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The Importance of Protein

The subject of protein consumption often stirs up public controversy and heated debate. Some immediately think of "excess" and relegate protein consumption to kidney or liver damage, cancer and osteoporosis. Others are concerned about the effects of eating livestock raised on pesticide loaded grains and hormones, how we treat animals raised for slaughter and various health risks associated with a plethora of possible infective agents including salmonella, e-coli, prions and parasites. The good news is that we can push all of these negative concerns to the side.

Through the efforts of investigative science and biological research, advanced extraction and filtration methods now exist that can create incredibly nourishing, non-denatured extremely clean "designer" protein isolates far superior to commercial tissue protein. Like it or not protein is essential to life. The word translated from Greek literally means to "come first" or "of the first rank", which is why its position and presence at each meal should be the first, rather than the last consideration (for some it's not considered at all).

The prime directive with protein is to provide the body with optimum quantities of amino acids sufficient to supply its biological demand. This principle applies to all vitamins, minerals and essential dietary nutrients. Excessive quantities of anything, including protein, fat and carbohydrates, will cause problems. On the other hand, an inadequate provision of protein will result in sub-optimal performance, chronic fatigue, excess bodyfat, abnormal cravings for sweets, depression, a weak immune system, slow wound healing, a slow gradual loss of functional lean mass (sarcopenia) and a high susceptibility for training related sports injuries.

To understand the significance, requirement and function of protein, one must develop an analytical approach which is guided by the spirit of objectivity. Our goal as truth-seekers is to see and accept things as they really are, as opposed to how we want them to be. Our perception of truth is highly subjective; what we believe to be true does not always conform to reality. When it does all is well provided we comply with what we know to be true. A simple analysis of diet, performance, body composition and blood is all it takes to determine whether or not sufficient protein in being consumed. No one is above the law.

What is Protein?

Briefly stated, protein is one of several macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates & fat) constituting about one-fifth (20%) of our total weight or about half of our dry mass. After water (and sometimes fat) it is the most plentiful substance identified in our body composition. Our cells are actually mini-protein factories, expending an enormous amount of time and energy synthesizing the protein building blocks we need to support the biochemical demands of our structure and function.

Proteins obtained from dietary sources, be they plant or animal, provide the body with essential building blocks called amino acids. Individual amino acids are linked together like a string of pearls, and it is these pearls or "peptides" that possess the nitrogen and sulfur that carbohydrates and fats do not. Amino acid chains are arranged in a vast array of possible sequences. Protein peptides are biological active, meaning they possess many unique properties associated with building and repairing body tissue. They also sustain the immune system and regulate the structural basis of enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters. Amino acids also communicate with cells in highly complex biochemical pathways now only partially understood.

Protein is a component of muscle, collagen, elastin, keratin, bone, connective tissue and cartilage. You can't even think without protein. For optimum performance, you have to eat enough of the right kind of protein because unlike fats and carbohydrates, protein is not stored in the body. The body's amino acid pool needs constant replenishment and the body runs like a top when its amino pool is "topped up". The body uses combinations of different amino acids to create new cells similar to how a mason worker uses bricks to construct a retaining wall. In general, protein stimulates, carbohydrates sedate and fatty acids insulate.

Why Athletes Need More Protein (Nitrogen)

Athletes require more protein than what the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) currently suggests (0.8 gm of protein per kilogram of total body weight). This is because of how the neuromuscular and immune system is traumatized through strenuous exercise and heavy lifting. If exercise doesn't traumatize or disrupt homeostasis then it simply isn't effective. Very little extra protein is required for the actual growth and remodeling process, because muscle grows very slowly when properly stimulated, and consists of over 70% water.

It is the impact of hard physical work that really takes its toll on the entire system, and this is evident when sports medical scientists examine the effects of intense strength and volume training on nitrogen balance on athletes (not sedentary people). The harder the workouts, and the more frequently they are performed, the more difficult it is to remain in a positive nitrogen state. To maintain a positive nitrogen balance (PNB) which is essential for growth and recovery, one must consume slightly more nitrogen (or protein) each day than what is being lost through metabolism.

To improve muscle tone, strength, power and muscle size, you must train progressively, so the very nature of resistance exercise increases the demand for fuel ratios specific to your training format and type of sport. Growth is just one of five responsive phases and occurs only if the previous four are satisfied. First you need enough energy to facilitate the training itself. If you lack motivation, check the quality and consistency of your daily protein intake and overall diet.

After exercise your nervous system and immune cells must be replenished. The next two phases involve the actual repair and recovery from the "hurricane" that caused the damage. In the end you grow, provided you obtain adequate rest and supply optimum quantities of all the essential nutrients sufficient to your individual biological demand.

Athletes also require more protein to compensate for nitrogen losses incurred through heavy sweating and compression hemolysis, a term used to describe what happens when a small percentage of red blood cells are actually crushed through intense muscle contraction.

Up to 10% of our total energy supply can be derived through the conversion of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) into glucose. Many athletes push exercise to the point of muscle glycogen deficiency, forcing the body to scavenge muscle tissue as a secondary fuel source. Dietary protein consumed throughout the day protects hard-earned functional muscle from this process of erosion.

Heavy exercise also elicits a stress response which raises plasma cortisol levels. Cortisol, a catabolic hormone, inhibits the uptake and transfer of amino acids into muscle cells and stimulates a direct proteolytic effect, which means it increases protein breakdown. Think of excess prolonged cortisol release without any anabolic backup like pouring battery acid on your muscles and bones.

Nitrogen balance drops to negative as a result of strenuous workouts. A negative nitrogen balance means that the body has an insufficient input of high-quality protein. Although nitrogen used for building muscle is controlled by the liver and several hormones, you can't build substantial muscle mass without a positive nitrogen balance. If your #1 goal is to build muscle size and strength, my recommendation for daily protein consumption is at least 2 grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of your lean body mass and in some cases as high as 3 grams per kilogram of lean body mass (not total weight).

- see Protein Dosage Guideline Chart

If the biological value of the protein source you select is low, as it is with soy, rice, wheat, corn, nuts, seeds, beans, peas and lentils, nitrogen transfer and deposition is weak. Although these plant sources do contain amino acids, their ability to facilitate recovery and growth after heavy, grueling workouts is limited. Peptides found in whey protein isolate and high-quality tissue proteins including free range eggs, non-medicated chicken, non-farmed fish, turkey, seafood, beef, bison, lamb and wild game will always "out muscle" plants. The trick is to use both animal and plant source proteins to get the best of both.

To help reach your protein goals and create a synergistic nutrition balance, try a protein shake before and after training, in the afternoon and/or before bed. Your vitamin and mineral supplements can be taken with shakes unless specified otherwise. Add 1-2 tablespoons of an omega-3 rich sport oil to each shake. Also consider adding glutamine, creatine, calcium ascorbate, spirulina, ribose and MSM in powder form.

Protein is beautiful. When the right amount of this essential, nitrogenous and sulfur rich macronutrient is consumed at the right time in incremental fashion, and combined with the correct quantity of fibrous, complex carbohydrates and essential living fats, your body composition, performance and energy always gets better. Don't be afraid of lean, non-denatured protein. Embrace the Power of Protein and supply your biological demand!