The Ever Changing Science of Protein

people enjoying protein supplements

Evan Stevens

You would think that by now we would have a pretty firm grasp of protein. It is one of the three main macronutrients and is essential for life as we know it. Its use in sport has been long described in scientific literature and makes up a huge portion of the billion-dollar supplement industry.

Walk into any GNC or Popeye’s or where ever you go to buy your tub of protein powder and you’ll see the excellent marketing campaigns on display; labels proclaiming the amounts of branched chain amino acids, the ability to make one look like a fitness model, the “max” and “pure” benefits of the product. But as we’ve come to know about science, the more we do, the more data we have available, and the more studies that get done, the more things change.

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Related Article: Do High-Intensity Exercises and Carbs Alter the Proteins in Your Fat?

Recent large-scale meta-analysis and an array of high-quality studies have afforded us a more precise look into what is going on in the world of protein research and have given us some revelations that require us to re-examine our understanding of protein use and supplementation.  One large review out of the Exercise Metabolism group out of the University of McMaster has shown that a lot of specifics relating to protein intake aren’t nearly as important as we think.

Protein terms

In the article, you may see different words thrown around about protein. There are three major types:

  • Whey: Whey is the liquid by-product of cheese production and one of two proteins found in animal milk.
  • Casein: Casein is animal protein found in milk and makes up the majority of the protein fraction of milk.
  • Soy: Soy protein is just the protein isolated from the bean, taken from the dehulled and defatted meal.
  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA): Amino acids are the build blocks of all protein. They are defined by a carboxyl acid group at one end, a nitrogenous amino group at the other, and a carbon group bound to a side chain in the middle. This side chain and the variation is can have is what makes amino acids different. BCAAs have a long (3-or-more- carbons) chain as this side group, giving it a “branching” look.

Whey, Casein, and Soy are all good protein sources and as we learn more about them and protein, in general, they start to lose some of their “separateness” and in certain situations can all just fall under the umbrella of “protein” without any caveats to the type.

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The review

Skeletal muscle is often in a state of turnover in the working body. Muscle mass is dictated by the balance between muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and the result is the net protein balance. Healthy humans’ MPS is 4-5x more sensitive to feeding than MPB which makes it the greatest determinant of gains in muscle mass. Resistance exercise (RE) with protein consumption augments MPS and improves muscle hypertrophy. It was long thought that we needed specific timing of ingestion, at specific doses, with the right type of protein, focusing on the sport being done, and with a keen eye on the branched chain amino acids more so than the other individual amino acids. However, the review has revealed that the pillars of protein supplementation aren’t as stable as we originally thought.

Timing

It used to be thought that timing of protein ingestion was imperative to recovery and MPS. It was long held that we needed to take in protein immediately post workout to maximize MPS as it was determined that our bodies were most receptive to turnover at that point. This belief that timing was imperative went so far as to suggest taking protein before your workout to improve MPS immediately and prevent MPB, resulting in improvements in strength and hypertrophy.

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The reality is that timing seems to be inconsequential; new research and a greater body of studies have shown that timing is fairly flexible. Research has shown that MPS remains high for at least 24 hours post-exercise and could remain high for longer under the right circumstances. This is what we call an “anabolic window” a period where the MPS drive remains high and sensitive. All you require is the right quality of protein, which we will discuss in the next part.

Related Article: Protein Intake For Masters Athletes

Studies have shown that taking 40g of casein protein before bed can increase MPS and favors a positive net protein balance overnight. While studies have suggested this may only be beneficial in older adults as few studies showed a significant difference in net gains with this overnight feeding method, a few studies in younger adults has shown positive results in this pre-bed protein feeding routine. It is still recommended that athletes intake protein immediately post exercise because this is the easiest time to do so. Immediately post-exercise we need fluids and carbohydrates and makes for an easy time to intake protein as part of a rehydration protocol.

At the end of the day (pun intended) the timing of protein doesn’t matter, so long as it is in that 24-hour post-exercise “anabolic window” where there is the increased drive for MPS. Even then, however, the resulting gains in muscle mass and hypertrophy are only in conjunction with the relative strain of the exercise performed. To get the most out of your protein supplementation you need to get the most out of your workout (you need to actually work hard).

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Recap

  • Science is a process; it changes over time.
  • New science has shifted our understanding of protein.
  • The timing of ingestion post workout not as important as once thought.
    • The anabolic window for MPS open for 24hrs post workout.

In the next part of this series, we will discuss we will continue with our shifting ideas on protein and discuss why (or even if) quality matters and if we still need to take protein with anything.

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