are you eating too much protein

Are you eating too much protein? The case of BCAAs

Guest writer Stretch Rayner investigates the latest research around dietary protein intake, with particular attention to BCAAs. Stretch is a CrossFit coach with a holistic approach and is the founder of The Sustainable Training Method. In his own words, he is obsessed with improving human performance, vitality and durability.

The Importance of Protein

If you’re not paying attention to protein, you’re doing it wrong. Protein is essential for your health and performance. Protein is an important component of every cell in the body. Our hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Our body uses protein to build and repair tissues. We also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.

But can we be having too much of a good thing?

Most people (who train) know that regular exercise increases daily protein requirements. But with the myriad of protein supplements and online advice, there’s a lot of confusion. It's hard to tell if the claims made are grounded in scientific evidence, or if they are nothing more than sales and marketing. (Related: 3 steps for avoiding fake nutrition advice)

Protein requirements: a personal affair

One of the most important things to consider when reading any nutritional advice is to stop and ask "who is this advice for"? There is no single answer to the question of how much protein to consume daily. One size fits nobody. The answer depends on energy intake, carbohydrate availability, exercise intensity, duration and type, dietary protein quality, training history, gender, age, timing of nutrient intake... Making this topic incredibly complex. Many questions remain to be resolved. At the present time, scientific data indicate that the current recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein should be adjusted upward for those who are physically active.

Protein in sports

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, protein intakes of 1.4-2.0 g/kg of bodyweight per day for physically active individuals is not only safe, but may improve the training adaptations to exercise training. Additionally, increasing protein intake will increase protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown. Increased muscular hypertrophy is seen as beneficial to sports performance and improving overall body composition. As far as the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) go, protein is perhaps the most important to pay attention to. One study conducted over 12 weeks comparing low (1.1g/kg) against high protein (2.2g/kg) found that the high protein group not only lost more body fat (with no significant differences in overall weight, due to muscle retention) but the high protein group also experienced a reduction in LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol not seen in the low protein group.

High Protein vs High Carb

Those who do not consume enough protein are at risk of turning their lean muscle mass into fuel, which isn’t good for your physique, or your physical performance, or your health for that matter. A high protein diet against a high carbohydrate diet also appears to be more effective at reducing triglycerides, and is seemingly more useful for both health and body fat reduction in obese persons with high baseline triglycerides. Further studies have also shown that consuming higher levels of protein (2-3g/kg of body weight) can help improve sports performance.

Protein supplementation and the case of BCAAs

Many physically active people increase their protein intake by taking protein supplements that contain added BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids - leucine, valine, and isoleucine). This makes sense as we know BCAAs can improve fat burning, reduce muscle breakdown, and reduce muscle soreness (DOMS). However, are you aware that B-Vitamins can become depleted with high dosages of BCAAs, which can cause serious health impacts? B-Vitamins are essential for red blood cell growth, managing anxiety, cognition and nervous system function, energy metabolism and avoiding food cravings. We use B-Vitamins to metabolise BCAAs and overuse of BCAAs will quickly deplete our stores of B-Vitamins.

A balanced approach: real food comes first

The solution is to avoid overuse of protein supplements containing added BCAAs and to increase food naturally high in B-Vitamins like:
  • beef, poultry, seafood, eggs, pork,
  • avocado, leafy greens, broccoli, beets, asparagus, lentils, peppers,
  • papaya, orange, and cantaloupe, just to name a few.
High levels of BCAAs can also lower serotonin levels which will impact sleep quality, especially if we are on a low carb diet. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin production and BCAAs can inhibit tryptophan into the brain, reducing our serotonin production. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that improves our mood and helps us relax and wind down. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. Eating some carbohydrates before bed can help increase serotonin production in the gut: it’s said that 90% of our serotonin is made in the digestive system.

We should never favour supplements over real whole foods.

We should be including high quality organic protein foods in our diet to balance the other essential and non-essential amino acids that our bodies need to function optimally. Protein foods provide us with additional nutrients such as carnosine, carnitine, glutamine, creatine and B-Vitamins. These are paramount for health and athletic performance. Yes, mother nature was smart enough to include B-Vitamins in meat to help maintain the balance of nutrients in the diet.

Protein supplements vs meal replacements

High quality protein supplements are an effective tool for supporting fat loss, sports performance and recovery. But they should never be used as meal replacement, or as our main source of protein. Use them wisely, and make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet to support your individual goals.

Editor’s notes

At Motion Nutrition we do not include added BCAAs in our Organic Protein Powders. Our Body Fuel BCAA capsules are 100% plant-based and enhanced with L-Carnitine and Resveratrol. Resveratrol is a natural and powerful antioxidant extract from the skin of the grape. These additional ingredients complement the benefits of BCAAs without requiring heavy doses. Hence, our recommended daily dosage is lower than most conventional brands. Find out more about our Body Fuel BCAAs here. Our conclusions?
  1. First, focus on including varied sources of complete proteins within your meals.
  2. Second, choose only the highest quality, complete and organic proteins as supplements.
  3. Add a BCAA supplement in period of heavy training or when facing stubborn muscle soreness. Avoid regular use of protein powders which includes added BCAAs.