Ya know, for as much as people hate on carbs, they sure obsess about protein. And fine, I get it, it’s touted as the lean body panacea, the key to BMI, and the foundation of health. And protein does matter. But so do the other macronutrients.
And while your average gym goer gets their training and nutrition advice from jacked bodybuilders, the vast majority of whom are on gear, very few experience the protein promised land due to poor digestion and irritable guts, sluggish metabolisms, and a lack of energy.
Some of the biggest lies in the protein guidebook:
- You must eat a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to build muscle
- You must constantly remain ‘topped up’ to ensure positive nitrogen balance
- If you’re hungry you’re wasting away
- You cannot build muscle in an energy deficit
- Carbs are the reason for puffy bodies
I think there are more than enough articles out there breaking down the scientific benefits of protein. I’ll do a bit of the science here, but I want to focus on my observations as a professional coach for over fifteen years.
Because, as should be no surprise, patterns arise when you’re watching similar bodies try to do the same things over years. And many of those successes and failures fly in the face of ‘common’ protein knowledge, including:
- Good luck consuming that much protein
- Protein absorption / utilization varies dramatically from one person to the next
- Bodybuilders be poopin
- Protein matters most in caloric deficit
- Animals proteins are more than protein
- Carbs, beyond all other macros, drive performance and BMI
Wait a Second, Who Pooped My Pants?
Let’s address the elephant (sized poop) in the room. Rarely discussed, and commonly tolerated, is protein triggered leaky gut. Many of those great looking bodies you’ve seen on TV and at the gym, if they’re older than 25, are leaking out the back end, trying to keep up with meathead recommended dosages of their favorite macro.
This is a phenomenon which I’ve been personally acquainted, and tolerated well beyond reason. But it’s not discussed enough, and it’s critical to the discussion on how much of the stuff you actually need.
In an attempt to hit that grand protein target that guarantees big beautiful muscles, most trainees literally force-feed themselves, for fear of falling out of positive nitrogen balance, and becoming catabolic (muscles eating themselves for energy).
How fragile these big beautiful Adonises are…
A day without protein packing their guts and they’re wasting away. [cry emoji]
And while some, those on anabolic steroids, with super strong gut microbiomes, or those with exceptional genetics, are able to tolerate these volumes and actually convert it into living tissue, the rest of us spend far too much time spraying to the porcelain god. And, the sad element here, is protein lovers then look in the mirror, aren’t satisfied, and so up the dosages, not realizing half their efforts aren’t being utilized at all, but are being flushed away.
So what’s the catch here? Well, there are two:
- The state of your gut health
- The real need for this macronutrient
Let’s break these down.
You Are Multitudes | On Your Gut Microbiome
Let’s start at the beginning, because if we don’t get this right, protein intake is a moot point.
First, the gut microbiome refers to the community of trillions of microorganisms that live in our digestive tract - bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes. These microbes play a crucial role in our overall health, including our ability to digest and utilize protein.
The composition and diversity of the gut microbiome can affect how well we digest and utilize protein. In a healthy gut microbiome, beneficial bacteria helps to break down protein into amino acids more efficiently, increasing the amount of protein that is available for our bodies to use. These beneficial bacteria also help to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that can interfere with protein digestion.
On the other hand, an unhealthy gut microbiome, characterized by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial bacteria, can lead to poor protein digestion and utilization. Harmful bacteria can also produce toxins that interfere with protein digestion, leading to amino acid deficiencies and malnutrition.
An unhealthy gut microbiome can also lead to inflammation and damage to the intestinal lining, further impairing protein absorption, and plummeting your overall energy levels.
Somewhere on the order of 30 trillion cells in your body aren’t yours, but belong to bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on and in you. This means that somewhere between 70 and 90% of the cells in your body aren’t you (aren’t of your DNA), but live in symbiosis (or discordance) with you.
This has helped me reframe how exactly we intake organic materials from our environments, break them down into essential nutrients, and assimilate them into living tissue.
We have help.
This relationship must be nurtured and optimized to promote not only big beautiful muscles, but health and healing at the most basic levels.
If we manage this critical step through decent nutrition selections, windows of gut clearance (fasting) that allow the gut to heal, energy expenditure that leads to real nutrient demand, and possibly supplements that aid in microbe repopulation, then the next step, the one that everyone obsesses about, becomes more relevant.
You Need Protein… Up to a Point
Low estimates for recommended protein intake come in around .8 grams per kilo of bodyweight, far far below the .8 to 1 gram per pound that many fitness and bodybuilding experts recommend. Granted, that lower number won’t account for high levels of output or muscle breakdown from higher volume (or intensity) strength training, but we’re dealing with a near 300% difference in protein volume with these recommendations, so something has to give.
In my first trip to China, Shaolin training took me beyond the edges of what I thought possible. Brought up on bodybuilding recommendations for protein intake, I was literally afraid when eating in the cafeteria, and not seeing anywhere near the amount of meat (and total proteins) that should have been needed to recover and grow.
Most of the meat was bone and cartilage. I remember even feeling grateful for the pieces with fat, both for the calories and for the taste. Literal fights broke out in the kitchen between angry trainees and the cooks, accused of taking the meat for themselves, and warrior monks had to step in to break it up.
I wasn’t alone in my fear.
So I tried to stuff myself with hard boiled eggs and oatmeal in the morning, and did my best with tofu and meat scraps at other meals, with loads of rice, bread rolls, and oil drenched vegetables.
I learned two valuable things from this experience, after my body transformed in mere weeks - strong, vascular, endurance for days:
- Training stimulus, not protein intake, dictates internal asset allocation
- Carbs, not protein, fuel the efforts needed to signal growth
Training Stimulus, Not Protein, Dictates Growth…
…unless you’re in a significant calorie deficit. But let me come back to that in a bit. Most people aren’t, and therefore shouldn’t be too concerned. With the addition of intermittent fasting this becomes much more relevant.
But for the rest of us, baseline performance ought to be prime focus. As I mentioned above, the training at Shaolin was brutal, about 4 hours a day of physical training, five days a week, plus hours of meditation on top. Protein was at levels that may be prescribed for sedentary individuals. Despite that, I grew rapidly.
In my previous article High-Rep Calisthenics for Muscle Gain I mention the Power Index, a way of measuring intensity across individual vectors, as well as for workouts as a whole. In all the years I’ve been coaching, I’ve never counted (well, beyond testing windows), or recommend clients count, calories, but I have marked and measured every rep of every set I’ve every overseen.
Yes, you read that right. My clients have no macro allocations, and have no idea how much protein they take in. And yet… they transform. Weightlessness Nutrition covers this with very basic, yet robust, guidelines for meal composition.
Granted, the protein variable becomes far more important at the margins - if someone is literally starving, like Bear Grills eating random shit in the woods to survive, or men/woman competing in physique competitions where not only muscle volume, but also extremely low body fat, are of top priority. But this get’s back to my initial caveat, which is that these athletes are operating in caloric deficits for months to cut weight, and in such cases, protein intake must rise to a higher percentage of total macro calories to prevent muscle waste.
But… if we can wrap our heads around this nuance, and acknowledge power output (of your total system) is the primary signal for muscle retention and growth, then you may come around to the second point - protein isn’t the best fuel for exertion that signals growth.
Carbs Fuel Performance
Carbs are the single best fuel source for the human body, by far. Don’t let the madness of ketogenic nutritionists convince you otherwise. And while you may feel better completely abstaining from them for a window of time (as we do through the detox phase of the Weightlessness Process), you'll very quickly realize that balancing a lean physique with the need to do the work that makes you look lean (and strong) is damn near impossible without sufficient carbohydrates or a lifestyle built around food.
Protein CAN be used for energy, but the process of converting it (gluconeogenesis) is inefficient compared to that of fats and carbohydrates. It both requires more energy to digest, and more energy to convert, than the other macros. Hence protein’s reputation as the recovery and anabolic (building) macro.
Fat can play its role, and is actually an ideal fuel source for long duration, aerobic exercise. It’s calorie dense, and utilizes oxygen (B-oxidation) to generate precursor compounds to ATP. But… it’s a slower process than converting energy from stored carbs.
The process that breaks down carbs to release energy is literally called respiration. Think about that for a moment. Cells breathe just like you do, and their energy currency (ATP from glycogen) is most readily supplied by carbs. It’s rare to find a strength athlete who doesn’t rely on them.
As we discussed above, protein intake isn’t just an issue of absorption (from a healthy gut), but also of utilization.
What dictates utilization, at least in large part?
When you’ve done real work, and possibly real damage to your muscles, the need for Amino acids to recover and construct tissue goes up. Create the demand, and then even the same supply will be used very differently.
How do you fuel that higher level of work/intensity that creates the need for better utilization? Carbs…
But increasing cellular demand for reconstruction isn’t the only way to improve assimilation.
Eat Less to Utilize More
In The Tao of Nutrition chapter in In Pursuit of Weightlessness I talk about one of the peculiar paradoxes in nutrition - that absorption and assimilation improve when food volume and frequency decrease. Like so many awesome capacities of the human body, the impulse for internal homeostasis - self regulation - is a biological gift that most modern day athletes think they can hack their way around.
Your systems drift toward center. Your nervous system is comprised of antithetical sub-systems that regulate energy, stress, and action. Your endocrine system releases hormones that drive you toward center - insulin when you over-consume, to manage excess blood glucose, and glucagon, which increases blood glucose when it drops. Or we could include ghrelin, the hunger hormone, at cross-purposes with leptin, which culls appetite.
Starving rats have made critical contributions to understanding these same mechanisms in us humans, and while roided up bodybuilders are telling you to eat big to get big, scientists are building jacked up lab rats by feeding them LESS. That doesn’t mean they’re not feeding them enough, it just means that they’re underrating - they’re fasting for most of the day, and then consuming one large meal that still totals less than that which they’d consume over a 24 hr period if eating 3 or so meals (and less than what their caloric expenditure might require).
It can’t be accounted for if you’re working with outdated models of calories in - calories out. It makes perfect sense however when you see the intelligence of a living system that is recognizing the risk of starvation, and compensating by producing the hormones necessary to optimize how the next feeding is processed and assimilated.
And so it is with us, eating less often not only gives the gut a rest, allowing more mental alertness and systemic healing, it also causes the release of testosterone and growth hormone, which signal protein synthesis and tissue repair, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps the brain adapt to stress.
Deprivation leads to optimal growth (and protein assimilation).
So how do we make sense of these two conditions - that training intensity and calorie deprivation both signal healing and growth?
As a general rule, when resources are proven insufficient, the body up-regulates protein absorption and utilization. It doesn’t matter whether you’re damaging tissue through high intensity strength training, or depleting yourself of glycogen through fasting, your systems will seek balance, and then some.
Let’s distill these these insights into a few actionable rules for protein intake.
New Rules for Protein Intake
Prioritize Gut Health
This is hard for many to understand, but you’re better off with a complex carbohydrate that contains a little protein, than you are with a whole protein source, if that latter jeopardizes digestion. Digestion is where the magic happens. Nothing matters without it.
While everyone is taught to incorporate a lot of different foods in their diet, it may not be what we’re built for.
Food variety is a modern gift. We evolved on single food sources for most of our history - the animal hunted, the fruit tree found and stripped. I know it’s not as fun, but try limiting your meals with a lot of variety to one a day, with more simplified meals for the other one to two (if you’re eating three times a day).
Reduce simple sugars and processed foods that cause inflammation or irritable gut. The easiest way to know for your personal case, is a poop check. If you’re pooping clean - imagine a toothpaste tube being squeezed - you’re probably eating close to what your gut can manage. If not well formed - you’re not absorbing much of what you’re eating. And if you’re not regular or just plain constipated - you’re absorbing too much (or not clearing out for a variety of reasons).
This may also mean reducing coffee intake, or having windows of abstinence to repopulate your microbiome and reduce acidity.
And of course, clearing the gut and giving it time to heal can dramatically improve this equation. Eat less frequently, some of the time.
As discussed above, undereating signals the release of highly constructive hormones. These in turn lead to improved digestion AND utilization. So you’re able to accomplish more with less. This might mean a few days a week you're on water until you have a substantial and satisfying late lunch or early dinner and a hefty dose of protein, among other nutrients.
Prioritize Protein When Need is Greatest
Bear Grills sets a memorable example with his eating of weird animal parts to sustain days in the wilderness. Another great example is set by Alex Hormozi, who has simplified his dietary regimen to one simple rule - eat 200 grams of protein every day, and prioritize it. While he’d be at the upper end of those macro recommendations, and looks it, this rule leaves nothing to chance. He knows exactly what that quantity looks like across multiple sources, he consumes it first, and he fills in the rest of his calories with ‘whatever.’
This approach would take practice, but if we combine these approaches, we wind up with a targeted quantity of protein (you can experiment with your consumption limits measured against your gut health) intake when we’re at our hungriest.
So if you’re intermittent fasting for 16 hours, for example, your first ‘feeding’ might be protein centric, and protein first. That doesn’t need to be all you eat, but your body is primed and ready to take in that macro nutrient, so keeping it simple (eggs, fish, or dare I say a protein shake an hour before you larger meal) will ensure you’re prioritizing optimal assimilation.
Since our rule was based on ‘necessity,’ this same principle can be applied in the first meal post-workout. In either case, you’re moving from a depleted state, and Bear Grills sets the example.
Prioritize Real Food
Admittedly, this rule is getting harder for me to practice. As a proud cat dad, my convictions are growing around the need to reduce the harm and slaughter of animals for food. I’m not preaching here, I’m just telling you I’ve got internal conflicts. Because I whole heartedly believe that eating meat (source and quality matters) leads to optimal health. Or at the very least, it’s a hedge against ignorance.
Meat (and fish and eggs) are a lot more than protein. While they’re excellent sources of our prime macro, deleting them from our diets doesn’t just create a protein gap, but a micronutrient (and possibly bacterial) gap that we cannot replace with a powder, but needs many other food sources to accommodate. When meat consumption drops, the need for quality supplements rises...
This requires an ample, varied vegetarian diet, or a very high degree of knowledge in the realm of nutrition.
That said, to remove some of my guilt whenever I look in Shadow’s eyes, I’ve started to supplement with a little powder (maybe 2 or 3 days a week, for 30 grams or so). It’s not a lot, and it does affect my digestion negatively, but it eliminates at least one animal protein meal. And my soul feels a little better. Do with that what you will.
If nothing else, I hope this helps dispel a bit of the neuroticism around this macro. It is important, but not to the point of obsession or gut damage. Prioritize moving in your environment, and a resilient, healthy gut. Only then should you seek to optimize protein intake based on quantity and frequency.
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