Optimal Protein Intake for Health and Performance

Talkin’ bouttttt… protein. Protein! So, back in the 1980’s the government and processed food industry vilified fat intake in the standard American diet. Fat consumption should be drastically reduced to improve our overall health they said. And, so we responded by eating more carbohydrates and added sugar becoming fatter, unhealthier, and mode addicted than we were before. Since then, in the early 2000’s, the government and processed food industry has responded by vilifying carbohydrates and sugar intake in the standard American diet. Carbs and sugar consumption should be drastically reduced to improve our overall health they said. And, so we responded by focusing on protein and thus becoming fatter, unhealthier, and more addicted than we were ever before.

But the vilification of protein hasn’t happened as profoundly yet today. Many people place protein on a pedestal as a gauge for how healthy a food is. It’s now the gold-standard for healthy foods. We check granola bar ingredient labels, or cereal boxes, or cartons of fat-free milk and fret that no amount of protein is enough. We worry our muscles won’t survive and our bones won’t sustain without scoops of protein powder added to our already protein heavy diet. And yet, we’re still fatter, unhealthier, and more addicted now in 2020 than we were in the early 2000’s or the 1980’s. But the problem has never been that fat, carbs, sugar, or even protein is bad for us. They’re each healthy and necessary when consumed from the correct sources at the right doses. There’s no need for macronutrient vilification or even laudation. So, what exact purpose does the macronutrient protein serve? What are the best sources of protein and how much should we be consuming? What is the optimal protein intake for optimal health and optimal performance? And is there a need for additional protein powder and if so, what’s best? Well, let the no-subscriber-growth bedroom-bound free evidence-based non-sponsored YouTuber tell you about it! let’s get into it!

Protein

Protein is a macronutrient, like fat and carbs, which has many functions like building and repairing body tissues. And although most people recognize it for building muscles, it’s also used for maintaining our skin, hair, and bones. It’s used for many things and is essential to our overall health. But if we consume an excess of protein, our body will convert that to carbohydrates needed for energy. And if we already have sufficient energy, then that protein eventually gets converted to fat stored on our body which isn’t good. But where does protein originate from? All protein and essential amino acids originate from plants and microbes. That means if all plants died, everything else would die too. Now you might ask, couldn’t we just get our protein from eating animals if the plants die? Well, it turns out that all animals are getting their protein from plants if you follow the path down the food chain. So even though you may get protein from eating the beef of a cow, cows are getting their protein from the grass and grass microbes. Meaning that us getting protein from eating animal products is more like us getting recycled plant protein in an aggregated or concentrated source. Now this can be a problem which I’ll touch on soon.

Excess Protein Gets Converted to Fat

Although we need protein to survive, it’s important we consume the correct amount. In terms of being protein deficient, I’m not sure if there’s been a single case in the United States where someone has been calorie sufficient but protein deficient. This means that if you’re eating enough food to survive, you should be consuming enough protein to survive too. It’s funny once you realize this fact and how much people are concerned about their protein intake. I mean it’s not something you need to worry about if you’re concerned about lifespan or disease prevention. On the other end of the spectrum, we have protein excess. Nearly everyone in the United States is in a state of protein excess including vegetarians and vegans which is also funny. I mean many people are consuming twice the recommended amount and no one seems concerned about this. But here’s what happens when we consume protein in excess.

Protein Excess

Like I mentioned, protein intake is the building block for the body’s tissues. And although you might assume that having more building blocks is better, that simply isn’t the case. Not only can excess protein intake get converted and stored as fat on the body which is the last thing most of us want or need, but it can also act as a growth stimulant raising levels of IGF-1 and upregulating TOR activity. So, let’s break that down quickly.

  • Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1): Is one of the primary growth promoters utilized in the womb and early childhood for growth. It’s also needed in adulthood for maintaining the body but in much lower levels since we’re no longer growing.
  • Target of Rapamycin (TOR): TOR genes act as master regulatory genes that signal cell creation and growth. Similarly, there activity should be high when we’re infants and need rapid growth. But as we mature into early adulthood, there activity should be limited to more of a maintenance role.

And although we need adequate levels of IGF-1 and TOR activity in adulthood, protein consumed in excess or with the absence of fiber, from animal-based sources like meat, dairy, and eggs, can significantly raise our levels of IGF-1 and upregulate TOR activity. Let me say that again. Consumption of excess protein or animal-based protein raises our levels of IGF-1 and upregulates TOR activity to levels much higher than needed in adulthood. And what happens is not growth of stronger muscles or denser bones, but excess growth of body tissues like skin tags, cysts, and tumors eventually leading to cancer. When the body has more building blocks than it needs and its growth promoters are elevated, it builds these unnecessary tissues.

You might be familiar with acromegaly or gigantism where people grow much larger than the average human. In these cases, their IGF-1 levels remain elevated which is why they grow much larger. But, there rates of cancer increase as well. Oppositely, dwarfism is where people grow much less than the average human. And in dwarfism cases, cancer is nearly non-existent due to their lower levels of IGF-1. What’s surprising though is that increased levels of IGF-1 in people with gigantism don’t show any greater levels of muscle mass than the average population. So even if you’re looking to grow muscle and build body mass, raising levels of IGF-1 and upregulating TOR activity by consuming excess protein is not the answer.

On top of these growth mechanisms that raise cancer risk, high protein diets can also place significant load on the kidneys causing them to fail. One out of eight people now have chronic kidney disease and around 74% of cases are undiagnosed. High protein diets also increase the rate of coronary heart disease and likelihood of death from diabetes by 73-fold. That’s not 73 percent, that’s 7,300%! And if you’re interested in a moderate protein diet, you still have a 23-fold increase. Or 2,300% (Moderation… The Covert Killer). Because of all these factors, there’s no reason someone should consume more than their recommended daily allowance.

Animal vs Plant Protein

And I should also reiterate that this happens primarily from animal-based protein consumption from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy as plant-protein coming from whole foods doesn’t upregulate TOR activity or increase IGF-1 levels to these dangerous levels. It actually does the opposite. This happens because plant-protein comes packaged with extremely healthy fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. So, ideally our protein should come from a mix of plant-based foods like beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. But isn’t plant-protein incomplete and require protein combination? This is also false. It turns out that every plant has all the essential amino acids making them all complete proteins… besides gelatin. So, unless you’re eating the JELLO diet, a variety of whole plant foods will be more than enough and leave you nothing to worry about.

Optimal Protein Intake for Health

So, to summarize, protein deficiency is nearly impossible if you’re eating enough calories from a variety of whole foods while protein excess is much more common and causes a ton of issues that should be avoided. For most people concerned with general health and longevity, around .36 grams of protein should be consumed per lb of bodyweight per day. While this is adequate for general health and longevity, some recent studies have raised a little concern about whether this amount of protein is enough to sustain optimal muscle mass and bone strength. For that reason, to be on the safe side, most people should optimally shoot for .41 g/lb/day.

But some concern has also been raised for protein requirements of people aged seventy and older. It’s been found that as you age, your ability to absorb protein can decrease requiring a higher protein intake. I couldn’t find a lot of definitive evidence on this but what I did find seemed to indicate that if your protein absorption decreases with age, it’s likely due to digestive inefficiencies created from years of unhealthy habits. It’s sort of like how most people’s blood pressure increases with age because their unhealthy lifestyle habits have added up over the years. Anyone following a healthy lifestyle won’t see their blood pressure rise with age and similarly won’t see their protein requirements increase. Either way, if you have lived an unhealthy lifestyle for many years and are over the age of 65, or you want to be safe, I could see a case for raising your protein requirement to around .45 g/lb/day.

Optimal Protein Intake for Performance

Now let’s discuss optimal protein intake for performance! I’m talking to you athletes, weekend warriors, bicep obsessed gym selfie Instagram models out there looking to maintain and grow muscle. Do protein requirements increase for athletes? Absolutely. As you exercise, your body’s tissues start to breakdown and therefore you need more building blocks to rebuild bigger, stronger muscles. The general athlete out there should consume around .54 g/lb/d whereas long-distance endurance athletes can see requirements rise to .63 g/lb/d. And then those hitting the weights hard, looking to pack on muscle and size could have requirements up to and possibly even exceeding .77 g/lb/d. And I should note that if you’re attempting to lose weight, or if you’re overweight already, your protein requirements should be based on your ideal lean body weight not your current bodyweight. So, if you’re 200lbs currently and looking to reach 150lbs, your protein requirements should meet your 150lb weight goal.

If you’re an athlete concerned about performance, there does appear to be evidence showing that consuming at least 15g of protein within an hour of exercise is ideal. And again, optimally from whole plants foods like beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. Also, whole food plant-based protein sources contain antioxidants which can help combat exercise induced stress and have anti-inflammatory effects to aid in recovery.

Protein Supplementation

And finally let me hit on protein supplementation for you protein powder junkies out there. 95% of the time, you can reach your protein requirements with whole plant foods. There are many vegan bodybuilders now who don’t supplement at all and utilize whole plant foods only. That’s because the number one way of building muscle is by performing consistent, progressive resistance workouts followed by consuming more total calories/food. Personally, I haven’t used protein powder in a few years. I just increase my intake of higher protein plant foods. The reason for this is protein powders can cause a few different issues. Here are my top three concerns:

  1. Heavy Metals and Carcinogens: The Clean Label Project did a study in 2018 testing 134 different plant-based and animal-based protein powders. What they found was that almost all the powders tested contained significant sources of heavy metals and carcinogens like BPA and lead. So, if you’re supplementing with protein, it’s best to look for powder that’s fully compliant with California’s Prop 65 requirements which strictly monitors for contaminants.
  2. Added Junk: Many powders add in artificial sweeteners and additives to make their powder taste better. Some even add in various fillers to adjust the thickness of the powder. And most of these additives aren’t healthy additions to a diet. So, if you’re supplementing, look for a powder without added sweeteners, flavors, or additives.
  3. Protein Rush: And by using a protein concentrate, isolate, or even worse a hydrolysate, you get rapid protein absorption into the body since it’s not being digested with fiber and many other components in a whole food. This rush of protein into the body can place an immediate load of stress on the kidneys to synthesize it all immediately which isn’t great for overall health. So, if you’re supplementing then look to consume a protein concentrate with other fiber filled plants like berries within a smoothie.

So, if you wish to supplement with a plant-based protein powder, I’d recommend a non-soy-based option like hemp, pea, or pumpkin protein that’s fully compliant with California’s Prop 65 requirement and consume it with other fiber filled foods. I’m not against protein powder consumption, I’m just less excited about it than most. And if you wonder why so many nutrition coaches or online fitness trainers sell and promote protein powder, it’s the same reason many doctors prescribe medicine. Doctors get paid based on medical prescriptions and health coaches get paid based on supplement referrals and sales. Truth is, you can prevent the need for nearly all medical prescriptions and supplement recommendations by making holistic healthy lifestyle choices. And if you wonder how I get paid by recommending these holistic healthy lifestyle choices, I don’t… So, help a friend out and share this article with someone who may find it useful please!

Final Thoughts

First, it was out with the fat and in with the carbs. Now it’s out with the carbs and in with the protein. And still, we’re unhealthier and sicker than ever. This is because excess protein consumption causes fat storage on the body and increases growth factors like IGF-1 and TOR activity leading to hypergrowth diseases like cancer. Fortunately, plant-based protein sources can mitigate most of this risk. So, instead of villainizing or lauding certain macronutrients, we should look to consume each one from the optimal source in the optimal dose for optimal health. And for the few cases where protein supplementation may be needed or desired, shoot for a pure hemp, pea, or pumpkin based protein that meet’s California’s Prop 65 requirements. But for me, I’m happy with the whole food approach for now and you can see exactly how I meet my protein needs by checking out my perfect breakfast and perfect lunch posts with my perfect dinner coming out soon!

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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2 Responses

  • Hi Brandon, I had to laugh at the governments studies from the 80’s though present time. I remember reading all that each time they changed. Good to read what you have to say, I would definitely follow your research and recommendations.
    So all my dedicated workouts could have been eliminated by a breathing routine? 😀. That was an interesting post. I still prefer going out and running around and working up a good sweat. Thanks for more great postings. On to the next ones👍🏻

    • Yes! haha it’s funny to look back at how the guidelines have changed and how they’ve been influenced too. I’d still recommend physical exercise! 😂 I thought the breathing exercises were neat for certain situations, but you get muscle growth, bone strength, coordination, etc. from physical workouts.

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