When did it become suddenly ok for every supermarket and fitness establishment to assume our sole purpose in life is to lose masses of weigh – and FAST?
Many such campaigns put a huge focus on cutting out carbs, and increasing protein to make us feel ‘fuller for longer’ so we can – well – avoid eating and create the calorie deficit required to lose weight.
Our response is two fold. Firstly – as cyclists the nutrition we take on is important to our performance, recovery, and therefore performance again so we shouldn’t be making drastic changes or cutting out major food groups. However, the age-old power to weight ratio means that there are speed gains to be made by losing weight for many of us – but not all, we should bear in mind there is a point of diminishing returns.
We spoke to sports nutrition expert Joseph Agu – firstly to find out more about how protein helps us recover, and secondly how athletes can manipulate it to lose weight in a sensible and controlled manner.
TWC: Let's start at the beginning. How does protein actually aid muscle repair?
Joe: During exercise your muscle fibres break down. That's a natural process of exercise and that break down allows them to rebuild, causing an adaptation. Protein ingestion facilitates that response by stimulating what we call muscle protein synthesis.
Do we have to ingest protein within an hour of exercise for it to 'work'?
To be honest the anabolic window [the time in which you must refuel in order for nutrition to facilitate muscle growth] is a myth. It's based on some poor research back in the early 90s, perhaps the late 80s. More recent investigations show that these studies were skewed because the experimental group who had protein after exercise where actually just consuming more protein. Newer studies matched the overall intake and found no difference. That would lead us to believe there is no 'anabolic window' - but what is important is you get that protein in at some point.
If you look at exercise itself - the anabolic response lasts between 24-48 hours after exercise. So that enhanced sensitivity of muscle to proteins continues. In other words the anabolic window lasts all day, if not into the next day.
Should we be combining our protein with other food to help metabolise it better?
From a muscle adaptation point of view, then protein alone enough is enough to maximise that protein synthesis response. However, if someone has depleted a degree of carbohydrates, say glycogen, through exercise, then taking on board carbohydrate is important too. There’s no advantage of adding carbohydrate in terms of muscle recovery response.
Do our protein needs vary depending upon sport and gender?
In terms of types of sport… if you think of it as a continuum with endurance on the left, and team sports like football in the middle, then pure strength such as powerlifting on the right. Endurance athletes – most cyclists except maybe track specialists - tend to need a little less. My views differ slightly from the standard literature. Most literature suggests endurance athletes need 1.2-1.6grams of protein per kg of body weight. I’d put it more as 1.5-1.8g/kg.
Gender doesn’t really make a difference. The values are based on body weight… women will generally weight a little less so the values look after themselves.
We see a lot of high protein, low carb diets being advertised these days. Is that a good way for an athlete to lose weight?
The main factor that will dictate weight loss is energy balance – expending more calories than you ingest, regardless if that’s through sitting around or with the addition of exercise.
Taking on extra protein can have a muscle protein sparing effect – so the more protein you eat the less likely you are to lose muscle as you lose weight via a calorie deficit. So for an athlete that was dieting, I’d suggest upping protein by about 20 per cent.
Low carb diets are a bit of a double-edged sword. A diet only works if you put someone in an energy deficit – and more often than not they do that because the majority of people’s calories come from carbohydrates. So yes, lowering carbs is a useful means of approaching the deficit.
However, one thing to be mindful of for endurance athletes in particular is that that low carbohydrate levels can effect training quality. If carbs are too low you’ll progressively deplete glycogen levels with training sessions. Think of your body like a car, if you’re trying to run on empty you’re not going to perform as well as you could.
It’s also important to look at fat intake. A lot of people think they can cut carbs without thinking about the fat that they eat. Fat is the most nutrient (and thus calorie) dense of the three macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat). So someone can quite easily cut carbs and not lose weight purely because they’re consuming a lot of dietry fat.
If we want to up our protein intake, what’s the best thing to do – eat high protein food or reach for supplements?
The main advantages of consuming a supplement like whey protein is they’re cheaper on a gram per gram basis in terms of the protein you get. They are high quality – which means the leucine content of that protein is very high.
Whey protein typically contains 8-14% leucine, whilst meat might contain roughly 7-8 % of leucine. It’s leucine which is the main trigger for initiating protein synthesis. That’s why they often say to have 30g protein, because that contains around 3g leucine which is at the upper end of what’s required to maximise protein synthesis.
Protein is portable, too – it’s easy and quickly digested, so if you’re preparing for a specific event protein products are great. Though there are other forms, Whey protein is quickly absorbed, cheap to produce and high quality.
However – outside of competition, my advice would be to consume as much as you can from food sources, and then use supplements to fill in those gaps. Food has advantages – in my opinion and in most people’s opinion it’s better tasting, often more satiating, and eating a meal is a part of socialising.
There are some ‘women’s specific’ protein products – is it all just marketing?
It’s all marketing really. They’ll usually put some pink packaging on and label it as a women’s diet product. If you get a good quality whey protein isolate that’ll be pretty much pure protein with no fat and carbs – so essentially that is a diet protein anyway.
If that gets people consuming more protein and realising their potential in their exercise that’s a good thing. And not to make a blanket statement, but I think a lot of women are reluctant to take protein products as they tend to be associated with guys in the gym with big biceps - but I do think that stereotype is changing and there are more women are using protein products without a second thought. The only disadvantage of that marketing is these products tend to carry a higher price tag so in those cases it might be better to buy from the standard range.
Joseph offers clinical and performance centred nutritional advice and you can read more about him and his services here. He also writes for MyProtein.com, where you can find a host of protein products at genuinely competitive prices.