In the post Thinking About Supplements – 2012 Edition, I said this about protein powder.
Pure garbage. The limiting factor in gaining muscle is not protein. It is calories. I only wish I have figured this out years ago. I’ll be doing a separate post on this topic. In the meantime, if you are a young ectomorphic male, don’t waste your money on this crap. Buy ice cream instead. I’m not kidding.
As someone who has wasted over a thousand dollars on protein powders and bars since the mid-1990s, I’m a little upset that it took me so long to figure out I was throwing my money away on useless supplemental protein. Before I dive into this post, I want to define the audience for this post. It is for male ectomorphs that are already lean wishing to gain additional muscle. Younger males and those with less training experience will benefit even more. It is also not for ectomorphs with a gut.
I am not a trainer or a dietitian. I do not train others and my only client is myself. These are my opinions, which may or may not be right for you. I am not a PubMed Warrior. Instead of studying medical journals, I observe patterns of failure. Skinny guys have been choking down protein powder for decades and it isn’t working. Our mesomorphic trainers with perfect genetics accuse of not eating enough, so they prescribe more protein. I think they are wrong.
Protein Is Great For Leaning Out – But That Isn’t The Goal
Many diets advise consuming high levels of protein. The reason is that protein is highly satisfying. From the Leangains post Cheat Day Strategies For A Hedonist:
Protein is superior to carbs and fat intake in both short-term and long-term hunger suppression. This seems to be related to not only a stronger effect on appetite-regulating hormones (i.e. ghrelin, PYY and GLP-1), but also to its high TEF.
Do you see the problem? To gain muscle requires a caloric surplus. The lanky lifter is told to shovel protein down their throat to gain muscle. That very protein is now suppressing their hunger making it harder to go into caloric surplus.
How Much Protein is Required For Muscle Growth?
For my understanding of this topic, I want to give credit to Brad Pilon and Matt Stone. Brad wrote the ebook How Much Protein? which dove into all the research studies on protein. If you are interested in this topic, check out his book. Spoiler alert: one of the conclusions reached in the book is you don’t need that much protein to gain muscle. High protein recommendations are usually motivated by supplement companies which make a killing off protein powder.
Matt Stone recently posted How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle? From that article:
But I still have one problem with all the high-protein fanaticism when it comes to muscle growth… Protein lowers appetite. It also takes the most calories to digest, so there are many wasted calories on a high-protein diet. Excess protein also seems to have a long-term metabolism-lowering effect (which impairs muscle growth and exercise performance), perhaps due to the previous two factors – perhaps for other reasons (like excesses of tryptophan slowing down metabolic rate).
Read the entire post. It should be noted that neither Brad Pilon or Matt Stone sell protein powder or protein bars on their websites. Yet many sites that advise high protein for ectomorphs have their own line of protein. Put your credit card away, you’re being punked.
I can already anticipate the criticisms of this post. There will be defenders of certain types of protein or specific makers or whatever the latest buzz words are. Whey concentrate versus whey isolate versus casein versus whatever type of protein is in fashion this season. For almost 20 years I have watched supplement makers peddle new and improved versions of protein powder. With every iteration, more scientific jargon is thrown at the consumer. The message never changes. Now they have figured out protein, buy our product and you’ll be HUUGE!
Here is a better idea. Eat real food. If you eat meat, eat the whole animal not just skinless cuts of muscle meat. Organ meat, meat on the bone, lean cuts, fatty cuts and make stocks. The book Deep Nutrition explores this topic in more depth. Our ancestors were unknowingly more knowledgeable about protein than today’s supplement companies.
Will the Real Anabolic Nutrients Please Step Forward?
If we need more calories and not as much protein as we think, what should be eating?
Saturated Fat – The book The Perfect Health Diet lists an increase in muscle mass as a benefit of a diet high in saturated fat. From page 79:
Muscle is composed of equal weights of fat and protein. One way to store fat, without making individual cells excessively fatty, is to increase the number of cells. Muscle is the primary body component which grows in order to store excess fat.
Page 80 goes further into explaining why muscle gain is easy when using high-fat diets.
Cholesterol – Anthony Colpo recently wrote Research Update: Eating More Cholesterol Makes Muscles Stronger (FEB 2017: link now under paywall), which covers a recent study. After an explanation on how cholesterol is a critical nutrient involved with neurological function, he summarizes with this sentence:
Intense resistance exercise causes muscle damage which must be repaired if improvements in strength and performance are to be realized…and cholesterol is intimately involved in this repair process.
Carbs – Back when I first started playing with Intermittent Fasting, I would sometimes continue fasting after weight training. This turned out to be a dumb idea and I lost muscle. Much has been written about how carbs post-workout assist with recovery and muscle growth. Dr. John Berardi wrote this a decade ago.
…since protein breakdown predominates during the post-workout period, getting the insulin up allows muscle breakdown to diminish so that synthesis can dominate and we can quickly get back to building muscle!
How do you do that? Eat carbs with some protein.
Is Sugar Evil or Therapeutic?
Sugar is terrible for everyone, right? That is what I assumed and it may be true, but I’m less certain than I used to be. People who consume a lot of sugar tend to have poor health outcomes, but is it sugar or something else? If one consumed a low-inflammatory nutrient-dense diet would sugar still be toxic? Of course, I am not speaking to the general population, but active lean ectomorphs.
A few months ago I read the post Sugar: Pure, White & Awesome by Danny Roddy. It goes into depth on how at a hormonal level having low blood sugar is perceived as a stressor to the body. It goes further to state that running on fat promotes stress because adrenaline is recruited to assist the process. And once glucose stores are depleted the body uses the stress hormone cortisol to provide glucose. The article is based on some of the research of Ray Peat, who is an expert in hormones and is somewhat controversial.
All my other nutritional mentors are anti-sugar, so why am I entertaining the idea that sugar might be beneficial? Because my research has led me to believe that stress is the limiting factor in gaining muscle for the ectomorph. We train too much, recover too slowly, sleep too little, and can’t sit still. And when we fail to get the results we desire, we do more. This is observational, but I see us ectomorphs as more likely to abuse caffeine, which is a stressor as well. And cortisol is catabolic.
Trainer Keith Norris said in an interview on Episode 35 of The Latest in Paleo that overall stress level is a critical factor in predicting recoverability rate. He has noticed that the “wiry” “twitchy” guys have the slowest recovery rates. He believes that reducing stress levels are very important in improving the body’s ability to recover from a workout.
When Dave Durell interviewed John Little on High Intensity Nation, they discussed how ectomorphs are more likely to get nauseous during an intense workout. Glycogen is stored in the muscles. Ectomorphs have less muscle and therefore fewer glycogen stores. When we exhaust our glycogen stores, our pH levels drop and we feel that nausea. John figured out that when someone starts to feel this nausea, placing table sugar under their tongue helps nausea go away in just 10-20 seconds. Sugar relieves a stressor that is more likely to occur with ectomorphs that train with intensity.
If I’m connecting the dots correctly then it is possible that sugar is beneficial in reducing stress levels and increasing recoverability rates. More sugar, not more protein is what the ectomorph needs to gain muscle. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to experiment. 😉
Bring on the Ice Cream!
I quit consuming protein powder and bars years ago. I didn’t lose any muscle. I directed that money towards buying real food and my health improved. But I still needed to find a food to push me into a caloric surplus that meets all the above requirements. My body wanted ice cream.
Ice cream is calorically dense. It has sugar, protein, saturated fat, and even some cholesterol. Matt Stone has a post comparing ice cream to mother’s milk, which is quite anabolic. And it tastes awesome! When I finish a workout and then have a bowl of ice cream, I can feel my body thanking me. Prior to adding ice cream into the rotation, I was losing weight too fast and my body felt cold. Since adding the ice cream (along with creatine), I’ve gained 4 pounds without increasing my waist size.
My plan is to continue eating ice cream on active days at least through the end of summer. Anyone else willing to experiment? It’s for science. 🙂
If you are concerned about the ingredients used in grocery store ice cream, you can always make your own. Over on my other site INeedCoffee, I posted how to make Homemade Coffee Ice Cream.
2015 Update: Yes Ice Cream is Still Better Than Protein Powder