There’s so much information on nutrition and it changes regularly. So much so, it’s hard to keep up. New research is released almost daily. You almost need to be a part-time researcher just to keep up with the latest information.
Until recently, loosely following the Atkins diet was recommended for anyone wanting to both lose some weight and also build muscle and strength. In simple terms, this diet simply encouraged people to banish (most) carbs and increase their consumption of protein. The result? People became obsessed with protein – shakes, protein snacks, protein bars, eating lots of white meat and so on. The thought was that if you’re lifting weights, your body needs extra protein post-workout to build muscle and repair tissue.
Helen Bond, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association states that “we see protein as this miracle ingredient that can be added to food and keep us slim and healthy, but it is an absolute myth”.
Protein does has other advantages. It helps counter hunger pangs, meaning you eat fewer calories. It’s essential for growth and the healthy maintenance of your bones.
The issue is, we’ve switched our focus to a mostly protein-based diet, thinking that it makes a huge difference to how we approach our training. In the UK, we’re advised 0.75g of protein per Kg of body weight. As a guideline, this would be 45g for an adult women and 56g for a man. As an example, a small can of tuna would offer 40g of protein. Of course, people who hit the gym hard and undertake a lot of strength training will definitely need to increase their protein intake, but only marginally. Helen Bond added “people who do a lot of strength training need a little more — between 1.2g to 1.6g per kilogram of their body weight daily — to support their muscle mass”.
Researchers from the McMaster University in Canada looked through 49 previous protein studies to find out if increasing your protein intake really does bigger and stronger muscles in adults when weight training.
The results where that everyone who trained with weights understandably grew stronger, but the group who added more protein had an increased effect, albeit a relatively small one compared to the other control groups. The researches were also keen to stress that eating a lot more protein was not better. Calculations from the control group concluded that you need to increase your protein intake by 1.6g per Kg of body weight, each day, to see additional muscle gain.
But, their research was to point out that this additional (say, moving up to 1.2g/Kg) protein could easily be obtained by switching to eating two eggs for breakfast (offering 12g of protein in total). Consuming more than that — by consuming a protein-enhanced snack bar or a post-workout whey shake — produced no additional muscle gain whatsoever.
It’s also important to add that, even if we aren’t calculating our protein intake, we’re eating more than we realise. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that the average daily protein consumption is about 87.4g for men and 66.6g for women, without those people even trying to increase their protein intake.
The reason for the additional research on protein came from a recent study published in The Lancet, this summer. It found that people were so keen to consume additional protein, they were overloading their bodies, consuming more meat and, in turn, this was having a longer-term effect on our gut and colon, increasing the chances of colon cancer. The Lancet research concentrated on how warnings about a high-protein diet should replace previous warnings about focussing on a high-carb diet.
Lastly, the research placed emphasis on where you get your protein matters more. The priority should be sources such as beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, with some dairy, lean meat and fish. But, protein-added man-made foods (whey shakes, protein bars and similar snacks) we can and should do without.