Protein Hype

Protein — For the Hype or Health of it?

by Catherine Wilbert, ND
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine,
Nutrition Consultant & Nationally Recognized Wellness Expert

Love those bagels, but they’re not on your new low carb plan? The popularity of high-protein diets like the Zone, Atkins and South Beach has created an awareness in many Americans to shun high-carbohydrate foods in favor of high-protein, low-carb alternatives. In fact, over the past several years, protein sales to the mainstream consumer have exploded. Gone are the days of protein supplements being reserved for bodybuilders and athletes.

It’s hardly possible to miss some type of ad, article or research touting the benefits of protein. And while low-carb beer might seem like an oxymoron, it represents but one of the many mainstream food and beverage manufacturers that have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon since 2000. The challenge now has become to provide healthy, high protein foods and snacks that provide the nutrition of a high quality protein food and the satisfaction and taste of their carb -laden counterparts.

The good news is food scientists have made great strides in the realm of proteins that are no longer the powdery, odd-tasting ingredients of the past. Not only have protein shakes and snacks come a long way, but because various powdered protein formulations share similar physical characteristics with grain flours, a significant portion of a flour-containing recipe can be substituted with a protein powder, providing a higher protein, lower carb count.

Got a hankering for muffins? Craving a big hearty bowl of pasta?

You can now enjoy low carb, high protein foods in the form of wonderful tasting pastas, cookies and even breads and bagels without feeling like you’re on a diet, and more importantly, without sacrificing nutrition!

But why all the rage over protein?

Protein – the word itself is a derivative of a Greek word meaning “of primary importance”, and whether you are trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain optimum health, the benefits as well as the necessity of protein cannot be overstated. Next to water, protein is the most abundant substance in the human body. All tissues, bones, and nerves are comprised mostly of protein. Your muscles, skin, hair, nails, heart, brain and internal organs use protein as their primary building material. Collagen, which is a special type of protein, is important for strong arteries, tendons, ligaments, teeth and connective tissues. Protein even comprises a major portion of the blood and lymph and is essential for proper hormone function and immune system health.

In addition to being an essential nutrient for life, protein has a number of specific benefits desired by the carbohydrate-conscious consumer. Protein increases calcium absorption from the gut and preserves muscle and bone mass when one is dieting to lose weight. Protein promotes growth hormone release, which fosters fat burning and the preservation of lean body mass. Protein creates significantly more heat during metabolism than comparable amounts of carbohydrate. Most importantly, in terms of losing fat and changing body composition, protein is critical for building and repairing muscle tissue. When you are trying to lose fat, you reduce your calories. Unfortunately, your body views fat stores as more precious than your muscle tissue and will tend to burn up muscle tissue before it goes to fat for energy. This physiological adaptation, which used to protect our ancestors from famine, no longer works in our favor. This is unfortunate, because muscle is our metabolically active tissue; it is our greatest calorie-burner.

Every action, from walking to breathing and even blinking is powered by muscle. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism and the more calories you burn, even at rest! Conversely, if you have less muscle mass, your metabolism will be slower. Pound for pound, muscle burns 25 times more calories than fat. One pound of muscle can burn 30 to 50 calories in a day, or 350 to 500 calories a week. One pound of fat only burns two calories a day or 14 in a week. So, if you build just five pounds of muscle, that’s equivalent to burning 26 pounds of fat in a year. Therefore, building and preserving lean muscle tissue not only makes fat loss easier, but more permanent.

Eat more to weigh less?!

One of the best ways to ensure this muscle building, fat loss success is to consume small protein based meals throughout the day. Probably the biggest mistake people who are trying to lose body fat make, is to not eat enough. We think that by limiting calories, skipping meals, and not eating breakfast, we are certainly burning fat, right? Nothing could be more wrong. By eating only a couple of times a day, we slow down our metabolic rate as if we are putting our bodies into a state of fasting. This is actually store fat mode, rather than fat burn mode. What is worse is that our bodies will actually begin to catabolize, or burn, muscle tissue (not fat) for fuel. Yes, your body begins sacrificing brain tissue, internal organs, skin and muscle to supply you with the energy that you need to get through the day. Talk about self-defeating! Not only are you storing fat and permanently lowering your metabolism by breaking down precious muscle tissue, but if you are exercising to enhance your fat burning, body reshaping program, you are also depriving your body of the protein it needs to rebuild and repair what you have torn down in the gym.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not build muscle when you workout. Exercise, even weight lifting, actually breaks down muscle tissue. You need an adequate amount of protein in your diet, particularly immediately after working out, to recover and repair muscle tissue. This is critical for building and preserving lean muscle tissue. Without protein, your body must break down existing muscle to repair what was broken down in the gym. Counter productive for sure as well as the reason so many people don’t see the results they are looking for and become disillusioned with working out. Again, a common mistake that can be remedied by simply consuming an adequate amount of protein each and every day.

Instead of trying to not eat to burn calories, we need to retrain ourselves to eat more frequently to stoke up our metabolism and keep it burning in high gear. Think of your metabolism as a fire and imagine you have just lit two fires. On one fire, you toss a big fat log and let it sit for several hours. The second fire, you periodically feed foot long chunks of firewood. So which fire is going to burn hotter and more efficiently? Obviously, the fire that you are constantly feeding with the right fuel burns better. When you return to the first fire, you’ll find smoldering embers and half the log left unburned. Meanwhile, the second fire is hot enough to melt glass. Likewise, if we only eat a couple meals a day, particularly larger, heavier meals (because we are starving since we haven’t eaten most of the day) we will end up with a sluggish, “smoldering” metabolism, and left over food or calories, stored as fat. Conversely, if we feed our bodies small, frequent, protein based meals, not only will we keep our metabolism stoked and burning efficiently, we will be building and preserving that all important muscle tissue which will in turn further increase metabolism.

You will find that once you increase your protein intake, you will not only burn fat and see lean muscle gains faster, but you will recover from exercise faster, sleep better, have fewer cravings, and have TONS of energy!