This is a Protein: This is a Carb – Part One

This is a Protein: This is a Carb

You may already know all you need to about protein and carbohydrates, and, if so, consider this a refresher course. If you don’t know that much about the subject, then this will serve as a fitness and sports-primer on the proper use of protein and carbs, for building and/or maintaining lean muscle tissue, while burning unwanted body fat.

The origin of this chapter is an article we provided to the police, during the initial phase of the “Cops for Cancer Run”. It was just a basic rundown of the correct way to use protein shakes (which were relatively new to the market then), and carbohydrates, for exercise, endurance, and burning excess body fat.

Nevertheless, to this day I still find many people do not know the basics about protein and carbs. I have had people ask me if there is enough protein in a carrot (no), and (when this was written) I even had some athletes (including one who went on to the Olympics) prove to be ignorant of these  nutritional basics—even though they had professional coaches. So you might be surprised at what you don’t know about protein and carbs.

What is Protein?

Protein is composed of chains of amino acids. Conventional food sources include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Beans and legumes are also moderately high in protein—soybeans being the richest of these. While seeds and nuts do contain a moderately high amount of protein, it is difficult to eat enough of them to meet high protein requirements.

Protein is the building block for muscle, glands, hair, ligaments, nails, tendons, and organs. It is required for growing and healing, and for repairing bones, cells, and tissues. The amino acids are also required for neurotransmitter production, affecting mood and mental states. In other words, protein is of critical importance throughout the body.

In the absence of sufficient protein, physical exertion—whether aerobic, weight training, or just a vigorous walk—will cause the body to consume muscle instead of fat. This occurs because exercise causes stress and damage to those muscles that have had a workout. These muscles then require amino acids (particularly L-glutamine, and the branch chain amino acids) to repair themselves.

If a reserve of amino acids from recently consumed protein is not available for immediate use, the body will then pirate amino acids from its own, undamaged, muscle tissue. After exercise, one has about 30 to 45 minutes in which to ingest a high quality protein, in order to ensure that fat is burned, instead of muscle.

Protein will not on its own convert into fat. However, when it is found in animal products, protein is often accompanied by saturated fats, which can be fattening when consumed in excess. And, since meat can require more than an hour to be properly digested, a pre-digested protein powder shake becomes the obvious choice for supporting tissue repair, and reducing fatigue and recovery time following exercise.

Protein from soy sources, including tofu, tempeh, and soy milk, can help the body to burn fat by accelerating metabolism (the process by which the body changes food and drink into energy). This, however, only applies if one ingests reasonable amounts of iodine in the diet (from seaweed, or as a supplement). Otherwise, soy foods can slow down thyroid function, which has the opposite effect, inhibiting metabolism.

Soy products can also help to balance female hormones, and reduce cholesterol, but soy is a common allergen and not suitable for everyone. Because there is a lot of controversy about soy foods these days, I will address the subject in more detail towards the end of this chapter.

Protein Powders

As a supplement, powdered protein is most commonly available in the forms of egg, hemp, pea, pumpkin, rice, soy, and whey. (I will be referring to whey from cow’s milk, but there is also goat milk protein and whey on the market. Although there is not much science on goat whey, it is rich in minerals, and useful for digestive disorders—and easier to digest than cow whey, for some people.)

Some professionals suggest that proteins should be rotated, to avoid habituation to the effects of always using the same amino acid profile (each different protein will have a different mix of dominant amino acids). Therefore, we might use whey protein for one month, and then choose a vegetable protein for the following month. However, of all the proteins available, whey is the preferred choice in the sports kingdom (and, I believe, the best choice for most of us).

I say this because whey is the only protein that will enhance immune and detoxification functions, by raising glutathione levels in the body. Endurance athletes especially are prone to lung infections because they push their bodies so hard. After it was discovered those athletes who used whey protein had less infections, and better recovery times, it became the dominant protein used by athletes.

Thus, whey is also the best choice for feeding those who are very ill, or recovering from illness. Or those coping with muscular-wasting diseases, since whey is also very high (24%) in the “Branch Chain Amino Acids”, three amino acids specific to maintaining and building muscle mass.

Even though whey is derived from milk, those who are lactose-intolerant can use a whey protein “isolate”, which will have virtually no lactose in it. Whey (whether a concentrate or isolate) also contains no casein, another common milk allergen. Whey isolates also have next to no fat in them. For those worried about antibiotic or growth hormone residues in the whey (a result of modern dairy practices), rest assured that all such residues reside in the fat.

The cheaper whey “concentrates” will contain some lactose and fat. An isolate is about 80 to 90% protein, whereas a whey concentrate is generally from 68 to 80% protein, and will contain 5 to 8% lactose (and is considerably cheaper to purchase). In order to determine the actual amount of protein in a product that you are considering purchasing, simply divide the amount of protein per serving by the serving size. Therefore, if there is 24 grams of protein per serving, and the serving size is 30 grams, we divide 24 by 30 to get the number .8, which equals 80% protein.

For those who simply cannot digest whey protein, or those ethically opposed to using animal products, I suggest reading my newsletter titled Examining Plant Proteins, which covers the subject of plant proteins in more detail. (As an alternative to whey protein, pea is the strongest contender out of the plant-derived proteins.)

How Much Protein?

In order to attain muscle growth, or to encourage fat loss, via exercise, one must ingest quality protein four to six times per day. The servings should be evenly divided throughout the day, from morning to evening, at roughly 2 to 3 hours apart. Servings of protein should generally not exceed 30 grams per meal, and the most critical times to consume protein are first thing in the morning, and after exercise.

It is not necessary (but is acceptable) to have protein before exercise, but if you skip breakfast, consider having a protein shake in the morning. This is a good idea because by middle age we tend towards muscular wasting if we do not have protein in the morning, having essentially “fasted” for the previous eight hours.

Our daily protein requirements range from approximately half a gram of protein per pound of body weight, for a sedentary lifestyle, to a full gram of protein per pound of body weight, for a vigorous muscle building, or weight loss, program. Such a program, involving high levels of protein, is usually only advised for a duration of three to six months, before returning to a more moderate intake.

So, if you weighed 120 pounds and did little by the way of physical activity, you would require about 60 grams of protein per day (in divided doses, since most of us cannot utilize more than 30 grams in a sitting, and even that amount is usually only required after physical exertion). If you were trying to reshape your body, you would require about 120 grams of protein per day. In this case, along with ensuring that one has some protein at each of the three daily meals, an additional 2 or 3 servings of protein per day (between the main meals) should suffice.

At this point, you may want to obtain a protein chart, which will give you an idea of the protein content of most foods. Prepackaged foods, and protein powders, will list their protein content on the label, but it is a good idea to get an overview of the protein content of the foods you commonly eat. Such charts are available in book form, or on-line.


No matter what Dr. Atkins said, not all carbs are evil. (He created “The Atkins’ Diet,” which advocated a high protein and fat diet, along with extreme carbohydrate restriction, for weight loss purposes.) However, Dr. Atkins was (he is now deceased) correct about refined (or “simple”) carbohydrates (those with the fiber removed), which function like sugars in the body, raising blood sugar levels and thus insulin levels.

Of course, the carbohydrates commonly found in the standard North American diet are mostly refined (e.g. fruit juice, sodas, sugar, white rice, white potatoes, breads, and pasta), and contribute to both fat storage and diabetes. However, complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, and yams) are not fattening, due to their high fiber content, which slows insulin release.

When insulin is high, the body will store carbs as fat. This does not occur however, in that 45-minute window of opportunity after physical exertion. During this time, carbs, no matter how refined, will replenish glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, providing fuel for the following day’s exertions. This is what is known as “carb-loading” and only occurs after exercise. What is often overlooked by amateur athletes is that one cannot carb-load before exercise.

The Truth About Carb-Loading

When carbohydrates are ingested before exercise, the body will use that as fuel instead of stored body fat. Refined carbs, for someone trying to lose body fat, are only of value after exertion is well under way (in a diluted liquid form, for endurance events), and after exercise is over. I describe the process to people in evolutionary terms: we ran it down, killed it and ate it, absorbing nutrients in order to run it down again, tomorrow. It might be hunting (protein and fat) or gathering (carbohydrates mainly), but the exertion is followed by nutrient absorption, facilitating the process for the following days.

This principle is missing from the “Atkins” approach to weight loss. Instead of totally denying carbohydrates to his adherents, ensuring that no one could maintain the diet for any length of time, he could have offered the “carrot and stick” approach. If you take the “stick,” exercise, you get the “carrot” (carrot cake if you desire), since these carbs are not fattening after exercise. And, we do need a certain amount of carbohydrates in the diet, since they are involved in producing serotonin, our calming neurotransmitter necessary for relaxing and sleeping.

After exercise, one should accompany the 30 or so grams of protein (20-25 gr for women) with 60 to 90 grams of carbohydrates (depending on exercise intensity). If you cannot get the carbs from a meal (from potatoes, pasta, rice, etc.) soon enough after completing your exercise, then a glass of orange juice (or most fruit juice) has about 30 grams of carbs, and a banana about the same. So, blending these two in with your protein will pretty much cover your carb requirements.

Remember that the 30 grams of carbs in a glass of orange juice is roughly equal to a glass of soda pop, and aside from a little added vitamin C, is not that much healthier than a glass of pop. Especially from the perspective of weight-loss, since those on a weight loss program generally need to reduce their overall carb intake, and increase their protein intake.

Many people are unaware that carbohydrates are the most fattening substance that we eat—more so than even fat. In fact, a low fat diet will only convince the body that there is a famine, and the body will conserve fat, making it even more difficult to burn it off. This is especially true for women, since nature wishes to ensure they have enough body fat storage to get them through a pregnancy and nursing, in case of famine.

Protein Shakes

High quality protein isolates are theoretically best taken in water, but a small trade off in absorption is usually worth the increase in taste value to be gained by mixing it into juice (post-workout), or a milk-like substance (almond, coconut, rice, or soy).

Cow’s milk is generally not advisable for those on weight loss programs. Remember that the milk from a cow is a biological program to build the body of a cow. Whey is only a fraction of the cow’s milk, and leaves behind the milk protein, casein (“curds”), and the lactose (milk sugar). Casein and lactose are the more fattening components of cow’s milk, especially since the ratio of carb (lactose) to protein (casein) in cow’s milk is far different from that ratio in human milk, which is designed to focus on building the brain more than the body, initially.

Fermented dairy products (cheese, yogurt, kefir) are easier to digest than straight milk since the fermentation process uses up most of the lactose. And, of course, such foods also provide good bacteria to our gut.

Goat milk (and fermented goat milk) is better for humans than cow’s milk as it is closer to human milk in fat, mineral, protein, and lactose composition.

Because pure protein powders are usually made without carbohydrates, they are commonly sweetened with artificial sweeteners (or left unsweetened). I suggest you research any artificial sweetener before including it as a regular part of your diet. And, if you do choose to use such sweeteners, I still would not give it to children, since years down-line we usually find out that the latest artificial sweetener wasn’t as safe as we were led to believe.

“Stevia” is a viable alternative to artificial sweeteners. Stevia is safe, natural, does not raise blood sugar levels, and does not feed candida yeast in the body, unlike refined sugars. Stevia has been used for decades in Brazil and Japan, as a safe sweetener for diabetics. For many years it was illegal to use stevia as a sweetener in North America, due to the lobbying influence on governmental bodies by the manufacturers of artificial sweeteners. That changed when Coke and Pepsi applied for the rights to use stevia in soft drinks.

A protein shake makes a great evening snack, but should be taken without any appreciable level of carbohydrates. Ingesting simple carbs within 2 to 3 hours of going to sleep will cause your growth hormone levels to drop, due to the insulin spike they cause. Since growth hormone allows us to burn fat and build muscle while we sleep, it helps us to maintain a youthful muscle-to-fat ratio.

Adding Good Fats

Contrary to the low-fat diet concept, we find that by giving the body good fats (i.e. essential fatty acids), such as flax seed oil, extra virgin olive oil, or fish oil, we can convince it to use stored fat as a fuel. Currently popular for this purpose is the use of extra virgin coconut oil, which appears to hasten fat burning more than most oils. This may be because it stimulates the thyroid gland to increase one’s metabolism. However, because coconut oil is hard at room temperature, it won’t be ideal for adding to your shake. Though one can use MCT oil, a fraction of coconut oil that remains liquid at room temperature. MCT oil both fuels the brain, and helps with weight loss.

It is now common for those using a protein shake (with or without carbs) to add a tablespoon of nutritive oils (flax, hemp, Udo’s, etc.), or a teaspoon of fish oil, to each shake. This slows the transit time of the protein through the digestive system, allowing for better assimilation. Since the protein powders are essentially pre-digested, they tend to move through the digestive tract too fast (in contrast to meat, which is too slow for post-workout purposes). By slowing down their passage, we will ensure the bioavailability of the amino acids for a longer period of time. This will enhance muscle repair and rebuilding, and just simply help you feel satiated for longer if you are counting on the shake to serve as a meal replacement.

Fat (as well as protein) also slows the insulin release caused by simple carbohydrates, making them less fattening. For this reason, a potato with butter, for example, is likely to be less fattening than one without some fat added. Likewise, adding peanut butter to bread, or protein and olive oil to pasta, will reduce the insulin-spiking tendency of these simple carbohydrates.

In Part Two, we will look at creatine and glutamine, and examine how safe it is to consume soy foods.

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