The High Protein Myth
How does a high protein diet measure up providing energy for exercise...
By James Stevens & Ainslie MacEachran
Well, by now many of us are somewhat, if not intimately, familiar with the
high protein, low carb diet. For some, this method of diet control works. For
others, it’s a myth and nothing more. Adjustments can be made, however, to make
this method athlete/training friendly. Additionally, once you have a basic
understanding of how your body utilizes food for exercise, you can tailor it to
fit your needs.
To begin, let’s discuss what your body uses for fuel when you exercise. To
simplify or make this something most people can identify with, let’s put it in
different terms. When you build a car, what do you use to build it? Primarily
steel. And what do you used to fuel it? Gas.
As it applies to the human body, protein is what you use to build muscle.
However, it makes for a lousy and highly inefficient fuel source. Carbohydrates
rather are what you would use to fuel your “car.” It burns at a fairly stable
rate and makes sure the “vehicle” runs optimally.
The popular conception is that carbohydrates are evil and more easily turned
into fat in the body. And, in excessive amounts, this is partly true. But, a
high protein, low carb diet doesn’t allow for much fuel for exercise or, really,
life in general. The diet was originally conceived of as a way for sedentary
Americans to lose weight. Although when you’re exercising in the absence of
carbohydrates, the next most readily available fuel is unfortunately precious
We tell most of our clients two things:
1) carbs have a “protein-sparing” effect and
2) that fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate and that, if for no other reason,
you need carbs to jump-start the fat furnace.
The problem with this is just that. Most Americans live, to varying degrees,
a sedentary lifestyle. The lack of exercise makes it so you have to limit your
calories (i.e.: low carbohydrate intake and moderate to high protein
consumption.) It really is a simple equation: calories in, calories out. That
is, what you eat versus what your caloric expenditure is.
Now, as mentioned at the top of this article, adjustments can be made to make
the high protein diet work for exercise. Protein, by itself, is a highly
inefficient fuel source. Your body uses a process call gluconeogenesis to take
protein and turn it into a usable fuel source. This is literally like alchemy.
You’re asking your body to take protein, and thru an extremely complicated and
energy costly process, to create glucose.
To make resources more available for exercise, strategically providing carbs
will go a long way towards a: achieving your goal of a) having energy for
exercise and b) controlling caloric intake.
When we say strategically, what we’re driving at is timing carbohydrate
consumption around exercise and recovery. If you consume carbs in advance of
exercise rationed out over several meals instead of “stockpiled” into just one,
then you have the appropriate fuel on board to create a workout of a reasonably
high intensity and duration. Secondly, consuming a carbohydrate/protein mix
after exercise will help to facilitate refueling at the cellular level and
building or rebuilding muscle.
An additional nutritional tweak that can be made is to eat a balanced meal of
carbs and protein at breakfast, traditionally a carbohydrate-dense meal. This
acts to jumpstart your fat furnace in the morning and provides carbohydrates not
only for today but, for tomorrow’s training too.
While there are some merits to bumping your protein intake and lowering your
carbohydrate intake for the sedentary population, if you’re involved in an
exercise program, adding appropriate fuel sources to your diet at strategic
times will go a long way towards boosting your athletic performance while at the
same time controlling caloric intake.
James Stevens has a Masters in Nutrition, is a Registered Dietician and
teaches nutrition at Metro State College in Denver CO. He works with athletes to
tailor your diet to suit your lifestyle starting with not eating a whole sleeve
of cookies because you can.
Ainslie MacEachran is a premier level coach with
Colorado Premier Training
and also the owner of Orchards Athletic Club in Loveland, CO. He has been riding
and racing bikes for 25yrs.
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