The current popularity of the low-carb way of life marks a significant dietary shift from carbohydrate to protein food. The idea that carbs make you fat has people living almost solely on protein. Why? Because it’s been theorized that without carbs, the body is forced to use other fuels such as fat and protein while minimizing insulin’s fat-gaining effect.
Things aren’t always as simple as they appear, however. In fact, many people who follow extreme low-carb diets reach a fat-loss plateau’they fail to lose additional bodyfat in spite of maintaining carb restriction. Even worse, there are those who initially lose weight on a low-carb diet and then, ironically, gain it all back, even though they stick with the same diet. Then there are the bodybuilders who fail to gain muscle mass or strength while following low-carb diets. It may all revolve around fueling problems and protein waste.
A dietary fuel is an organic compound that the body can oxidize to release energy. The most basic fuel in the body is the monosaccaride glucose phosphate, which can be immediately broken down for energy. Free glucose, however, isn’t common in the primal diet of humans. We get our calories from carbs, fats and proteins. Because it needs to endure food-supply and environmental changes to survive, the human body has evolved so that it uses all food groups as fuels to make adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.
While fat and carb fuels are effective in producing energy and promoting growth, protein fuel is not. When there’s excess protein, it may actually suppress growth’not a good thing for bodybuilders.
The body is most efficient at using carbs and fat for energy. In the digestive tract starch breaks down into glucose, which then generates ATP through glycolysis and the Krebs cycle, an energy-producing mechanism. Similarly, glycogen converts to glucose in times of increased energy. A wide variety of carbohydrates induce glycolysis, which breaks sugar into two molecules of pyruvate while releasing energy. Because of its critical fueling functions, carb is stored as glycogen reserves for fast release.
Long before it started using carbs, specifically those in grain, as a main fuel, the human body adapted to using fat as its prime fuel. Nuts and seeds appeared much earlier than grains in the evolution of the food chain.
Fats are the best source of energy because they contain more hydrogen ions than carbs or proteins do. Fat releases twice as much energy as carbs, and since fat is the best source of energy, the body has the capacity to store many more calories from fat than carbs.
Even so, the body can store both carb and fat fuel in muscle and liver cells as glycogen or triglycerides. When energy demand is high, such as during exercise, the body can break down carb and fat stores for immediate release.
The Downside of Protein Fuel
While fat and carb fuels are efficient, protein fuel is not. That may explain why the body has no efficient way of storing it’the body knows its priorities. Protein serves mostly as a building block for tissues, enzymes, hormones, nucleotides and immuno compounds. If there’s a desperate need for energy, such as in moments of extreme physical stress, along with a lack of carb or fat fuel, the body is forced to use protein for energy. Guess where it comes from?’circulating amino acids and your muscle tissue.
The body breaks protein into by-products such as pyruvate, acetyl-coA or ketoglutaric acid, all of which are intermediate compounds of energy production in the Krebs cycle. If you’re getting sufficient calories, mostly from protein foods, then muscle breakdown may not occur, but protein waste will as you use protein for energy. When that happens, your body has to do something with those protein by-products. Can you guess where they go? Right to your fat cells. The body still regards an amino acid excess as more fuel than it needs. So after it breaks it down, it’s immediately shuttled into fat storage.
Besides increasing the risk for fat gain, excess protein causes toxicity. The breakdown of amino acids as fuel involves a process called deamination. That’s when the amino group is removed from the amino acid molecule. The nitrogenous waste is then converted to ammonia, which is toxic. It causes muscle fatigue and generates urea and other waste products. Those amino acid metabolites increase the overall metabolic stress on muscle and the liver, thus adversely affecting performance. ALL The Slow-Grow Syndrome
Too much protein, along with not enough carbs and fats, can promote fat gain and increase waste toxins. As if that weren’t enough, excess protein fuel may also suppress muscle growth. But doesn’t more protein build more muscle? Not necessarily. The cell doesn’t waste energy. An excess of a certain amino acid shuts down the anabolic pathway to its synthesis. The most common anabolic-control mechanism is called feedback inhibition, and inhibition of even one anabolic pathway may cause suppression of other anabolic processes that synthesize larger peptide molecules, known as proteins. Hence slower growth.
Avoiding High-Protein Pitfalls
Growth requires energy. In other words, an anabolic environment requires calorie surplus. Protein reaches maximum net use for growth when your calories are about 30 percent above your calorie expenditure. While growth requires high-energy turnover with high levels of cellular ATP, the protein you get must come in an optimum amount, and you should eat it with carbs or fat. That spares amino acids for growth, and your body doesn’t have to use protein for energy.
Here are some additional suggestions for getting the most out of your protein consumption:
‘High biological value. Strive to get protein with high BV so you maximize protein use and minimize its waste. Proteins that have inferior BVs can cause protein deficiencies and accumulation of amino acids, which then leads to amino acid waste. A protein that has a low amino score is deficient in one or more essential amino acids. The body can use only a certain balance of essential amino acids. A deficiency of even one essential amino forces your body to waste other amino acids until it corrects biological balance.
‘Food combinations. Combine two foods that are protein-deficient in themselves but complement one another. A mixture of grain and beans, for example, yields a complete protein with a high amino score. Great protein food combinations include meat and nuts, eggs and beans, fish and lentils, meat and grains, dairy and eggs, beans and grains, dairy and legumes.
‘Amino acid supplementation. Unfortunately, your diet is probably deficient in certain amino acids, which cooking or processing often destroys. Methionin, cystein, taurine, lysine and carnitine are most often missing. Supplementing those in a free form can help prevent protein waste.
‘Carb consumption. Carbs play a critical role in protein utilization by spiking insulin, which is a potent anabolic hormone. Insulin is necessary for effectively processing growth hormone and insulinlike growth factor. In fact, insulin and IGF actions are almost identical, promoting use of amino acids for increasing muscle protein synthesis and sparing them from waste.
‘Slow-released amino acids. Most whole protein foods are slow to digest and release their amino acids gradually. The human body has adapted to whole foods, which release proteins at a much slower rate than processed-protein products, whether shakes or bars. In their natural state all protein foods are combined with fat, carbs or fiber, all of which slow the rate of protein absorption. Human beings haven’t adapted to fast assimilation of large amounts of fast-releasing processed proteins. That’s why ricotta cheese or plain cottage cheese have superior utilization compared to processed protein powder. Whole foods as well as certain slow-released proteins, such as casein, are handled well by the body. The slow-release effect of amino acids prevents accumulation and waste of excess amino acids.
You can eat large servings of high-protein whole foods because the body absorbs them slowly. The natural slow release of amino acids from such foods as meats, eggs or fish means your body can take them even in large amounts: You can pig out on meat or fish and still do well. Protein whole foods are best when eaten with carbs or fat; for growth, meat and potatoes work better than meat alone.
Take a Powder?
Does that mean you shouldn’t use protein powders? Not at all, but choose carefully. Combinations of different protein sources generally yield a higher BV and amino score than a single protein source. Mixtures such as whey, casein and egg protein or whey and milk protein are superior to whey or milk protein alone.
Protein combinations provide different rates of protein release, which help improve protein metabolism. Look for specially designed slow-releasing protein products that incorporate quality proteins and bioactive oils or protein blends that incorporate microencapsulated super-slow-release proteins for a longer-lasting anabolic effect. That makes the powders react more like real food.
Behind the complexity of fuel use lies a simple principle: survival. That dictates everything your body does, including building muscles and losing fat. When things make sense to our bodies from a survival standpoint, we feel energetic and alert and have high self-esteem. Our bodies also get harder and leaner. Conversely, when we betray our biological destiny, our bodies become slow, sluggish and fat. That’s what happens if you use protein as your long-term primary fuel. New Slow-Release Protein Product
A groundbreaking technique of microencapsulation called Microfeed’ may help to further slow the rate of protein release and thereby improve your overall net protein utilization. A product of extensive research, it’s a serious attempt to launch a new slow-releasing protein product specifically designed to provide top-quality protein with an optimum rate of release for maximum utilization and minimum waste. According to the manufacturer, the product marks the next step in protein improvement and contains a proprietary blend of high-BV protein and encapsulated slow-release protein that yields maximum anabolic impact for up to 12 hours. That could mean more anabolism for bodybuilders. For more information visit www.probolic.com, or call (888) 783-8844.
Note: The info below gives you specifics on how to manipulate macronutrients to minimize protein waste and maximize anabolic processes.
After reading ‘Protein Waste,’ I posed a few questions to Ori Hofmekler that I thought had been left unanswered. He obliged, providing some straight-up answers and in the process outlining a sensible low-carb/high-carb-rotation strategy that is tailor-made for adding mass and minimizing fat deposition.
Q: To minimize protein waste, what’s the ideal amount of protein a bodybuilder should get per day?
A: For anabolic purposes the minimum daily protein intake should be one gram per pound of lean bodyweight’assuming that overall calorie intake is about 20 percent above maintenance. That’s where it should be for muscle growth. Any drop in calories from reductions in fat and carbs, however, will require an increase in protein intake to compensate for the missing calories. That can lead to protein waste. For example, let’s look at a 190-pound bodybuilder with about 160 pounds of lean bodyweight and a basal metabolic rate of about 2,000 calories. That’s his maintenance level of calories. He requires a minimum daily protein intake of 160 grams and an overall daily intake of 2,400 to 3,000 calories, depending on his activity level.
Deduct the daily protein calories (160 x 4 = 640) from the overall minimum daily calorie intake (2,400). That leaves 1,760 calories that should come from fat and carbs.
If his daily calorie intake from fat and carbs drops to 1,000 calories, then his protein intake should increase by 760 calories (about 200 grams) to compensate for the loss of fat and carb calories. When he gets only 1,000 calories per day from fat and carbs, he needs a staggering 360 grams of protein per day’only in that case 200 grams of protein will be used, or wasted, for fueling instead of being used for muscle building.
Q: So that 640 calories from protein is about 30 percent of 2,400 calories. That leaves about 35 percent for carbs and 35 percent for fat. That’s pretty much an even split. Are those the best macronutrient percentages?
A: No one carb-fat-protein ratio fits all people at all times. In fact, for anabolic purposes bodybuilders should rotate between days of high fat and days of high carbs:
‘High-fat day: 10 percent carbs, 50 percent fat, 40 percent protein
‘High-carb day: 60 percent carbs, 10 percent fat, 30 percent protein
Notice that on high-carb days protein intake can be slightly lower because eating higher carbs produces a protein-sparing effect. Incidentally, type 2 fast-twitch muscle fibers prefer carb fuel, and type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers prefer fat fuel. That’s why I highly recommend increasing carb consumption after an intense weight-training workout.
Q: Interesting. That rotation is similar to cheating every few days on a low-carb diet, the high-fat day being low carb and the high-carb day being a so-called cheat day. So you’re not a big fan of sticking to a high-fat, or ketogenic, diet for extended periods?
A: In my opinion, that diet is not based on any solid biological principles. Bodybuilders require glycogen replacement and optimum insulin activity to nourish fast-twitch fibers and induce maximum anabolic stimulation. The high-fat, no-carb ketogenic diet isn’t as anabolic as it claims to be. In fact, it may increase the overall stress on the liver and cause myriad unnecessary metabolic setbacks, adversely affecting the body’s capacity to perform, not to mention protein waste.
The rotation between high-fat and high-carb days requires some experimentation from an individual standpoint because it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy. There are limits, however. For example, I believe that five days per week of extreme carb deprivation doesn’t make any sense, especially for bodybuilders.
Editor’s note: Ori Hofmekler is the author of The Warrior Diet and Maximum Muscle & Minimum Fat, published by Dragon Door Publications. For more information or for Warrior Diet products visit www.warriordiet.com, call (866) WAR-DIET (toll free), or send e-mail to [email protected] IM