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What is the right amount of protein?

Protein seems all the rage these days. It is touted boldly and proudly on the labels of meal-replacement beverages, energy drinks, granola bars, and endless made-to-order smoothies to which protein powder has been generously added, despite soy or cow's milk and yogurt already providing ample protein in most of these concoctions.

Protein facilitates muscle growth and repair by providing the essential amino acids the body needs before, during and after strenuous activity. It also boosts the immune system, which can become compromised during heavy training. And so while people who exercise strenuously and regularly need more protein than the Recommended Daily Allowance calls for, the truth is that they only need a little bit more.

Furthermore, remember that even these folks, who need only a small increase in protein intake from the RDA, need significantly more protein than sedentary people need. Unfortunately, many sedentary people are listening to the ill-informed battle cry that protein is the miracle macronutrient that will see them to a better body weight, by steering them away from the dreaded carbs.

The problem with protein

The trouble is, the RDA for protein is just 0.8 g per kg of body weight (0.35 g/lb). According to Olympic endurance coach Chris Carmichael, the average American diet receives twice that amount.

And even more crucially, science has shown that consuming above 2 g of protein/kg daily (0.9 g of protein/lb) has no additional benefits. Athletes have been trying for years to up their protein intake to improve performance--by gulping down raw eggs, protein powders, milkshakes and lots of meat. But the vast majority of this extra protein is simply converted to fat for storage. Some portion of it is also converted to glycogen in the liver, which is there as a fuel reserve during intense or long-duration exercise.

What many non-athletes don't understand, then--and food marketeers aren't helping clarify the point--is that they do not need to supplement protein or look for it as an important added bonus to all health bars and drinks, as many people nowadays seem to be fixated on doing. And if you are more or less sedentary, you are almost certainly already ingesting far too much protein, which is not just abundantly present in beef, pork, chicken and fish but also in all fortified bread, pasta, rice, beans, nuts, breakfast cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, cheese, "health" bars, energy drinks and much more.

Athletes, aim for a modest increase from the RDA for protein: instead of 0.35 g/lb daily, try for 0.5 to 0.7 g/lb of body weight. This means a 165-lb athlete should aim for just 80 to 105 g of protein daily--an amount they are likely already getting. Carmichael notes that he often has to reduce his athletes' protein intake initially to dial down their overconsumption of overall calories; it is the first culprit and the best one to cut first because it is more than they can use anyway.

Preserve your muscle mass

Age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, is a natural part of aging. After age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3 to 5% of your muscle per decade. Men can expect to lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes, according to Harvard Men's Health Watch.

Less muscle means greater weakness and less mobility, both of which may increase your risk of falls and fractures. But we need not accept this fate: with progressive resistance training and the right diet, muscle mass can return in older adults, and further losses staved off. It's never too late to rebuild muscle and retain it.

Progressive resistance training (PRT) is weight training that you gradually ramp up as your endurance, strength and flexibility improve. Training volume can be increased by weight, number of repetitions, number of sets or number of days.

This constant challenging builds muscle and keeps you away from plateaus where you stop making gains. A recent meta-analysis published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reviewed 49 studies of men ages 50 to 83 who did PRT and found that subjects averaged a 2.4-lb increase in lean body mass.

Typical PRT program

A typical training program might include:

* 8 to 10 exercises that target all the major muscle groups

* sets of 12 to 15 reps, performed at an effort of about 5 to 7 on a 10-point scale

* two or three workouts per week

After you have established a routine, progress by adding a second and then a third set of the exercises. Another way is to decrease the number of reps per set and increase the weight or resistance to the point where you are able to complete at least eight reps, but no more than 12. As you improve, you can increase weight by trial and error, so you stay within the range of eight to 12 reps.

The power of protein

Once you have embarked on a strength training regimen, your protein needs will increase. This is one of those times when it is appropriate and important to ensure adequate protein intake. Protein is literally muscle food. As noted, the body breaks it down into amino acids, which it uses to build and repair muscle. However, older adults often experience something called anabolic resistance, which lowers their bodies' ability to break down and synthesize protein.

For older adults who perform PRT, a recent study in the journal Nutrients suggests an optimal daily intake of 1 to 1.3 g of protein per kg of body weight. Under this regimen, a 175-lb man would need about 79 to 103 g daily. Note that this is nearly identical to what Carmichael recommends for a much lighter, younger athlete.

Though animal sources are considered the best for protein delivery because they provide the proper ratios of all the essential amino acids (known as "complete proteins"), limit consumption of red and processed meat because of high levels of saturated fat and additives. Instead, try:

* 3.5 ounces of lean chicken or salmon (31 g and 24 g respectively)

* 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt (17 g)

* 1 cup of skim milk (9 g)

* 1 cup of cooked beans (about 18 g)

Older people on a PRT plan trying to maximize muscle growth and improve recovery could try consuming a drink or meal with a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of about 3:1 or 4:1 within 30 minutes after a workout. A good choice is 8 ounces of chocolate skim milk, which has about 22 g of carbs and 9 g of protein.

Harvard Men's Health Watch, March 2016, http://www.health.harvard. edu/staying-healthy/preserveyour-muscle-mass?utm source=delivra&utm medium=email&utm campaign=GB20160309Strength&mid=10660158&ml=100758

Chris Carmichael's Food for Fitness, 2004, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, NY, pp. 25-41, 103-122
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Publication:Running & FitNews
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Date:Mar 1, 2016
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