If you have been anywhere near a gym or anyone who lifts weights you have likely heard that you NEED protein to build muscle. It’s an interesting fallacy that muscle can be built in the kitchen or simply by drinking protein shakes. Russ and I were believers of that story before we learned better. Snacks of cheese were great because they had protein (never mind that they are more fat and cholesterol than protein). For dinner we always made sure we ate the protein (i.e. animal flesh) first. Then the starch and veggies.
When we were young (less than 35), that worked. At least we thought it was working. I successfully played in three-day volleyball tournaments in 90+ degree heat on sand too hot to stand on. And Russ had the bulging muscles you would expect of a competitive body builder (check out the picture on our bio page if you need evidence).
What we didn’t realize is youth will allow you to get away with a world of sins. You can feed a human body just about anything for 30ish years and as long as it gets enough calories it will function. Feed it a little better and it will function better. Throw in some exercise and people will laud you for being in great shape.
Now both of us believe we could have been even better athletes if we had realized the truth about nutrition and particularly animal protein. That became painfully obvious when we no longer had youth to protect us from our less than ideal dietary choices. Too much animal protein was actually HURTING our ability to build and maintain muscle mass.
Let me say that again – Too much animal protein is counterproductive to building muscle.
There are two factors that contribute to this problem. One – your body’s need for fuel. Two – your body’s need to recover between workouts. Too much protein causes a problem in both cases.
Your body’s need for fuel
Every cell in the human body runs on glucose. Your brain can only run on glucose. No glucose = death. Glucose comes from carbohydrates. So, carbohydrates = fuel. If you run out of carbs to burn, your body goes to your backup battery, glycogen, stored in your liver and in your muscles. When it runs out of glycogen, it switches to burning fat AND converting amino acids (protein) into a glucose-like substance to keep you alive until you find more carbohydrates (yes this is how the keto diet causes weight loss – this is supposed to be a short-term solution to avoid death, not a way of life. Using it for weight loss causes a whole host of health problems. But that is a different article).
In the process of stopping everything to create fuel to keep you alive, your body starts to steal amino acids like alanine to convert into fuel from your muscles. So now not only are you not building muscle, you are actively breaking it down.
Your body’s need to recover
In competitive athlete circles recovery time is a top priority. The sooner your body is ready to go again, the more time you can spend practicing and getting better. Down time is lost time (As a side note, as a trained sport psychologist I disagree with this at some level because mental practice is important and can be done while the body is recovering. But again – that is a different post).
The best recovery food is carbohydrates. That is important to let sink in because most people believe they need to pound a protein shake the moment they stop working out. That’s not the case. Instead, whole-food carbs are going to be your best bet. Your body’s first goal is to recharge your backup battery (glycogen). You can only do that with carbohydrates. Taking in high levels of protein right after a workout pushes the necessary carbs and other essential nutrients off of your plate. And if you eat whole-food carbs you are going to get protein because ALL whole-foods contain protein. You don’t have to actively seek it out.
This idea that we have to purposefully find and ingest lots of protein is the result of a misunderstanding of the science (see the chapter in our book about the Protein Cult) and some really good marketing and advertising campaigns.
Studies have shown that if you do resistance training and you get enough nutritional calories, you WILL build muscle. There is no two ways about it. If humans had needed some special balance of protein, carbs and fat to build muscle, we never would have made it off the Serengeti. It’s not that complicated. Eat real food, mostly plants, do appropriate resistance training and you’ll be good to go.
Have Russ create a custom-built workout plan to help you achieve your fitness goals and/or have Dr Robyn fine tune in your nutrition plan. Send us an email with your goals and let’s have a conversation about making them a reality.
Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.