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"Nutritional Myths that Just Won't Die:
By Will Brink, author of:
Muscle Building Nutrition
Muscle Gaining Diet, Training Routines by Charles Poliquin & Bodybuilding
Diet Supplements Revealed
Real World Fat Loss Diet & Weight Loss Supplement Review
"Nutritional Myths that Just Won't Die:
When it comes to the topic of sports nutrition there are many myths and
fallacies that float around like some specter in the shadows. They pop up when
you least expect them and throw a monkey wrench into the best laid plans of the
hard training athlete trying to make some headway. Of all the myths that surface
from time to time, the protein myth seems to be the most deep rooted and
pervasive. It just won't go away. The problem is, exactly who, or which group,
is perpetuating the "myth" cant be easily identified. You see, the conservative
nutritional/medical community thinks it is the bodybuilders who perpetuate the
myth that athletes need more protein and we of the bodybuilding community think
it is them (the mainstream nutritional community) that is perpetuating the myth
that athletes don't need additional protein! Who is right?
The conservative medical/nutritional community is an odd group. They make up the
rules as they go along and maintain what I refer to as the "nutritional double
standard." If for example you speak about taking in additional vitamin C to
possibly prevent cancer, heart disease, colds, and other afflictions, they will
come back with "there is still not enough data to support the use of vitamin C
as a preventative measure for these diseases," when in fact there are literary
hundreds of studies showing the many benefits of this vitamin for the prevention
and treatment of said diseases.
And of course, if you tell them you are on a
high protein diet because you are an athlete they will tell you, "oh you don't
want to do that, you don't need it and it will lead to kidney disease" without a
single decent study to back up their claim! You see they too are susceptible to
the skulking myth specter that spreads lies and confusion. In this article I
want to address once and for all (hopefully) the protein myth as it applies to
what the average person is told when they tell their doctor or some anemic "all
you need are the RDAs" spouting nutritionist that he or she is following a high
Myth #1 "Athletes don't need extra protein"
I figured we should start this myth destroying article off with the most
annoying myth first. Lord, when will this one go away? Now the average reader
person is probably thinking "who in the world still believes that ridiculous
statement?" The answer is a great deal of people, even well educated medical
professionals and scientists who should know better, still believe this to be
true. Don't forget, the high carb, low fat, low protein diet recommendations are
alive and well with the average nutritionist, doctor, and of course the "don't
confuse us with the facts" media following close behind.
For the past half
century or so scientists using crude methods and poor study design with
sedentary people have held firm to the belief that bodybuilders, strength
athletes of various types, runners, and other highly active people did not
require any more protein than Mr. Potato Head.....err, I mean the average couch
potato. However, In the past few decades researchers using better study designs
and methods with real live athletes have come to a different conclusion
altogether, a conclusion hard training bodybuilders have known for years. The
fact that active people do indeed require far more protein than the RDA to keep
from losing hard earned muscle tissue when dieting or increasing muscle tissue
during the off season.
In a recent review paper on the subject one of the top researchers in the field
(Dr. Peter Lemon) states "...These data suggest that the RDA for those engaged
in regular endurance exercise should be about 1.2-1.4 grams of protein/kilogram
of body mass (150%-175% of the current RDA) and 1.7 - 1.8 grams of protein/kilogram
of body mass per day (212%-225% of the current RDA) for strength exercisers."
Another group of researchers in the field of protein metabolism have come to
similar conclusions repeatedly. They found that strength training athletes
eating approximately the RDA/RNI for protein showed a decreased whole body
protein synthesis (losing muscle jack!) on a protein intake of 0.86 grams per
kilogram of bodyweight. They came to an almost identical conclusion as that of
Dr. Lemon in recommending at least 1.76g per kilogram of bodyweight per day for
strength training athletes for staying in positive nitrogen balance/increases in
whole body protein synthesis.
This same group found in later research that endurance athletes also need far
more protein than the RDA/RNI and that men catabolize (break down) more protein
than women during endurance exercise.
They concluded "In summary, protein requirements for athletes performing
strength training are greater than sedentary individuals and are above the
current Canadian and US recommended daily protein intake requirements for young
healthy males." All I can say to that is, no sh%# Sherlock?!
Now my intention of presenting the above quotes from the current research is not
necessarily to convince the average athlete that they need more protein than Joe
shmoe couch potato, but rather to bring to the readers attention some of the
figures presented by this current research. How does this information relate to
the eating habits of the average athlete and the advice that has been found in
the lay bodybuilding literature years before this research ever existed? With
some variation, the most common advice on protein intakes that could be-and can
be- found in the bodybuilding magazines by the various writers, coaches,
bodybuilders, etc., is one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
So for a 200 pound guy that would be 200 grams
of protein per day. No sweat. So how does this advice fair with the above
current research findings? Well let's see. Being scientists like to work in
kilograms (don't ask me why) we have to do some converting. A kilogram weighs
2.2lbs. So, 200 divided by 2.2 gives us 90.9. Multiply that times 1.8 (the high
end of Dr. Lemon's research) and you get 163.6 grams of protein per day. What
about the nutritionists, doctors, and others who call(ed) us "protein pushers"
all the while recommending the RDA as being adequate for athletes?
Lets see. The
current RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight: 200 divided by
2.2 x 0.8 = 73 grams of protein per day for a 200lb person. So who was closer,
the bodybuilders or the arm chair scientists? Well lets see! 200g (what
bodybuilders have recommended for a 200lb athlete) - 163g ( the high end of the
current research recommendations for a 200lb person) = 37 grams (the difference
between what bodybuilders think they should eat and the current research).
How do the RDA pushers fair? Hey, if they get
to call us "protein pushers" than we get to call them "RDA pushers!" Anyway,
163g - 73g = (drum role) 90 grams! So it would appear that the bodybuilding
community has been a great deal more accurate about the protein needs of
strength athletes than the average nutritionist and I don't think this comes as
any surprise to any of us. So should the average bodybuilder reduce his protein
intake a bit from this data? No, and I will explain why. As with vitamins and
other nutrients, you identify what looks to be the precise amount of the
compound needed for the effect you want (in this case positive nitrogen balance,
increased protein synthesis, etc) and add a margin of safety to account for the
biochemical individuality of different people, the fact that there are low grade
protein sources the person might be eating, and other variables.
So the current
recommendation by the majority of bodybuilders, writers, coaches, and others of
one gram per pound of bodyweight does a good job of taking into account the
current research and adding a margin of safety. One things for sure, a little
too much protein is far less detrimental to the athletes goal(s) of increasing
muscle mass than too little protein, and this makes the RDA pushers advice just
that much more.... moronic, for lack of a better word.
There are a few other points I think are important to look at when we recommend
additional protein in the diet of athletes, especially strength training
athletes. In the off season, the strength training athletes needs not only
adequate protein but adequate calories. Assuming our friend (the 200lb
bodybuilder) wants to eat approximately 3500 calories a day, how is he supposed
to split his calories up? Again, this is where the bodybuilding community and
the conservative nutritional/medical community are going to have a parting of
the ways... again. The conservative types would say "that's an easy one, just
tell the bodybuilder he should make up the majority of his calories from
Now lets assume the bodybuilder does not want
to eat so many carbs. Now the high carb issue is an entirely different fight and
article, so I am just not going to go into great depth on the topic here.
Suffice it to say, anyone who regularly reads articles, books, etc, >from people
such as Dan Duchaine, Dr. Mauro Dipasquale, Barry Sears PhD, Udo Erasmus PhD,
yours truly, and others know why the high carb diet bites the big one for losing
fat and gaining muscle (In fact, there is recent research that suggests that
carbohydrate restriction, not calorie restriction per se, is what's responsible
for mobilizing fat stores). So for arguments sake and lack of space, let's just
assume our 200lb bodybuilder friend does not want to eat a high carb diet for
his own reasons, whatever they may be.
What else can he eat? He is only left
with fat and protein. If he splits up his diet into say 30% protein, 30 % fat,
and 40% carbs, he will be eating 1050 calories as protein (3500x30% = 1050) and
262.5g of protein a day (1050 divided by 4 = 262.5). So what we have is an
amount (262.5g) that meets the current research, has an added margin of safety,
and an added component for energy/calorie needs of people who don't want to
follow a high carb diet, hich is a large percentage of the bodybuilding/strength
training community. here are other reasons for a high protein intake such as
hormonal effects (i.e. effects on IGF-1, GH, thyroid ), thermic effects, etc.,
but I think I have made the appropriate point. So is there a time when the
bodybuilder might want to go even higher in his percent of calories >from
protein than 30%? Sure, when he is dieting.
It is well established that carbs are "protein
sparing" and so more protein is required as percent of calories when one reduces
calories. Also, dieting is a time that preserving lean mass (muscle) is at a
premium. Finally, as calories decrease the quality and quantity of protein in
the diet is the most important variable for maintaining muscle tissue (as it
applies to nutritional factors), and of course protein is the least likely
nutrient to be converted to bodyfat. In my view, the above information bodes
well for the high protein diet. If you tell the average RDA pusher you are
eating 40% protein while on a diet, they will tell you that 40% is far too much
protein. But is it? Say our 200lb friend has reduced his calories to 2000 in
attempt to reduce his bodyfat for a competition, summer time at the beach, or
what ever. Lets do the math. 40% x 2000 = 800 calories from protein or 200g (800
divided by 4). So as you can see, he is actually eating less protein per day
than in the off season but is still in the range of the current research with
the margin of safety/current bodybuilding recommendations intact.
Bottom line? High protein diets are far better for reducing bodyfat, increasing
muscle mass, and helping the hard training bodybuilder achieve his (or her!)
goals, and it is obvious that endurance athletes will also benefit from diets
higher in protein than the worthless and outdated RDAs.
Myth #2 "High protein diets are bad for you"
So the average person reads the above information on the protein needs and
benefits of a high protein diet but remembers in the back of their mind another
myth about high protein intakes. "I thought high protein diets are bad for the
kidneys and will give you osteoporosis! " they exclaim with conviction and
indignation. So what are the medical facts behind these claims and why do so
many people, including some medical professionals and nutritionists, still
For starters, the negative health claims of the high protein diet on
kidney function is based on information gathered from people who have
preexisting kidney problems. You see one of the jobs of the kidneys is the
excretion of urea (generally a non toxic compound) that is formed from ammonia
(a very toxic compound) which comes from the protein in our diets. People with
serious kidney problems have trouble excreting the urea placing more stress on
the kidneys and so the logic goes that a high protein diet must be hard on the
kidneys for healthy athletes also.
Now for the medical and scientific facts. There
is not a single scientific study published in a reputable peer - reviewed
journal using healthy adults with normal kidney function that has shown any
kidney dysfunction what so ever from a high protein diet. Not one of the studies
done with healthy athletes that I mentioned above, or other research I have read,
has shown any kidney abnormalities at all. Furthermore, animals studies done
using high protein diets also fail to show any kidney dysfunction in healthy
Now don't forget, in the real world, where millions of athletes have
been following high protein diets for decades, there has never been a case of
kidney failure in a healthy athlete that was determined to have been caused
solely by a high protein diet. If the high protein diet was indeed putting undo
stress on our kidneys, we would have seen many cases of kidney abnormalities,
but we don't nor will we. From a personal perspective as a trainer for many top
athletes from various sports, I have known bodybuilders eating considerably more
than the above research recommends (above 600 grams a day) who showed no kidney
dysfunction or kidney problems and I personally read the damn blood tests!
Bottom line? 1-1.5 grams or protein per pound of bodyweight will have absolutely
no ill effects on the kidney function of a healthy athlete, period. Now of
course too much of anything can be harmful and I suppose it's possible a healthy
person could eat enough protein over a long enough period of time to effect
kidney function, but it is very unlikely and has yet to be shown in the
scientific literature in healthy athletes.
So what about the osteoporosis claim? That's a bit more complicated but the
conclusion is the same. The pathology of osteoporosis involves a combination of
many risk factors and physiological variables such as macro nutrient intakes (carbs,
proteins, fats), micro nutrient intakes (vitamins, minerals, etc), hormonal
profiles, lack of exercise, gender, family history, and a few others. The theory
is that high protein intakes raise the acidity of the blood and the body must
use minerals from bone stores to "buffer" the blood and bring the blood acidity
down, thus depleting one's bones of minerals. Even if there was a clear link
between a high protein diet and osteoporosis in all populations (and there is
not) athletes have few of the above risk factors as they tend to get plenty of
exercise, calories, minerals, vitamins, and have positive hormonal profiles.
Fact of the matter is, studies have shown athletes to have denser bones than
sedentary people, there are millions of athletes who follow high protein diets
without any signs of premature bone loss, and we don't have ex athletes who are
now older with higher rates of osteoporosis.
In fact, one recent study showed
women receiving extra protein from a protein supplement had increased bone
density over a group not getting the extra protein! The researchers theorized
this was due to an increase in IGF-1 levels which are known to be involved in
bone growth. Would I recommend a super high protein diet to some sedentary post
menopausal woman? Probably not, but we are not talking about her, we are talking
about athletes. Bottom line? A high protein diet does not lead to osteoporosis
in healthy athletes with very few risk factors for this affliction, especially
in the ranges of protein intake that have been discussed throughout this article.
Myth #3 "All proteins are created equal"
How many times have you heard or read this ridiculous statement? Yes, in a
sedentary couch potato who does not care that his butt is the same shape as the
cushion he is sitting on, protein quality is of little concern. However,
research has shown repeatedly that different proteins have various functional
properties that athletes can take advantage of. For example, whey protein
concentrate (WPC) has been shown to improve immunity to a variety of challenges
and intense exercise has been shown to compromise certain parts of the immune
response. WPC is also exceptionally high in the branch chain amino acids which
are the amino acids that are oxidized during exercise and have been found to
have many benefits to athletes. We also know soy has many uses for athletes, and
this is covered in full on the Brinkzone site in another article.
could go on all day about the various functional properties of different
proteins but there is no need. The fact is that science is rapidly discovering
that proteins with different amino acid ratios (and various constituents found
within the various protein foods) have very different effects on the human body
and it is these functional properties that bodybuilders and other athletes can
use to their advantage. Bottom line? Let the people who believe that all
proteins are created equal continue to eat their low grade proteins and get
nowhere while you laugh all the way to a muscular, healthy, low fat body!
Over the years the above myths have been floating around for so long they have
just been accepted as true, even though there is little to no research to prove
it and a whole bunch of research that disproves it! I hope this article has been
helpful in clearing up some of the confusion for people over the myths
surrounding protein and athletes. Of course now I still have to address even
tougher myths such as "all fats make you fat and are bad for you," "supplements
are a waste of time," and my personal favorite, "a calorie is a calorie." The
next time someone gives you a hard time about your high protein intake, copy the
latest study on the topic and give it to em. If that does not work, role up the
largest bodybuilding magazine you can find and hit hem over the head with it!
About the Author - William D. Brink
Will Brink is a columnist, contributing consultant, and writer for various
health/fitness, medical, and bodybuilding publications. His articles relating to
nutrition, supplements, weight loss, exercise and medicine can be found in such
publications as Lets Live, Muscle Media 2000, MuscleMag International, The Life
Extension Magazine, Muscle n Fitness, Inside Karate, Exercise For Men Only, Body
International, Power, Oxygen, Penthouse, Women?s World and The Townsend Letter
For Doctors. He is the author of Priming The Anabolic Environment and Weight
Loss Nutrients Revealed. He is the Consulting Sports Nutrition Editor and a
monthly columnist for Physical magazine and an Editor at Large for Power
magazine. Will graduated from Harvard University with a concentration in the
natural sciences, and is a consultant to major supplement, dairy, and
He has been co author of several studies relating to sports nutrition and health
found in peer reviewed academic journals, as well as having commentary published
in JAMA. He runs the highly popular web site BrinkZone.com which is
strategically positioned to fulfill the needs and interests of people with
diverse backgrounds and knowledge. The BrinkZone site has a following with many
sports nutrition enthusiasts, athletes, fitness professionals, scientists,
medical doctors, nutritionists, and interested lay people. William has been
invited to lecture on the benefits of weight training and nutrition at
conventions and symposiums around the U.S. and Canada, and has appeared on
numerous radio and television programs.
William has worked with athletes ranging from professional bodybuilders,
golfers, fitness contestants, to police and military personnel.
See Will's ebooks online here:
Muscle Building Nutrition
A complete guide bodybuilding supplements and eating to gain lean muscle
Diet Supplements Revealed
A review of diet
supplements and guide to eating for maximum fat loss
He can be contacted at: PO Box 812430
Wellesley MA. 02482.
1 Lemon, PW, "Is increased dietary protein necessary or beneficial for
individuals with a physically active life style?" Nutr. Rev. 54:S169-175, 1996.
2 Lemon, PW, "Do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids?"
International J. Sports Nutri. S39-61, 1995.
3 Tarnopolsky, MA, "Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength
athletes." J. Applied. Phys. 73(5): 1986-1995, 1992
4 Phillips, SM, "Gender differences in leucine kinetics and nitrogen balance in
endurance athletes." J. Applied Phys. 75(5): 2134-2141, 1993.
5 Tarnopolsky, MA, 1992.
6 Carroll, RM, "Effects of energy compared with carbohydrate restriction on the
lipolytic response to epinephrine." Am. J. Clin. Nutri. 62:757-760, 1996.
7 Bounus, G., Gold, P. "The biological activity of undenatured whey proteins:
role of glutathione." Clin. Invest. Med. 14:4, 296-309, 1991
8 Bounus, G. "Dietary whey protein inhibits the development of dimethylhydrazine
induced malignancy." Clin. Invest. Med. 12: 213-217, 1988
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