just spillover. Consider spreading it out by adding eggs, Greek yogurt, tofu, and/or turkey sausage to your breakfast.
Protein is protein, right?
Not all protein is created equal. You'll likely see "Concentrate" and "Isolate" on labels for protein powders, bars and snacks. Whey, for example, is simply a concentrated form of milk protein. While isolates filter out the lactose to raise its protein content from 80% to over 90%. What about "Complete" vs "Incomplete"? A complete protein provides all nine of the essential amino acids (the building blocks of muscle) your body can't produce on its own. Incomplete sources, by contrast, offer some but not all of these. And while dairy sources are complete proteins, vegan mixes can be combined (such as a 70/30 pea and rice blend), to create a very similar complete protein profile.