In this third and final installment of the series, we will scrutinize the sometimes-extreme protein consumption habits of competitive bodybuilders. This article is based on a combination of scientific research and my personal observations from 17 years in the sport.
I'm a firm believer in the scientific method, but too often, scientists refuse to accept ideas that haven't been "properly tested," even if evidence of their effectiveness is right in front of them.
Placebos, double blind studies, control groups and all that other lab rat stuff is great, but being too scientific can hold back your gains. Could it be that bodybuilders, with their high protein diets, are ahead of the science? There's no doubt that eating more protein works - just ask any successful bodybuilding champion (or just look at them for that matter!) The million-dollar question is... "How much more?"
It's a common practice for bodybuilders to increase protein exorbitantly before contests. Typically, competitive bodybuilders consume 1.25 - 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight during the off season. Before competitions, it's not uncommon for a bodybuilder to increase the protein to as much as 1.75 - 2.0 g./lb.
In parts one and two of this series, we looked at some of the most recent protein research, which concluded that bodybuilders need about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. So why is it that virtually 100% of the world's top bodybuilders take in one and a half to two times that amount? Do they know something the scientists don't? There is very little scientific evidence that protein intakes higher than .8 - 1.0 g./lb. will increase muscle growth.
But wait! Before you trade your chicken and eggs whites for pasta and bagels, read on; bodybuilders don't just eat more protein because it builds more muscle (which they believe it does), they also eat a high protein diet because it helps them get ripped.
Mainstream dieticians and scientists condemn high protein diets. They argue that it is wasteful and expensive to eat so much protein because the excess will be converted into glucose and used for energy (or stored as fat if there's a calorie surplus). This is true, but in the absence of large amounts of carbohydrates, it's this conversion of protein to glucose, a process called gluconeogenesis, that helps bodybuilders get leaner. The process is "metabolically costly."
In other words, you actually burn off calories and speed up your metabolism by eating too much protein. Critics question whether this practice is healthy. More will be said about that later, but let me just get this off my chest right now before I explode:
Yes, it's true! I admit it! I confess! We bodybuilders are all guilty; we eat entirely too much protein before competitions. And perhaps, if sustained for a long period of time, it might not be the healthiest of all diets. I can't argue that a diet with higher fiber content and more variety isn't healthier than one that is mostly protein.
But guess what? We do it anyway - knowingly and on purpose! We do it for a reason - because it works! This goes beyond a mere health and nutrition lecture; this is about the competitive nature of an athlete. Bodybuilders are highly competitive, and competitive athletes will do whatever it takes. They are willing to put greater strains on their bodies in order to achieve the rock-hard, dried-out look that is necessary to win.
This phenomenon is not isolated to bodybuilding. Take a look at the training regimens of any Olympic, professional or world-class athlete in any sport. You wilh find that extreme training or nutritional practices are par for the course. Is it "normal" to train or work out for 6 or 8 hours a day like some Olympic athletes do? Is it "normal" to run 10, 12, 15 miles a day? Is it "normal" for a wrestler to lose 20 pounds in one week to make a weight class? Is it "normal" to practice your stroke or swing for hours and hours and hours every day? Who is to judge what is healthy or what is normal anyway?
The fact is, competitive athletes are never "normal." You could easily argue that the training and preparation for any sport at a high level is "unhealthy." Competitive athletics is an extreme arena and competitive bodybuilders are the most extreme athletes of all. Putting your body under abnormal stresses and strains is part of the business.
This is not to say that you should throw all caution to the wind and adopt unhealthy nutritional practices as part of your lifestyle just for the sake of a trophy. A key distinction must be made: A pre-contest bodybuilding diet is temporary. Diets should be cycled just like training programs. Bodybuilders wouldn't train for power and strength all year round and neither should they diet the same all year round either. After the contest is over, an intelligent bodybuilder will cycle back to a much more balanced diet that contains a wide variety of foods, with more carbs and less protein. Let me give you an illustration:
Suppose you are a male bodybuilder and you weigh 195 lbs. Your minimum protein requirement would be approximately 1 gram per pound of bodyweight or 195 grams. But remember, that's the minimum - As a bodybuilder, I'd rather err on the side of too much - I'm not waiting around for some new study to confirm what I already know from experience.
In the off-season, your baseline diet for gaining muscle should be high in calories and high in carbs. It would look something like this:
Bodyweight 195 lbs.
Protein per pound of bodyweight=1.4 grams
55% carbs=2090 calories=522 grams carbs
30% protein=1140 calories=285 grams of protein
15% fat=570 calories=63 grams of fat
Now, suppose you decide to compete; you'd begin phase 1 of your contest diet simply by reducing your calories and adding in more cardio. No change is made to your nutrient ratios. This kick starts the fat burning process. If you have good genetics and you are not carb-sensitive, you might not need any other changes; you could get very lean on this diet, just from the cardio and the calorie deficit:
Bodyweight 195 lbs.
Protein per pound of bodyweight=1.23 grams
55% carbs=1760 calories=440 grams carbs
30% protein=960 calories=240 grams of protein
15% fat=480=53 grams of fat
As the show gets closer, you enter phase 2 of your contest diet; this is where you start to reduce your carbohydrate intake. You also increase your calorie deficit, but to avoid letting your calories drop into the dangerous starvation zone, you increase your protein intake. This is the phase where you will do most of your dieting and where you will lose body fat the most efficiently:
Bodyweight 190 lbs
Protein per pound of bodyweight=1.6 grams
40% carbs=1200 calories=300 grams carbs
40% protein=1200 calories=300 grams of protein
20% fat=600 calories=66 grams of fat
Phase 3 is the last leg of your contest prep. At this point, you are already lean and you want to go from lean to "ripped," so you reduce your carbohydrates even further (never eliminating them completely). To avoid metabolic slowdown, you carb-up at regular intervals:
Bodyweight 181 lbs.
Protein per pound of bodyweight=1.8 - 2.0 grams
25% carbs=675 calories=169 grams carbs
50-55% protein=1350 - 1485 calories=337 -371 grams of protein
20- 25% fat=540 - 675 calories=60 - 75 grams of fat
You're now ripped to shreds, you weigh 181 lbs. and all you have to do to make middleweights is lose some water a few days before the show. Your protein intake is now up to a whopping 1.8 - 2.0 g./lb./bodyweight. 1.8 to 2.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight? That's an awful lot of protein, and I know what you're thinking... "Holy Chicken Breasts, Batman! Isn't eating all that protein bad for you?"
I knew this question would pop up. This "high protein is bad for you" myth never seems to go away, so let me squash this ugly bug right now once and for all. At one time or another, you've probably heard the myth that high protein diets are bad for your kidneys, they dehydrate you and give you osteoporosis.
Well, here's the truth: It's a medical and scientific fact that except in the case of pre-existing kidney disease, there is no documented evidence that a high protein intake will cause kidney damage in a healthy kidney. In fact, there is not a single study that has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal using adult human subjects with healthy kidneys that has shown any kidney dysfunction whatsoever as a result of consuming a high protein diet.
In the textbook, "Total Nutrition: the Only Guide You'll Ever Need," from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, the authors, Victor Herbert and Genell Shubak-Sharpe, had this to say about protein and kidney disease:
"High-protein diets have never proven to be a serious hazard for healthy people, although processing excess protein can overburden a liver or kidney's that are damaged by disease. That's why individuals with kidney or liver disease are often put on protein-restricted diets. Likewise, very high protein formulas can also be detrimental to very young or premature infants whose kidney function is not fully developed. Some nephrologists have also speculated the eating a high-protein diet throughout life may be the reason for the 'slight' decline in kidney function that usually occurs with age, but this connection is still under investigation."
What about the claim that high protein diets cause osteoporosis? In inactive people, some studies have shown that increased protein intakes lead to elevated calcium excretion. This is because high protein intakes increase the acidity of the blood, and the body must "leach" calcium from the bones to buffer the acidity. The researchers theorized that this calcium loss could lead to accelerated osteoporosis, especially in women.
While this phenomenon has been observed in sedentary individuals, there is no clearly established link between high protein intake and osteoporosis. Women with risk factors for osteoporosis should be more cautious, but if you are athletically inclined and participate in aerobic and resistance exercise, you will probably have few risk factors. Here's what Herbert and Shubak-Sharpe had to say on the subject:
"Our typical high-protein, high-meat diets have also been implicated as a factor in the development of osteoporosis, but these claims may be the results of misinterpreting scientific research. Studies have shown that adding purified protein supplements and amino-acid mixtures that have had their phosphate removed do increase excretion of calcium by the kidney in both animals and humans. However, several long-term controlled human studies carried out by Herta Spencer, M.D., at the Hines VA Medical Center in Illinois have shown that high intakes of protein from natural protein sources such as meat, which have their phosphate intact, do not significantly increase calcium loss."
A post-menopausal sedentary woman would not be well advised to go on a high protein diet, but if you're a bodybuilder, or even if you just train with weights recreationally, then you will have denser bones than someone who doesn't work out. Therefore, extra protein should not be a cause for concern. Probably the only legitimate problem created by a high protein intake is dehydration. Metabolizing protein requires more water than fats or carbohydrates, so it is very important to consume extra water if you increase your protein intake.
The standard recommendation is 8-10 8 oz glasses per day (64 - 80 oz). However, the higher your protein intake, the more water you should drink beyond the standard guideline. For bodybuilders on high protein diets, a gallon a day (124 oz) is more like it. I sincerely hope that this series of articles has helped to clear up some of the mystery, confusion and controversy surrounding bodybuilding and protein. If there's a single take-home lesson in all this, then here it is:
Never do anything at the expense of your health, but understand this; in bodybuilding, the bottom line is the results you produce. If a diet works for you, then it works, period. So forget about what the critics, the conservatives and the textbooks say; if bigger, harder, leaner muscles are what you're after, then try increasing your protein intake using the guidelines this series has suggested.
If it works, stay with it. If it doesn't, then throw it out and try something else; but you'll never know if a high protein diet will help you get leaner or build more muscle unless you give it a try.