The following is the first in a series of MMA Nutrition articles by Lucas Dyer, a Certified and Licensed Sports Nutritionist. In his first column for FightMedicine.NET, Lucas breaks down the importance and function of Protein.
What Protein Should I be Taking and How Much?
People often ask me for my opinion on MMA nutrition with “what is the best protein to take and how much should I be taking?” Unfortunately, the answer to questions on Mixed Martial Arts nutrition are not short. There is a wealth of information surrounding this topic of MMA nutrition and a lot of it depends on lifestyle to include your daily activities, nutritional needs, and goals.
Depending on the gym or dojo where you train, you may have heard that the human body cannot digest more than 45 grams of protein in one serving, meaning that a certain amount will go to waste because the body cannot process this much protein at one time. This is a very controversial issue in which nutritionists tend to be split down the middle. Consider this: there are two questions which need to be asked: 1) How much protein can the digestive system physically absorb into the bloodstream and 2) How much protein can your body actually utilize? Your body can actually absorb 90% to 95% of the protein you take in, unless you have some type of digestive problem, but if your body doesn’t need it, it’s a waste. You must determine how much protein your body can utilize and then gauge your intake from there. A good rule for estimating your daily protein requirements is taking lean body weight (in pounds) X need factor = daily protein requirement (in grams). The need factors range from .5 (sedentary, no sports of training) to 1.1 (heavy weight trainer, athlete doing “2-a-days” training. Just because a supplement company’s outstanding marketing efforts convince you that drinking 42 grams of protein per shake, three times a day, even though you will absorb this protein, your body may not utilize that much. Keep in mind your muscle growth is not limited by the amount of protein you can DIGEST or ABSORB. Your muscle growth IS LIMITED by the amount of protein that your body can utilize for protein synthesis. You really don’t need 42 grams of protein per meal to keep your protein synthesis humming along. Any protein that your body can’t use for growth will be shuttled into a process where it is broken down called deamination, meaning the nitrogen is removed from the molecule and it becomes a carbon skeleton used in energy pathways. If you are trying to lose weight there are benefits from eating extra protein because protein helps to suppress the appetite. It is a widely debated topic so bottom line is your body can digest and absorb almost all of the protein you take in without a problem. But your muscles can only do so much with protein as the muscle growth process is RARELY, if ever limited by the amount of protein we consume. Almost all of us can easily get enough protein for maximum muscle growth without the need for eating 42 grams of protein several times throughout the day.
Biological Value (BV)
The second part to this question is what is the best protein? Well that depends where you are getting your protein from and why you need it. No matter what is written it is most likely going to be based on the consumers’ needs and preferences. In order to explain which protein is the best, you need to know about the bioavailability, or biological value (BV). For most of us that terminology is not as important as the purpose. The BV is essentially the efficiency in which protein supplies the essential amounts of amino acids to the body and the ability of food proteins to deposit nitrogen into the muscles. In other words you need to know that among the different types of proteins out there, (whey, soy, casein, egg…) your body and digestive systems absorb some protein better than others, just as certain sources will provide a higher amino acid profile. To help clear up the protein fog, the following list describes which proteins have the highest BV, where the higher the better quality of protein. Whey protein isolates and non-isolates have a BV of (100 to 157), Egg whites/dairy (77 to 118), raw whey-meaning all casein has been removed (104), fish (83), chicken (79), casein (77), rice (74) and soy, peanuts, and beans (74 and below). Typically the protein you choose will usually come down to your personal preferences and needs.
Real Quick-Amino Acids
Now real quick on amino acids. Protein is made up of essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids can be manufactured by our bodies, whereas essential amino acids are proteins that cannot be manufactured by our bodies so we must supplement this type of amino acids with food and/or supplements.
Are You A Vegetarian or Vegan…Now What?
Simply because you don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish does not mean you cannot get all the protein you need in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Often vegetarians and vegans are asked “where do you get your protein from?” implying that protein only comes from animal products. Soy is a very popular source of protein for vegetarians and vegans because it provides the amino acids needed to stay healthy. However, based on the biological value of soy (74 and below), legumes and beans, choosing this lifestyle could cause you to miss out on proteins that are more easily absorbed by the body. Remember that the biological value of protein is essentially the efficiency in which protein supplies the essential amounts of amino acids to the body and the ability of food proteins to deposit nitrogen into the muscles. Since nitrogen retention is the key to anabolism, a high BV protein is required in order to better biosynthesize muscle. To fulfill the protein requirement from sources other than meat and dairy, vegetarians and vegans can consume soy beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and green vegetables. When eating this way I suggest combining your protein with a complex carbohydrate such as brown rice, whole wheat or any whole grain for a more balanced meal. Fruit such as cantaloupe, avocado (yes this is a fruit!), watermelon, coconut and bananas are also good options to help add protein to your diet. Vegetables that are higher in protein per serving are asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and tomatoes. Of course there are others but these each have approximately 2 to 3 grams of protein per serving.
Are We Missing Anything in Our Diet?
When you choose not to consume animal protein you will be deficient in several nutrients. Of the six classes of nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water), you will be lacking protein, vitamin B-12, zinc, iron, calcium. This does not mean that you only get these from eating animal proteins. It simply means that extra work is required to obtain them.
Protein: Different types of protein are made up of different amino acids. In order to create a protein that can be assimilated into the human body as tissue, you must consume foods that contain complementary chains of amino acids. As discussed soy, legumes and beans are three types of food that have proteins but not complete. Soy protein can be digested efficiently-enough to match the animal protein yields. Just keep in mind that soy isn’t the answer to vegetarian/vegan diet. It shouldn’t be relied upon as a main source of protein.
Vitamin B-12: Many vegetarians/vegans lack vitamin B-12 because it does not exist naturally in any non-animal forms. You should seek out vitamin B-12 fortified foods, such as certain soy milks and cereals or in a multi-vitamin to supplement what they lack.
Zinc: Whereas non-vegetarian diets seem to enhance the absorption of zinc; vegetarian/vegan diets do the exact opposite – they inhibit it. You can overcome this by consuming more foods that contain zinc, such as soybeans, cashews, and sunflower seeds while reducing your intake of inhibitors by washing vegetables and grains.
Iron: Plant sources contain a significant amount of iron, but in non-heme form. Heme iron is primarily found in red meats and is the most easily absorbed. The iron found in plants is difficult to absorb but cooking tends to break these interactions and increase iron availability. You should do two things to increase your blood-iron levels: 1) consume more plant iron; and 2) avoid absorption inhibitors such as tea, coffee, and fiber. Some iron-rich foods are poor sources of the mineral because other compounds render it non-absorbable.
Calcium: Vegetarians/vegans can easily consume an adequate amount of calcium without any dietary
additions however, it is important to limit the intake of certain foods that are high in oxalate, which inhibit calcium absorption. Such foods are spinach, beet greens, and swiss chard as the main calcium foods. Again a good multi-vitamin will help.
It’s Up to You What You Put in Your Body!
So to recap make sure to consume high quality protein in order to maximize the effects of MMA nutrition and protein. Regardless of what you choose, protein is one of the most important nutrients required for muscle growth and development. There is no question that when it comes to high protein foods, meat products top the list. However, there are always alternatives. This is not meant to discourage people from becoming vegetarians or vegans, but instead to encourage them to spend time planning a health approach to their vegetarian diet before starting it. Surprising to many fruits and vegetables contain several grams of protein and when combined with complex carbohydrates, this can make for great meals that supply the nutrients required by the body on a daily basis. Eat healthy, eat clean, and eat often.