You need protein to build muscle. We have all heard that, probably as early as elementary school. And it is true. Muscle is mostly made of protein and its source is protein in the diet. But the route is not direct. Proteins are complex molecules composed of hundreds to thousands of amino acids linked together. When consumed, these chains are broken down into smaller fragments called peptides as well as into individual amino acids. Once absorbed into the bloodstream these are reassembled into proteins that include not only the structural parts of muscles but also enzymes and some hormones such as insulin. Of the twenty amino acids found in the body’s proteins, nine have to be supplied by the diet, the others can be made from other food components. The big question about proteins is how much do we need? Consume too little and the body suffers, consume too much and the extra is converted to fat.
It stands to reason that body size matters as well as level of activity. Muscle builders require more protein than couch potatoes. As a rough guide, people need at least half a gram per pound of body weight, recreational athletes need 0.7 grams and serious athletes about 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. Let’s take as an example a 170 pound male who works out quite regularly. His protein intake should be in the ballpark of 120 grams. That’s achievable by diet. A chicken breast has about 60 grams of protein, a hamburger 30, about the same as a serving of salmon, a couple of eggs 12, and two slices of cheese 15. Now, if someone is into serious body building, the needs can go up to 150-160 grams of protein a day. At this point adding some tofu with about 50 grams of protein per 100 grams might be in order. Or, there is always the possibility of using a protein supplement.
Protein supplements are big business, raking in about seven billion dollars a year world wide. They are sourced from milk or soy with a scoop generally containing about 40 grams of protein. But therein lies a problem. And it is a big enough issue to have resulted in law suits against the protein manufacturers. That’s because that protein powder may not be all protein thanks to something called “protein spiking” which involves using cheaper individual amino acids rather than proteins. For example, glycine, taurine and leucine are available at about one fifth the cost of proteins.
Now here is the scoop. A chemical analysis for proteins doesn’t really analyze for proteins but rather for nitrogen content. Since all proteins contain nitrogen, the amount of protein can be calculated from a nitrogen analysis. But the analysis does not distinguish between amino acids linked together in a chain, as in proteins, or individual acids all of which also contain nitrogen. In some cases a supposed 40 gram serving of protein may only deliver 20 grams, the rest being individual amino acids. What that means is that the ratio of amino acids in the supplement is not ideal for supplying what the body needs to build protein. While there is a degree of dishonest marketing here, there is no serious health consequence. Most people who supplement with protein powders, even if these are not everything they are made out to be, are probably taking in more protein than their body can possibly use.