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Nutrition Basics and the Importance of Protein

Average: 3.9 (14 votes)
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Jim explains why protein is so essential for building muscle, and outlines a basic plan on how much protein to eat and how frequently to eat it.

Protein ProtosIn order to see your best gains from your training program, proper nutrition is essential. This means the proper intake of calories, the proper ratio of macro nutrients  - protein, carbs, and fats - and the proper timing of these macro nutrients. As well, this also means understanding and maintaining a positive nitrogen balance. Many bodybuilders - beginners and otherwise - do not understand the basics of good nutrition from a bodybuilding standpoint. In this article, I hope to give readers a good working knowledge of this.

The nutrients in food are broken down into the three types of macro-nutrients mentioned above. Macro-nutrients means nutrients we need in large amounts. Micro-nutrients are vitamins and minerals - micro meaning we need these in small amounts. Each type of nutrient performs specific functions in the body, but interacts with other nutrients to carry out those functions.

Protein - The word protein was coined by the Dutch chemist Geradus Mulder in 1838 and comes form the Greek word "protos" which means "of prime importance". Your body, after water, is largely made up of protein. Protein is used by the body to build, repair and maintain muscle tissue.  Protein is comprised of amino acids, usually referred to as the "building blocks of protein". There are approximately 20 amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential because the body cannot make them, they must be supplied by the diet.

Protein is essential for growth and the building of new tissue as well as the repair of broken down tissue - like what happens when you work out. When you hear the term "positive nitrogen balance", it refers to being in a state of having enough protein available for the needs of the body and the needs of building muscle. What does nitrogen have to do with protein?  Nitrogen is one of the most important elements in all protein (Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, p. n-31). It is essential to animal life for tissue building - this statement alone defines the key need for protein when lifting weights.

For the most part, we are told to eat sufficient protein (every 3-4 hours)  to maintain a positive nitrogen balance because your body is actually in an anabolic, or building up phase in this state, where a negative nitrogen balance, from lack of adequate protein, indicates a catabolic, or tearing down state. This is why protein (and eating enough through out the day) is so important: lack of adequate protein, and your body begins to break down tissue (read: muscle) to meet it's daily protein needs. Our bodies constantly assemble, break down and use proteins (in the form of amino acids, the building blocks of protein), in fact there are literally thousands of different protein combinations used by the body, each one has a specific function determined by it's amino acid combination (or amino acid sequence).

Virtually all modern authorities agree that 1 to 11/2 grams of protein per lb. of body weight is best for muscle growth. Besides taking in high quality protein from food (lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs), the best way to keep your protein intake at the proper levels are through the use of protein shakes. The other part of getting the most out of your protein intake and thereby maintaining a positive nitrogen balance is carb and fat intake, both are needed in reasonable amounts to insure protein synthesis.

As far as powders are concerned, whey protein is the best quality, meaning your body will absorb and use more of it. There are several types of whey (isolate, concentrate, hydrolysate), but whey protein isolate remains number one because of it's high quality. But milk based proteins are making a comeback, largely because of there longer lasting effects in the body: whey is typically touted as a fast digesting protein, milk as a slow digesting protein.

Let me sidetrack for a minute and clear up a common misconception, and pet peeve of mine, regarding grams of protein advertised as being in a basic protein powder (not a “formula” product like Muscle Milk or Syntha 6 which contains more fat and carbs). People always judge a protein powder by the number of advertised grams per serving: "This one only has 17 grams, it's not as good as this one that has 50 grams!" Wrong, wrong, wrong. Protein contains 4 calories per gram, that's how it's measured, meaning that it doesn't matter what the label says, they are using different scoop sizes and numbers of scoops per serving to get that advertised amount.

Since protein is 4 calories per gram, and scoop sizes are measured in grams, if you used a standard scoop size and quantity, you would get the same amount of protein regardless of the brand name (excepting minor variances for fat and carb content). Test this out yourself, the next time you're at the vitamin store, compare protein labels. Note the protein, carb and fat per serving. Now note the scoop size and how many scoops equal one serving. You will see that any label with a high advertised protein content is using a large scoop and probably 2 scoops a serving. A smaller scoop and serving amount corresponds to a protein with a lower advertised amount. Don't be fooled into thinking the 50 grams per serving product is better, they are using a very big scoop to give you that much protein! Base your choice on product quality!

Now let's get back to my main topic regarding protein. The timing of protein is the key to maintaining a positive nitrogen balance and staying in an anabolic state. You should take in protein every 3 - 4 hours, your protein intake should be evenly divided up throughout the day over the course of 5-6 meals. This can be three main meals and 2-3 high protein snacks or shakes.

Other than that, there are some critical times to take in protein - first thing in the morning, with some simple carbohydrates because you have not eaten since the evening before and your body is in a catabolic state, you should also be sure to take in a protein shake with fast carbs - like fruit - about 1 hour before you train and you should take in a similar shake after you train - this should be, by the way, 40-60 grams of protein and about the same in carbs. Finally, you should have a small protein shake or meal before bed, because during the night you typically fall into a catabolic state.

Carbohydrates - Carbs have gotten quite a bad rap lately with all this low carb stuff out there. Are they responsible for fat gain? Should bodybuilders avoid them? The answer is no to both. Carbs are currently viewed as the main culprit for gaining bodyfat. Ignored is the fact that carbs are the preferred fuel source for your bodies - and brain's - energy needs. It's carb energy that fuels your workouts. There are two key components to carbohydrates that people need to understand: there are two types of carbs, sugary or simple carbs and complex, slower burning carbs. The other thing people need to understand about carbs is that too many calories, of any type, can lead to fat gain.

With carbs, people eat to many sugary carb foods, which also contain fat. And while it's true that you need carbs for energy, you only need so much. If you overload your energy needs and are not active enough to burn the excess calories, they will be stored as fat. Most people are not that active and they also eat to many calories of all types, this is why obesity is the problem it is today. Most people do not understand what a calorie is. The production of energy is measured in calories. The calorie content of a food is determined by measuring the amount of heat produced by that food  in a laboratory device called a calorimeter. Somewhere along the way, food became a matter of taste - the higher the fat and sugar content the better. The basic function of food was forgotten. As a bodybuilder, you should concerned about your calorie needs and types, and also you should have at least an idea, and at best be keeping a diet log, of what you eat everyday - in terms of types of calories and  total calories.

When trying to gain mass, you need around 2 -3 grams per lb. of body weight of preferably complex carbs. If you have a high percentage of bodyfat, drop that amount to 1 ½ grams per lb. of body weight. The only real times to take in simple carbs are with the pre/post workout and morning shakes mentioned above. As well, as a bodybuilder, you should have a far better understanding of carbs than the average person. As I said before, carbs are the bodies preferred energy source. Once ingested, they are turned into glucose, which, among other things, fuels muscular contractions and glycogen, which is stored in the muscles and liver for future use. Without enough stored carbohydrate in the muscles, they take on a flat appearance and you lack the energy to train hard. As long as your carb intake doesn't overwhelm your energy needs, you do not have to worry about fat gains from carb intake.

Fats - Fats, technically called lipids, are the most energy dense of the three macro nutrients. They are composed of building blocks called fatty acids, which fall into three main categories: saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.

SATURATED - Found mainly in animal and dairy products, such as whole milk, cheese, beef, veal, lamb, pork and ham. Also, you will find this type of fat in some oils, such as coconut, palm kernel and vegetable shortening. Saturated fat is used by the liver to make cholesterol, which is involved in the production of hormones such as testosterone. This is important - you need some fat in your diet to keep your body's hormone production where it should be.

POLYUNSATURATED - Found in things like corn, soybeans, safflower and sunflower oils. Some fish oils are also high in polyunsaturated fats. This type of fat may help lower total cholesterol. Since this includes good cholesterol, intake of this type of fat should be limited.

MONOUNSATURATED - Found in vegetable and nut oils, such as olive, peanut and canola. They can help lower LDL, or bad cholesterol without lowering HDL, or good cholesterol.

Most foods are a combination of all 3 fatty acid types, one is typically the dominant type which therefore dictates it's classification.

TRANSFAT - These occur when polyunsaturated oils are altered through hydrogenation, a process used to harden liquid vegetable oils into solid foods like margarine and shortening.

Fat intake should be kept low, in fact many bodybuilders find that fat is naturally kept at low levels by simple eating "clean" - lean meat and dairy sources of protein, complex carbs as listed below. Some bodybuilders add an omega 3 fatty acid supplement to there diet to insure a source of healthy fat.

Sample food lists for each macro nutrient:

  • Protein  - lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, low fat dairy.
  • Carbohydrate - whole grains, oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes. Simple carbs: fruit juice, all sugars. Good fruit choices include bananas, pears, apples, oranges.
  • Fats - flaxseed, sunflower seeds, canola oil, olive oil. Fats to avoid: processed vegetable oils. Fats to limit: butter, saturated fats.

Diet Journal

It makes a lot of sense to keep a journal of how much protein, carb and fat grams you eat every day, time eaten and  total calorie intake. If you're serious about building muscle, why guess at the amount of calories and grams of protein, etc.? You don't make gains by guessing. You can add your supplement schedule to this as well.

I hope this article takes some of the guesswork out of bodybuilding nutrition. Email me with any questions: sb5660@windstream.net. Also, sign up for my new, free newsletter! Just email me if you are interested!

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  • About The Author
    Jim Brewster writes for several websites and an international magazine. He is a natural bodybuilder, and plans to compete in 2010.
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