Are You Protein Deficient?

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Protein! Protein! Protein! It seems everywhere you turn there is some nutrition expert promoting more protein and less carbohydrates. Protein to lose weight. Protein to add muscle. Protein to minimize the risk of certain cancers. Then there are the different types of proteins. You have whey protein. You have pea protein. You have soy protein. You even have casein protein. As a consumer, it can be very difficult to determine which is best.

Before deciding which protein source is best you must first know how much protein you need. The Recommended Daily Allowance(RDA) for protein for an adult male or female(non-pregnant) is 0.8 grams per 1 kilogram(2.2lbs) of bodyweight. For example, a 200lb person (91kg) would need to take in about 72 grams of protein per day according to the RDA. The RDA also recommends that 10% of your overall calorie consumption come from protein.

What the RDA fails to recognize is that these requirements need to change when a person is exercising with moderate intensity on a regular basis. The RDA simply looks at how much protein the body can process as a whole with excess nitrogen (the basic element of protein distinguishing it from carbohydrate and fat) being excreted in urine. The RDA’s recommendations are low because of the concern that excess protein can put unnecessary strain on a person’s kidneys due to excess nitrogen buildup in our bodies. While these concerns are valid, numerous studies have supported the need of more protein for exercising individuals.

Depending on the demands of the sport and the frequency of the exerciser, the amount of protein a person’s body can process can range anywhere from 1.2 grams to as much as 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For the 200lb(91kg) person, their protein recommendations would now become somewhere between 109 – 164 grams of protein per day depending on their activity level. The reason for this necessary increase in protein is because when a person exercises (especially with weight training and intense anaerobic exercise) there is significant muscle damage post exercise. Our bodies now require many amino acids, the basic building blocks of our muscle tissue, to help repair our bodies. Protein that we eat in our diet is broken down into amino acids in our bloodstream. These amino acids are then used to reconstruct new protein structures in our bodies. These new protein structures are our newly developed muscle tissue. This is how our muscles grow and become stronger.

Another way to determine the amount of protein needed in your diet is to look at it as an overall percentage of your day’s calories. The RDA for protein is 10% of the overall diet. If you’re taking in 164 grams of protein like a 200lb(91kg) athlete, you would need to take in over 6500 calories to have it only be 10% of your overall diet. Obviously, this won’t work for most people. Generally speaking 20-30% of an exercising person’s overall diet from protein should be sufficient. For an exercising person who is eating a 2000 calorie diet this would equate to 100-150 grams of protein per day (1 gram of protein equaling 4 calories).

It has been cited that many Americans take in more than 2x the recommended amount of protein. In my experience, I have observed that most males who take up weightlifting often ingest too much protein. On the contrary, many women I have worked with I have found to be what I call “protein-deficient” meaning they do not get enough protein in their diets to support their exercise and nutritional needs. I know these are generalizations, but I am confident in a majority of cases this is true. Using these basic guidelines should help you balance out your nutrients better. If you are concerned that you are taking in too much protein, be sure to drink lots of water to help flush your kidneys. If you have medical concerns or have difficulty digesting protein, be sure to check with your physician before undergoing these or any dietary changes if the recommendations are quite different than your current eating plan.

As far as which types of proteins are best, I believe that if more exercisers simply get adequate protein in their bodies through a healthy and balanced diet, the type of protein they are using will be irrelevant. You’ll easily get all of the amino acids your body will need and see all of the gains in lean body mass you hoped to achieve. 

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Christian Silva, MS, CSCS is the local owner of GYMGUYZ. Specializing in in-home personal training, in-home stretching, nutrition coaching and wellness solutions for your company or community program.