Our protein obsession grows, shows no signs of slowing down

Oliver Grigg, Print Sports Editor

We are going protein crazy.

In a culture where fats, carbohydrates and sugars are considered our enemies, protein shines as our unequivocal savior; our life-sustaining drug. 

But Tavis Piattoly, sports dietitian and nutritionist for the Tulane Athletic Department, said this thinking is wrong.

“People can’t just focus on protein and neglect carbohydrates and fats,” Piattoly said. “Protein is no wonder nutrient.”

Protein is a large molecule composed of many chains of amino acids that are involved in cell structure, tissue structure and functions involved in developing muscle tissue, skin, hair, nails and other parts of our body.

Consuming protein on a regular basis can help maintain muscle mass, benefit the immune system and improve metabolic rate. When we eat protein, our body takes more energy to break protein down than it does carbohydrates and fat.

From an athletic standpoint, protein is critical to post-workout muscle recovery and athletic performance.

“When you work out, you break down the muscle tissue during the exercise and lifting,” Piattoly said. “It’s what you do after that helps, and the research is pretty solid on how quickly [muscle] recovery and growth with protein is. When you have a positive net balance of protein, that’s when you have muscle hypertrophy, which leads to an improvement in muscle size and possibly muscle strength.” 

For Tulane student-athletes, protein intake is critical to sustaining energy and enabling recovery. Many of the student-athletes have the challenge of going from the playing field or weight room directly to class, which limits the time available to eat.

As a result, Piattoly has implemented a strict dietary log for student-athletes to keep track of what they eat, when they eat, when they go to class, when they lift and when they study. He said it helps student-athletes get an idea of when they should be eating to maximize performance, build energy and progress recovery.

“The biggest challenge is the schedule,” Piatolly said. “We have fueling stations set up that serve at certain times when Bruff [Commons] is not open. They can grab a bagel and peanut butter, chocolate milk, Muscle Milk, fruit or bars. If they do eat, muscle protein synthesis goes up, muscle strength could possibly go up, as well as net balance of protein.”

While inadequate caloric and protein intake is usually not an issue, as food is frequently available to student-athletes, nutritional supplementation still has a strong footing within Tulane Athletics.

Sophomore Trent Pouey, a Tulane student athletic trainer, said the consumption of protein supplements, energy bars and other nutritional supplementation is prevalent among Tulane’s student-athletes.

“The [athletes] like to drink protein post-workout or after practice just as a way to refuel,” Pouey said. “I think they believe they gain a lot of muscle.”

The desire for bigger muscles and chiseled abs goes hand-in-hand with an athlete’s or weightlifter’s desire for increased protein consumption via convenient protein shakes or protein bars following a practice or workout. Most, if not all, protein supplements, such as Muscle Milk, are promoted as being best consumed pre- or post-workout to help fuel recovery and build muscle. 

“In the weight lifting community, if you look in magazines, there are protein advertisements everywhere, aligned with endorsements from a professional athlete or body builder,” Piattoly said. “A lot of those body builders are on anabolic agents, but it’s good marketing and makes people think, ‘I need this [supplementation product] in large quantities.’”

The growing fixation with protein and other supplements is most clear when analyzing the profitability of the nutritional supplementation industry. According to the Nutritional Business Journal, the supplement industry produced about $32 billion in revenue alone in 2012.

“The growth [of the nutritional supplementation industry] has been around since the 1990s,” Piattoly said. “The body building community has really been one to promote and try to sell supplementation.”

Question marks surround the effectiveness of protein supplementation, though. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition published a study Dec. 3 that found there were no significant effects of ”protein timing on strength … following long-term resistance training protocols.”

These results refute the commonly held belief that the timing of protein intake in the immediate pre- and post-workout period is critical to muscular adaptations. 

“[Research shows that] the better thing to do is consume [protein] in smaller meals because you can’t just [have one big dose] of 90 grams to 100 grams,” Piattoly said.

Piattoly says that science shows anything more than 20 grams of protein after exercise has no additional health benefits.

A typical full scoop of protein powder can contain anywhere from 25 grams to 60 grams of protein, which can quickly and conveniently aid people looking to fulfill their daily protein intake. Consuming mass amounts of protein alone, however, is not the answer to enlarging your bicep or developing your six-pack, as relying on one nutrient is not healthy. 

The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. The IOM’s recommendation equates to roughly 46 grams of protein per day for women over 19 years of age and 56 grams of protein per day for men over 19 years of age.

The IOM recommends protein intake should only make up 10 to 35 percent of one’s caloric makeup each day. Limiting our intake of carbohydrates and fats is wise, but scoffing at them as unhealthy or inessential is not.

“Protein is one of the six nutrients and for athletes, it’s important to get a balance of carbs, protein and fat,” Piattoly said. “A lot of athletes are deficient in calories early in the day, and trying to [recover] with more and more protein is not going to be advantageous for them. Protein alone doesn’t have the same benefit [on muscle hypertrophy] as protein and carbohydrates do.”

Despite questions surrounding the effectiveness of these supplementation products, the industry shows no signs of slowing down. As body building magazines and publications continue to promote supplements, the number of consumers will continue to skyrocket, and the market will continue to flourish. 

“[The supplementation industry] looks like it’s going to continue growing,” Piattoly said. “The data shows that in 2018, it’s going to be a $100 billion industry. It’s on a pretty aggressive growth pattern.”