Six Things You Need to Know About Protein
by Chris Shugart
Lonnie Lowery, PhD, can't talk right now. He's psyching up for the gym, and I have interrupted his ritual a ritual which sometimes involves listening to the score from Conan the Barbarian with my phone call.
Dr. Lowery used to lift at the university with the athletes, but he says it's just not the same. Now he trains either in his basement or at a grungy bodybuilding gym near where he lives.
Yeah, that's right, not a fitness center, not a health club. A bodybuilding gym.
"I train my butt off in there," Dr. Lowery says. "I squat, bench, and pull all in one workout, just to toughen myself up. I do this twice per week, then I do everything else, like arm work, in between. I, for one, have got to train my biceps and triceps directly."
Lowery is not your typical professor/researcher/scientist type. You've guessed that, right?
"You know, I almost became a certified strength coach," he adds. "And I'm still intrigued by the prospect. I even joined that professional group. But these guys are largely about athletics and agility in my experience. I only care about hypertrophy right now... and I'm just not going to apologize for it."
This is why Dr. Lowery is one of our favorite PhDs to turn to when it comes to topics like macronutrients. Yeah, he's read the studies. Heck, he's conducted the studies and participated in the studies and presented the studies to rooms full of other academic types. But he's also a hardcore meathead, at home both under the bar and in the lab.
Today we're supposed to be talking about new protein research, little-known facts about protein, and delving into a couple of Lowery's theoretical ideas. But we can't. Not yet. Lowery has to squat first... and bench... and pull.
And, man, you just gotta respect that.
1 Hour Later...
"Everybody is a frickin' expert on the Internet," Lowery says when he calls me back. It seems he's still got some fire in him after his workout. "But let's see if I can lay down some obscure things about protein anyway."
"Great," I say, "Fire one at me." And so we began.
The Truth About Protein, Cooking, and Heat
"When I used to mix whey protein powder in my scalding oat bran, I'd think, 'Am I destroying some of the benefits of this?'"
Like all of us iron addicts, Lowery was once worried about denaturing or otherwise messing up the protein powder. You've probably heard the same thing about cooking with protein powder or even tossing it into your already-cooked hot oatmeal. It "ruins the protein."
Or does it?
Turns out that it doesn't. In fact, you probably wouldn't notice a lick of difference in your physique after a year of "cooking" your protein powder vs. just sticking it in the blender. But heat does affect it.
"Some of the peptides in whey denature at 158 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit," says Lowery. "Peptides, like beta-lactoglobulin and alpha-lactalbumin, degrade in the heat."
Now, although these peptides have some biological benefits such as immune function, you're not really hurting the protein goodness. You're getting the same amino acid profile, including all that yummy l-leucine, and that's why, as a muscle-seeking gym rat, you're consuming protein powder in the first place, right?
Now, maybe not getting the benefits of some of those peptides will affect you after several months to a couple years, but you're probably not going to "cook" your protein powder all that often anyway.
So, you might lose a few of the side benefits of protein when you heat it, but on any observable level, you're not going to compromise your ability to build muscle with all that protein you're pounding away. So, keep sticking it into your oatmeal, pancake batter, and muffin recipes.
Just don't tell anyone you make muffins. It might ruin your rep, tough guy.
Cookies for Mass-Seeking Lab Rabbits... and Bodybuilders
Ever attend a big fitness conference? I have. Dozens of 'em.
You sit for hours watching bad Powerpoint presentations and listening to complex lectures. Funny thing is, the good stuff the cool info you take home and put to work immediately usually comes from the conversations you have in the hallways outside the conference rooms.
That's kinda what happened with this next little protein pontification. Dr. Lowery was telling me about how you have to be careful when using protein powder in recipes. A whey-only protein may turn out very differently than a whey/casein blend or other type of protein. In short, plain whey may cause recipes to be "soupy," so be careful.
"This is just an observation I made when I was whipping out these no-bake, weight-gain cookies in the experimental kitchen for our test subjects," said Lowery.
My ears perked up like a Rottweiler watching a piece of bacon fall from a breakfast plate. "Stop. Tell me about those cookies, man," I said. The very idea of cookies used in protein experiments and made in a "laboratory kitchen" was too intriguing to pass up.
Turns out that Dr. Peter Lemon, a God among men when it comes to protein research, had told Lowery years ago that test subjects wouldn't comply with a high protein diet if it consisted of nothing but protein shakes. (Keep in mind that some of these experiments ran for months!) They needed a convenient way to chew at least 50% of their extra protein.
The solution was "no-bake cookies." Simply mix protein powder with uncooked oatmeal and natural peanut butter (or any nut butter really, like walnut or almond). Mush them all together into "cookies." Eat 'em, train your balls off, get big.
And I mean "get big" literally. Lowery reminisced that their research subjects would blow past the university weight room regulars in gains.
"It wasn't uncommon to see our guys put 20 pounds on their bench press and considerably more on their leg press as well as about five pounds of body mass during semesters when our research team was collecting data. Better training plus the protein/calorie cookies were clearly effective."
Exact ratios of ingredients? Play with it, then reply to this article and let us know your favorite blend. Hey, if it works for test subjects in experiments, it'll work for you, lab wabbit.
Dr. Lowery's "Utility" Lab Rabbit Cookies
Ingredients (makes 4 cookies)
1.0 Cups Old-Fashioned Oatmeal [raw]
4 heaping Tbsp. Omega-3 Peanut Butter
2 Scoops Low-Carb Metabolic Drive, chocolate
1/4 Cup Water or Skim Milk to allow for mixing
And Lowery provided the nutrient breakdown per cookie:
Carb: 18g (3g fiber)
Try not to eat the whole batch in one sitting, unless you're a little skinny bastard. Keep leftovers in the fridge.
Here's my own version that's pretty damn good. It's fairly close to the original, but with a few "Emeril-esque" refinements:
Chris's "Gourmet" Lab Rabbit Cookies
1.5 Cups Old-Fashioned Oatmeal [toasted or raw]
3/4 Cup Natural Peanut Butter or Almond Butter
2-3 Scoops Low-Carb Metabolic Drive, chocolate
1 Cup Organic, Unsweetened Coconut Flakes
Just enough water to allow easy mixing
Toss the oatmeal into a bowl. Toss the protein powder and coconut on top of it. Add peanut butter and just a little warm water and mash it all together with your grubby paws. Form into cookies (or even just balls) then roll them in a plate of extra coconut flakes if you'd like.
High-Protein Diets Are Bad For Your Bones... NOT!
Most doctors really know their stuff. Problem is, their stuff is often a couple decades old.
Take the subject of high-protein diets and osteopenia for example. What's osteopenia? Think of it as first-stage osteoporosis. Basically, it's low bone mineral density (BMD).
In the words of WebMD, the medical community has "raised concerns about high-protein diets" and a possible connection to osteopenia. The Cliff's Notes version is this: a high-protein diet leaches calcium from the body, leading to bone thinning.
Is it true?
Nah, it's bullshit. Thankfully.
The latest headline at WebMD, despite the early doom-casting?
"High-Protein Diet Could Repair Bone Loss."
"Labs around the country, including mine, are finally debunking this myth," says Lowery. "What I set out to do was show that protein wouldn't leech the bones. The finding we're going to share next month is that the guys who eat extra protein have denser bones."
Basically, Lowery is saying there's a moderately-strong correlation between protein intake and bone density. (1) The more protein you eat, the more dense your bones become. Of course, correlations don't prove a cause:effect relationship but evidence is mounting.
"This is exactly the opposite of what you see in some of these introductory dietetics books," notes Lowery. "That whole thing with calcium in the urine of high-protein eaters seems to be related to increased calcium absorption or other factors, not 'leaching.'"
What? Dieticians perpetuating myths and not keeping up with research? No. Freakin'. Way.
I'm shocked. Really, I am.
"But hold on a sec, Lonnie," I say. "Let me play devil's advocate here. Maybe it's the load-bearing exercise in these weight-training subjects that's building the bones, not the additional protein."
"Fair assumption. I formed the initial protein hypothesis with the understanding that weight training would protect the bones; that's why our control group of non-protein-seekers are strength athletes too," says Lowery. "So, what's probably happening is that the weight training is acting as a stimulus to help grab up all these additional grams of protein along with ample dietary calcium to actually build your bones."
This makes sense really; 60% of bone volume is in fact collagen, a sort of protein matrix.
Lowery notes that this is being seen in other populations as well, not just weight-trainin' dudes. Research like this is going to literally rewrite the college textbooks, some of which have devolved into dogma on this topic as they seem to be referencing each other, not the latest science.
"Many personal training courses are teaching the same myth about high-protein diets," notes Lowery. "They're just wrong. Wrong! Modern studies just don't support such 'education'. Maybe they'll catch on soon."
Let's hope so. This misinformation could lead to some serious harm to some of our favorite mammals: female athletes.
Lowery notes: "Imagine the damage being done right now to certain young female athletes. They're coming in overtraining and under-eating. They have suppressed estrogen and loss of bone mass. And what do they hear from some trainers, dieticians, and even doctors? They hear, 'Oh, you have osteopenia. Back off the protein.' It's just the opposite advice they should be getting! They need to be getting more protein!"
Amen, LL. Preach it, brother!
Lowery: Not a Runner!
"The young guys may not realize this," Dr. Lowery said, "but leucine and the branch chain amino acids got pooh-pooed on in certain studies back in the 90's. A sort of bandwagon effect ensued in the literature.
"Oh, a study said that BCAAs didn't boost performance in marathon runners... So what? I don't care about marathon runners! Since those days, newer data exploring protein synthesis with leucine has created a sort of renaissance in the BCAA literature.
"As a strength athlete and not a runner, I'm intrigued enough by the anabolism to spike my shakes with leucine!"
The Final Answer to "How Much Protein at Once?"
The two most commonly asked protein questions are "How much do I need per day?" and "How much can my body utilize in one sitting?" Well, we may actually now have the answer to the latter.
"Everyone wants to know what the optimal dose of protein is," said Lowery. "How much can you digest at once? Well, most people will say about 30 grams. But that's usually based on a plausibility argument based around how much protein you should eat in a day broken down over six meals. Now we may know the actual answer to that question based on a new study."
This year, Tarnopolsky's lab did a study (2) to examine the effect of how different dosages of egg protein powder affected protein synthesis rates. Researchers had healthy men who had previous weight training experience perform intense resistance exercise and consume an egg protein drink that contained either 5, 10, 20, or 40 grams of protein.
Basically, Lowery explained that researchers found that increasing protein intake stimulated protein synthesis in a dose dependent manner up to 20 grams of protein, after which there was no further increase in protein synthesis. In other words, forty grams didn't stimulate protein synthesis greater than 20 grams.
Researchers speculated that consuming 20 grams of protein five or six times daily would be the optimal measure to increase anabolism and muscle mass.
"Now," says Lowery, "You may still want to eat more than that for volume purposes since you've got to eat something, but the answer to the question is 20 grams... at least with egg protein. And I bet we see different proteins tested over the next year."
I asked Dr. Lowery how this new info is causing him to alter his own protein intake.
"I've actually cut back on the amount of protein I eat at any given time. I just make sure I spike it with leucine. I usually put a scoop and a half, about 7 or 8 grams, of leucine in just 20 grams of protein. But I've stopped sucking down 50 or 60 grams of protein at a time. I just don't do that anymore; I don't think it has that much benefit. Plus this prevents me from becoming a protein oxidizer or burner."
I asked if this changed his total protein intake per day.
"For me, not that much really. Twenty to thirty grams every few hours, spiked with leucine. I'm getting between 180 and 210 grams per day."
"Which brings me to another point," continued the Doc. "There may be benefits to separating protein/leucine boluses.
Lowery was referring to the "protein pulse" approach that Biotest has been studying for some time now.
"There were a few French researchers the name I remember is El-Khoury who found about a 15% improvement in anabolism by taking a 'pulse feeding' approach to protein intake."
Essentially, while traditional dogma has urged lifters to keep a steady-state flow of amino acids in the blood stream, the new thinking indicates that it might be best to let amino acid levels fall and then introduce a protein bolus.
Wow, let the discussions begin on that stuff! And let's hope the guys in snazzy lab coats study casein and whey soon.
You Piss A Lot. And That's Okay
Dr. Lowery is doing some work right now on kidney function and he's noticed something interesting in his research.
It seems that "protein-seekers" which is apparently geek-speak for people who eat a lot of protein have a much higher urine output than non-protein seekers, dudes who don't eat much protein.
"Average urine output is supposed to be about 1.2 liters daily, maybe 1.5 liters," says Lowery, who's the kinda guy who knows stuff like that, like, right off the top of his head. (It's eerie.)
"Well, the guys in this study who are averaging 250 grams a day of protein are bringing me 3 and 4 liters a day, sometimes hitting 3 liters in only twelve hours!"
Devil's advocate mode again for me: "Well, are they getting a lot of this protein from shakes and therefore just consuming more water?"
"I'm able to look at the urine-specific gravity and see how dilute it is. So I can adjust for this to some extent. Either way: high-protein eaters have a much higher urine output. They're filling up all the containers we provide them! And it's not just the fluid volume that's doing it."
Now, is this a bad thing? Well, for decades there's been something out there called the Brenner Hypothesis. Basically, it states that all this extra filtration, this urine production, is "hard on the kidneys." It causes extra work.
"That's speculation!" says Lowery. "Asking a tissue to do extra work does not equal 'damage.' It does not 'ruin' it. Think about your biceps. When you ask it to do extra work does it ruin it? No, it adapts, it gets better! It's silly to think that your kidneys would get seriously damaged if you ask them to create extra urine. Although not definitive, I see no damage in my studies. And mind you, we're talking about a mean intake of 250 grams per day for over 10 years." (3)
Now, I don't know about TMuscle readers, but I'm glad to hear this. Pharmaceutical ads on TV tell us every day that peeing a lot is a sure sign that we need their latest wonder drug because frequent urination is a bad sign. Well, it can be (prostate issues, etc.), but it seems it can also be a sign of simply eating a high-protein, gym-monkey diet.
Add caffeine and, well, there ya go. Literally.
1) Don't sweat adding your protein powder to hot oatmeal or other foods. It might tweak the peptides a little, but the amino acid profile is safe.
2) Need more calories and more protein? Make the same "cookies" they use in protein labs.
3) High-protein diets aren't bad for your bones. Quite the opposite in fact.
4) Lowery doesn't give a shit about marathon runners. So there.
5) There's some good evidence that getting about 20 grams of protein per feeding is optimal, at least with egg protein. Lowery likes to do this and spike about four of these 20g feedings with leucine. Furthermore, the "protein-pulse" approach may be the way to go.
6) Eating a lot of protein causes you to pee a lot. But no worries, this doesn't damage your kidneys, at least using standard clinical measures after 10 years of intake, so tell the finger-waggling vegetarians to STFU.
Next up, Dr. Lowery and I plan to tackle carbs, then fats. But not while the Conan soundtrack is playing.
1. Hemlepp L., Hartman B, Daugherty A, Glickman E and Lowery L. Dietary protein and resistance training: preliminary data on bone health. [Accepted for presentation] Int Cong Nutr. Bangkok, Thailand, Oct. 2009.
2. Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Fry JL, Tang JE, Glover EI, Wilkinson SB, Prior T, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009.
3. Lowery L. Dietary protein safety and strength athletes: running down a dream. NSCA-Wisc Annual Clinic. Oshkosh, WI, Apr. 2009.
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