I’ve known sports nutritionist Tom Nikkola for a decade — when I was working at Experience Life, he was my go-to guy within its umbrella company, Life Time Fitness, for nutrition “real talk.” He and I share a lot of common ground when it comes to nutrition philosophy. It’s nothing earth-shattering — eat real, high-quality food, minimize processed carbs, and pay attention to how your body reacts to different concoctions — but when you’re navigating the politics of what so-and-so wants you to say in print, sometimes sticking to common sense can be an act of rebellion.
That’s how I saw him: a sane, stable presence in an industry that embraces fads. What’s more, he has made it his job to distribute this oh-so-sane message from the enormous platform Life Time Fitness provides. Check out his team’s revamp of the food pyramid — not a square philosophy at all. (You can nab a sweet tee sporting this infographic on the back over here, while supplies last.)
So, when I received an email chock-full of questions about protein intake the other day, I hit up the guy I trust most to give it to you straight. Below is his protein primer, which covers everything from how many grams us strength-oriented ladies and gents should ingest daily to what form will do our bodies the most good. He also addresses the do’s and don’ts of dairy. Take it away, Tom!
Athletes and fitness buffs work hard to improve their performance and build their ideal physique. While it’s virtually impossible to attain any kind of significant performance improvements without a strategic training program, that’s just one part of the process. I encourage people to view their training sessions as simply a stimulus that prompts their body to change.
An intense training session says to the body, “Hey, we need to get stronger, faster, more powerful and we need to add some muscle in case we need to face this kind of stress again.” Some of the performance improvements come from the nervous system being able to recruit more of the muscle that already exists with better efficiency, but for those who’ve been training for more than a few months, continued improvement will likely require new muscle to be developed. In addition, intense training sessions break down existing muscle tissue, and that needs to be repaired, too.
All of this builds the case that protein intake plays a critical role in recovery from training sessions and continued performance improvements.
Animal vs. Plant-Based Protein
Dietary proteins are composed of varying mixes of 22 different amino acids. Of the 22 amino acids, nine are considered essential because they must come from the diet. The body can’t make them on its own. One more, glutamine, is considered “conditionally essential” because the body can make some on its own, but under high levels of stress, glutamine usage can exceed the body’s ability to make more.
The essential amino acids that are most important to consume through the diet — and are the richest sources of essential amino acids — are animal-based proteins. Animal proteins, especially when they come from naturally raised sources (pasture-raised, grass-fed, wild-caught, etc), are rich in other nutrients, as well. They contain essential fatty acids like docosahexanoeic acid (DHA) and eicosapataenoic acid (EPA), found in fatty fish. They contain more vitamin D. They often contain some healthy saturated fats. The point is, animal-based protein sources are more than just a source of complete protein. There are other nutrients wrapped in them that support optimized health and may enhance performance.
I know some will people note that it’s possible to get all the essential amino acids by mixing plant-based sources. And it is possible, but often not practical, especially when individuals strive to meet higher protein intakes without adding a significant amount of additional carbohydrates. Plant-based protein sources tend to be much higher in carbohydrates than protein, so eating a significant amount of protein from rice, corn, beans and lentils means eating a ton of carbohydrates.
Can you survive on only plant-based protein? Sure. Can you thrive on plant-based protein, though? If your definition of thriving includes the ability to train hard, optimize physical conditioning and recovery quickly between workouts, it’s unlikely. (There will always be “that guy” or “that woman” who is blessed with the genetics that allow him/her to do some pretty off-the-wall stuff with nutrition or exercise programming and still perform well.)
The one plant-based protein source that provides a reasonable amount of protein and a good profile of amino acids is soy. Soy consumption is quite controversial, however. It’s is a very common allergen, most soy in the American diet is genetically modified, and there are concerns that soy’s phytoestrogens interfere with normal estrogen production. That’s why we’ve avoided the use of any kind of soy in the development of the Life Time Fitness nutritional product line. While eating edamame on occasion or some tempeh once in a while is probably OK, I wouldn’t recommend using soy on a regular basis.
For those who do choose to avoid meat, there are some good ways to supplement in order to increase protein in the diet. Rice and pea proteins can be isolated in a protein powder to produce a supplement with an amino acid profile similar to whey protein. Potato protein and chorella protein are also newer protein sources that seem promising as supplements. If you’re looking for food, though, you’d have a hard time getting enough protein from eating rice, peas, potatoes or chorella.
Eggs, whey protein and beef often top the list of “best foods for performance athletes.” Fish is great for its omega-3s, however, and turkey, ham, pork, chicken, ostrich, bison and duck each have their own benefits. Of course, some type and cuts of meat require more preparation than others, but you won’t get bored if you’re always trying something new.
We always encourage people to buy the best quality meats they can afford, even if it means eating a little less in order pay for it. Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry and wild-caught fish are all better than conventionally raised alternatives. Besides providing a more humane environment for the animals, the nutrients are often superior, as well.
Those who are hardcore Paleo often discourage people from using dairy in their diet. It’s difficult to lump all dairy together, though — a sugar-filled coffee creamer should not be considered in the same category as a piece of cheese made from raw goat’s milk. Did we consume dairy 200,000 years ago? Probably not. Does that mean it’s bad for us today? I don’t think so.
That said, there are a lot of people we work with who never realized how much their bodies revolted when they ate dairy until we started working with them. For some, the dairy sugar lactose presents a problem. In others, the protein casein is an issue. A very small percentage of people (including myself) has trouble with whey protein, one of the most impressive protein sources available, according to research. If you handle it well, though, I wouldn’t discourage using it.
The last area of debate is around protein supplements. One side says you shouldn’t eat anything other than whole foods. While it’s admirable to eat that way, I don’t think it’s realistic or even necessary. There are a lot of lousy nutritional products on the market, but if you’re looking for a way to easily increase your protein intake, protein powders are convenient, cost-effective and add more variety into your diet.
Whey protein is a staple in most performance nutrition plans. It’s been shown to help increase protein synthesis and support the immune system, and it tastes great and is rich in branched-chain amino acids. Like most everything else, of course, there is variety in qualities. You get what you pay for, and cheap whey products are often highly processed. You can pay a little more for minimally processed, grass-fed concentrates. [Editor's note: Fit 365's grass-fed whey product is a favorite of mine.] My recommendation is always to spend more and use less if that’s necessary. As mentioned earlier, a blend of rice and pea protein can also make for a combination that satisfactorily simulates the benefits of whey. (Life Time Fitness has a couple of products that fit this bill: Peak Performance VeganMax and Dairy-Free FastFuel Complete.)
High-performance athletes tend to be some of the best sources of anecdotal evidence of changes to training protocols and nutrition choices. They’re often looking for even that tiny edge to improve performance. Such has been the case for decades with the consumption of protein. The traditional U.S. Dietary Guidelines for protein intake come from the Institute of Medicine, which suggests adults need just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day. For a 130-pound female, that would be 47 grams per day. For a 180-pound male, the requirement is 65 grams per day. I’m not sure about you, but that seems like the amount I’d eat in a single meal, not in a day.
Athletes have long held fast to their belief in the benefit of higher protein intakes. It just make sense that if muscle is made of protein, more is better, right? To a point, that’s probably true. We have to remember that the dietary guidelines don’t attempt to provide advice for people to optimize their health. Instead, they’re made to provide advice to keep people from getting sick. If you look at the health of our nation, you know even that isn’t happening.
Other guidelines are more ambitious. The Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplementation, the textbook used by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, suggests most athletes will benefit from protein intakes closer to 0.7-1.0 grams per pound of lean body mass. This is considerably higher than the dietary guidelines for average Americans, but it’s still a protein level that’s pretty easy to achieve. In this case, our 130-pound female and 180-pound male athletes would take in 91 to 130 grams and 144 to 180 grams, respectively, each day.
Of course, these numbers are a guide. Each individual is different. For performance, assuming an individual is healthy, I’d rather have him or her err on the high side than not get enough. It’s very difficult for the body to convert extra protein to stored fat, especially when you compare it to overeating carbohydrates.
Keep in mind, these protein intake levels also assume the athlete is not using performance-enhancing drugs. Anabolic steroids significantly increase the body’s ability to break down and assimilate dietary protein. Don’t be fooled into thinking that since pro bodybuilders can consume 300 to 400 grams of protein that you should, too. You won’t be able to use it all.
When we are coaching people on The Healthy Way of Eating, we focus on getting in the habit of eating protein with every meal. This is a good rule of thumb for everyone — not just performance-minded individuals. Once you make the decision to eat more protein, the choice of where you get it comes down to personal preferences and beliefs, as well as an understanding of how your body handles various types of foods.
The primary protein sources in my diet are beef, eggs, chicken, pork and goat’s milk cheese. I also make a shake almost every morning with our rice/pea protein, VeganMax. Is that the right combination for everyone? Probably not. You’ll have to do some experimenting to find your own.