Let us say you are one of the gifted few who are able to put on 1 lb of pure muscle per month, or 12 lbs per year, by combining strength training with a reasonable protein intake. Let us go even further and assume that the 1 lb of muscle that we are talking about is due to muscle protein gain, not glycogen or water. This is very uncommon; one has to really be genetically gifted to achieve that.
And you do that by eating a measly 80 g of protein per day. That is little more than 0.5 g of protein per lb of body weight if you weigh 155 lbs; or 0.4 per lb if you weigh 200 lbs. At the end of the year you are much more muscular. People even think that you’ve been taking steroids; but that just came naturally. The figure below shows what happened with the 80 g of protein you consumed every day. About 15 g became muscle (that is 1 lb divided by 30) … and 65 g “disappeared”!
Is that an amazing feat? Yes, it is an amazing feat of waste, if you think that the primary role of protein is to build muscle. More than 80 percent of the protein consumed was used for something else, notably to keep your metabolic engine running.
A significant proportion of dietary protein also goes into the synthesis of albumin, to which free fatty acids bind in the blood. (Albumin is necessary for the proper use of fat as fuel.) Dietary protein is also used in the synthesis of various body tissues and hormones.
Dietary protein does not normally become body fat, but can be used in place of fat as fuel and thus allow more dietary fat to be stored. It leads to an insulin response, which causes less body fat to be released. In this sense, dietary protein has a fat-sparing effect, preventing it from being used to supply the energy needs of the body.
Nevertheless, the fat-sparing effect of protein is lower than that of another "macronutrient" – alcohol. That is, alcohol takes precedence over carbohydrates for use as fuel. However, protein takes precedence over carbohydrates. Neither alcohol nor protein typically becomes body fat. Carbohydrates can become body fat, but only when glycogen stores are full.
What does this mean?
As it turns out, a reasonably high protein intake seems to be quite healthy, and there is nothing wrong with the body using protein to feed its metabolism.
Having said that, one does not need enormous amounts of protein to keep or even build muscle if one is getting enough calories from other sources.
In my next post I’ll talk a little bit more about that.