Author: Steven Stiefel; Illustrations by Mark Collins;
A lot of bodybuilders have the somewhat mistaken idea that eating large quantities of protein always leads to maximizing muscle gains. While it’s critical to get in at least a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day, one thing many bodybuilders don’t consider is how effectively their bodies are using the large quantity of protein they’re consuming.
Here’s what we mean: Let’s say that you’re a 200-pound bodybuilder taking in a gram and a half of protein per day ⎯ 300 grams. But, if you’re only absorbing half of that, then your net absorption of protein per day is 150 grams. On the other hand if you’re a 200-pound bodybuilder who takes in 200 grams of protein per day, but your body is absorbing 90% of that intake, then you have a net absorption of 180 grams of protein ⎯ that’s significantly more than the guy who’s consuming 50% more protein than you are!
“The conclusion is pretty obvious,” says amateur competitive bodybuilder Dwayne N. Jackson, PhD, and professor of medical biophysics at the University of Western Ontario (London, Canada). “While net protein intake is important, perhaps even more critical is how effectively your body is absorbing the protein and other nutrients you consume.” After all, when protein passes through your body undigested it can’t be used for muscle building or other physiological processes. So, the bioavailability of protein is of primary importance and its optimization relies on a number of dietary tweaks, Jackson says.
This article gives you nine strategies to help make certain that you’re body is getting the most from the nutrients that you’re consuming.
1) Consume moderate amounts of protein throughout the day.
One of the keys to improved digestion and absorption of protein is appropriate dosing. Taking in 100 grams of protein twice a day isn’t going to do nearly as much to support muscle building as consuming that same 200 grams of protein split evenly over six or so meals a day. Think of your protein intake as a campfire you want to keep feeding 24 hours a day. You don’t want to throw all the logs on the fire at once because the fire will go out much faster. By adding a few logs every few hours you can keep your campfire, or muscle-building process, going all day long.
“A good rule of thumb is to consume protein in quantities about equal to .25 per gram multiplied by your bodyweight per meal,” Jackson says. This means that a 200-pound bodybuilder can handle doses of about 50 grams of protein per meal (200 x .25 = 50). While taking in more than this won’t hurt, what tends to happen is that you may be inclined to eat less protein at other meals or consume fewer meals throughout the day, and this can affect the total amount of protein that you’re ultimately delivering to your body.
2) Use probiotics supplements.
One of the least understood elements of bodybuilding nutrition is the important role that healthy bacteria play in efficient digestion and muscle building. These “good” bacteria live in your digestive tract ⎯ in your stomach, and small and large intestines. “These healthy bacteria help break down foods so that they’re more readily absorbed, and they help destroy harmful bacteria so that it isn’t taken into your body,” Jackson explains. In addition, certain probiotics can help you digest foods that you typically have trouble with. This includes improving the digestibility of lactose for the lactose intolerant. Of course, if you’re lactose intolerant, you can’t just take a dose of probiotics and swig milk to your heart’s content, but it will allow you to include more dairy-based foods in your diet in small amounts, and may help you better tolerate some milk-based protein products.
Products vary in the amount and type of probiotics they contain. For best results, look for an acidophilus supplement. “Acidophilus describes an array of bacteria that live in the body and contribute greatly to digestive processes.” Jackson says. “We’re born with a natural complement of these digestive bacteria and we gain and replenish stores by ingesting naturally fermented foods such as natural yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut.” However, through the ingestion of processed foods and the use of prescription antibiotics, we lose a lot of these digestive catalysts as we age; as such, it’s beneficial that we replace what’s lost on a continuous basis. Follow labeling instructions and dosing as the type and quantity of probiotics varies from product to product.
3) Use whole food proteins that agree with your body.
Some bodybuilders love dairy or red meat and others don’t. “While you don’t need to force yourself to eat foods you don’t like, you should seek out foods that like you,” Jackson says. The good news is that most people tend to stay away from the protein sources that don’t agree with their systems. For instance, many people claim to be lactose intolerant, and when they take in forms of dairy such as milk that contains lactose, their digestive systems react rather violently, tending to expel it rather quickly.
Guess what? If you’re consuming 50 grams of milk and then sprinting for the bathroom, chances are pretty good you aren’t absorbing very much protein from that meal. In fact, this milk-based meal may have a net negative effect. Your digestive distress could be driving out foods farther along the pipeline that would’ve been effectively used by your body without that later milk meal that caused your intense GI (gastrointestinal) distress.
4) Use supplemental proteins that agree with your body.
Taste and quality of the product certainly matter when you’re choosing your preworkout, post-workout and bedtime shakes. But nothing matters more than whether or not your body is able to tolerate that product. Supplemental protein shakes can be a challenge for many digestive systems for a couple reasons: First, they’re liquid so they hit your system quickly; second, they contain large doses of a particular type of protein so you’re getting a lot of one type of nutrient.
If your shakes are coming out of you as liquid or gas, then you may want to switch brands or at least cut back on the dose. Again, remember that your body probably can’t use more than about .25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight at a time, so there’s not much point in going above this for any individual meal during the day.
5) Add new protein sources in slowly to allow your body to adapt to them.
You may have the idea that your body doesn’t handle certain protein sources very well so you need to avoid them altogether. That isn’t necessarily true. If you want to introduce a new food into your diet and you’re having trouble processing it, then you may just need to reduce the amount your consuming at first. If you cut meat out of your diet, then your body will have trouble processing large amounts of beef because you haven’t provided it with the information it needs to create the enzymes necessary for breaking down large amounts of beef.
Different foods use different enzymes (the chemicals that help break down foods) to digest and absorb them effectively. And the human body is very smart about this: It makes the enzymes for the foods that it recognizes you’re consuming. “The body has remarkable adaptability and with small inoculations most digestive enzymes will up-regulate to help process new foods,” Jackson says. By consuming small amounts of a new food on a fairly regular basis (about three times a week) and slowly increasing the quantity you’re consuming, your body will begin to make more enzymes for that particular food, allowing you to better digest and absorb it.
6) Make sure you get plenty of dietary fiber.
Fiber serves many important functions in the body and in the digestive process. Of interest is that fiber is a “non-nutrient”, meaning it doesn’t get absorbed into the body. “All the fiber we consume ⎯ both soluble and insoluble ⎯ passes through the body,” Jackson says. So, why do we need it? Fiber provides several benefits including enhancing absorption, particularly of vitamins and minerals. In essence, it has the effect of “cleaning” the intestines to enhance overall absorption.
Fiber also slows the absorption of sugars. It helps to regulate blood sugar, which is beneficial to bodybuilders since it helps prevent insulin spikes that drive carbs into storage as bodyfat. Another benefit is that fiber helps facilitate regularity by absorbing fluid and creating bulk so that your meals move through your system at a more desirable rate, helping to optimize digestion and absorption.
7) Supplement with glutamine.
Glutamine is an amino acid and the most abundant one in the human body. When you supplement it, you provide your body with many advantages including enhanced recovery and stronger immune response. Most importantly for our purposes here, though, glutamine helps improve digestion, helping to make your body more regular. While you get glutamine from the protein foods that you consume, most bodybuilders don’t get enough of this particular amino from their diets.
Taking additional glutamine will help your body process and absorb the protein you’re providing to it. For best results start with 1¬–2 daily doses of about 5 grams of glutamine so that you’re taking in a total of 5–10 grams of glutamine per day. Each week, add about 5 grams per day, working up toward a maximal dosage of four daily doses of 5–10 grams, with a total of up to about 30 grams. Once you feel you’ve reached a state of digestive regularity, you can continue to take that dosage rather than striving for the maximal daily intake.
8) Take in di- and tripeptides because they're absorbed differently than individual aminos.
Another way to enhance protein absorption is to understand the differences between different types of protein molecules. Amino acids are single protein molecules. A dipeptide is a protein molecule made up of two bound amino acids, and a tripeptide is a protein molecule made up of three bound amino acids. What’s interesting about these small peptides is that they’re absorbed unbroken much higher in the digestive tract than most single amino acids or larger protein molecules.
By consuming foods or supplements that are rich in di- and tripeptides, you’re helping to maximize absorption by allowing protein to be taken into the body in two different ways.
9) Take digestive enzymes.
Enzymes are found throughout your digestive tract, beginning with your mouth. When you chew food, enzymes mix with saliva and begin the process of breaking foods down so that they can be more readily absorbed. By supplementing with digestive enzymes you further enhance this process.
To improve protein absorption, look for digestive enzymes that contain proteases and peptidases. Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus oryzae are two enzymes scientifically proven to increase the absorption of whey protein isolate. Many protein supplements contain a proprietary blend of these enzymes, called Aminogen.