The Basics of Protein for Staying Lean and Gaining Muscle

The Basics of Protein for Staying Lean and Gaining Muscle

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After water, there is nothing more abundant in the human body than protein.  Protein should serve as the foundation of your nutrition and be derived from food that delivers a wide variety of amino acids, especially the branch chain amino acids and essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and protein is required to keep your body together.

The essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized and must be obtained from food sources, are:

  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Valine
  • Lysine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Histidine

On the other hand, non-essential amino acids can be made by the body from other amino acids.  The non-essential amino acids are:

  • Arginine
  • Alanine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

Each amino serves a different purpose. All of the aminos are important in the biosyntheses of hormones, enzymes, membrane channels, and ion pumps. Protein also enhances the immune system and can be used in the production of energy.

Getting protein from real food instead of supplements, shakes or powders leads to a better satiety and decreased appetite.  Most liquid protein will only leave you satisfied as long as the mixture is in your stomach.  On the other hand, full digestion of solid food can take quite a long time to complete, leaving you feeling full for longer.  Protein intake from real food also produces less ghrelin (a hormone synthesized in your gut to signal hunger when your belly is growling) as opposed to carbohydrate or fat.  A prolonged suppression of ghrelin secretion leads to fewer cravings.  While carbohydrates and fat serve as very palatable foods, you lose your motivation to keep eating chicken breasts once you are full.  Butter poached chicken breasts are much more palatable, lending to an overall higher food consumption.

A general rule of thumb regarding protein consumption is to eat 1 gram per lb. of bodyweight you carry.  For people with bigger frames lean body mass is also an option, so it’s slightly less than overall body weight.  An individual in need of more repair, or someone looking for increased muscle mass may want to add extra protein. The overall need for nitrogen and state of body composition may also factor into one’s protein requirements. When in a caloric deficit, the liver can use protein to make glucose.  This could lead to a lower muscle mass, slower metabolism, and elicit an overwhelming stress response, making weight loss or muscle gain incredibly hard.  All that said, the thought that protein is a simple way to add muscle is wrong, but I will delve more into that later.

Essentially, protein should not have to recycle itself to be useful.  The benefit of good protein sources would include the attachment of animal sourced dietary fat. These can be PUFA’s, MUFA’s or SFA. Most store bought meat will be higher than normal in Omega 6 PUFA, so going for leaner cuts may be wise.  If sourcing your meat and protein from a grocery store, using an 85/15 lean to fat ratio is about as high as one should go (remember also, in regards to grass fed beef, this turns a slight negative into a big positive). This should also be coupled with up to a pound of salmon a week, to balance the Omegas. Remember, balance is good; excess is bad.

Muscle Gain or Retention

As someone who gets themselves tested at the University of Minnesota every couple of months, I keep very good track of both fat loss and muscle gain.  Both of those numbers can be manipulated greatly in a very short period of time.  Depleting your glycogen stores, drinking less water and taking away supplements can cause dramatic decrease in weight and lead to what’s referred to as “dry muscle”.  A beginner a month into lifting has “wet muscle” show up on a composition test, which is not muscle; it is simply water retention.  Gaining 3-5 lbs. of pure muscle (which is a very significant amount of mass to gain) in one month is just not possible by most standards.

Just as the food industry likes to promote their products with claims of health benefits, the supplement industry loves to jump with a slogan.  “Gain 15 pounds of muscle in one month or your money back!”  Like dieting, this is totally bunk. (There are of course situations where a person with very little muscle mass and no training background can accelerate the process, but I am speaking in more general terms.  I hear from people that say they gained 3 pounds of muscle in 2 months, and they feel disappointed when they should be elated.)

If you are a veteran weightlifter but have taken time off, your muscles do have a ‘memory’ so to speak, and you are likely to regain muscle quickly once you begin training again.  Gaining real, solid muscle is hard work.  It requires patience and diligence.  You need to be able to tell when it’s ready to work and when it’s in need of rest. There are no “magic supplements” you can take to gain muscle.  The key to building muscle lies in the kitchen, your food choices, and lifting heavy stuff for many years.

Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) are not magic either.  Not everyone needs them, but they can potentially help you build and retain muscle.  BCAA’s offer insurance against muscle catabolism.  Supplementation has been reported to decrease exercise-induced protein degradation and muscle enzyme release.  They can’t replace real nutrition, but they can be a valuable addition to your regiment.

What About Protein Shakes?

I am not a fan of protein shakes as the primary source of someone’s protein intake.  No matter what your goals are, the majority of your protein should come form whole foods .  If you regularly drink more protein than you chew, you may want to examine your diet and incorporate a wide variety of protein sources.  If you absolutely cannot eat more meat, fish, and poultry, supplements are alright but in the end, a grass fed rib eye can’t be beat – especially if it’s paired a couple of egg and a sweet potato.  


  • Protein is comprised of amino acids.  There are essential aminos that cannot be synthesized by your body, and then there are non-essential aminos that your body can make itself.
  • Each amino acid has its own function; leucine is one of the most important aminos as far as building muscle goes. 
  • When protein comes from a whole source, it is very satisfying and goes a long way to help control hunger.  Most of your protein should be chewed; powders should be used as supplements around workouts.  You cannot live off of them.  Go for meat, fish and nuts!
  • The “golden rule” is to eat around 1 gram of protein per lb. of body weight. 
  • When you eat protein without carbohydrates, some of the protein you consume will be used to create glucose for your brain and organs to run on.  When you’re trying to build muscle or lose fat while preserving muscle mass, including some carbohydrate with your protein is a good strategy.
  • No matter how much protein you eat, gaining muscle is a slow, patient process.  The law of diminishing returns applies here.  While you’re new to weight lifting, gaining 15lbs. in a year isn’t out of the question, but gaining 1 lb. of muscle a month is a realistic goal beyond the initial stages of training.
  • Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) may be a valuable addition to your workout nutrition, whether you want to build muscle or just preserve what you have already.

Other articles you may enjoy:

Put Strength First

Being Dan Bailey


Works Cited

  2. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism August 1, 2006 vol. 91 no. 8 2913-2919
  3. Int J Obes. 1990 Sep;14(9):743-51.Effects of a high-protein meal (meat) and a high-carbohydrate meal (vegetarian) on satiety measured by automated computerized monitoring of subsequent food intake, motivation to eat and food preferences. Barkeling BRössner SBjörvell H.Department of Internal Medicine, Karolinska Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden.
  4. EFFECTS OF PROTEIN AND AMINO-ACID SUPPLEMENTATION ON ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE. Richard B Kreider PhD . Exercise & Sport Nutrition Laboratory, Department of Human Movement Sciences & Education, The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee 38152.
  5. Carli G,Bonifazi M, Lodi L et al (1992). Changes in exercise-induced hormoneresponse to branched chain amino acid administration. EuropeanJournal of Applied Physiology 64, 272-7

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