Answered by Dr. Jose Antonio, one of the world’s most cited researchers on high protein diets.
One of the smartest and most accomplished individuals in the fields of sports nutrition and exercise science is my good friend Jose “Joey” Antonio, PhD.
Dr. Antonio’s “vita” (short for curriculum vitae, which is what academics call a resume) is as impressive as they come. In addition to being the CEO and co-founder of the prestigious International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN), as well as a professor and director of the Exercise and Sports Science program at Nova Southeastern University in South Florida, his research on high-protein intake has been cited countless times, particularly in debunking the mainstream myth that high-protein diets are somehow bad for your health. (Dr. Antonio’s research has shown time and again that that’s not true.)
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Antonio on the NSU campus to ask him a few questions I get constantly regarding protein intake, building muscle, getting lean, and using resistance bands versus free weights.
In this first of three blogs with Dr. Antonio, he answers a question that’s squarely in his research wheelhouse…
How much protein is too much?
“One of the things we’ve focused on in the last four years is the effects of high-protein diets on body composition and health,” says Antonio. “Because I’ve heard since I was an undergrad how horrible protein can be for your kidneys, how it’s bad for your bones, and you name it. The ironic thing is, there have been very few studies that have looked at athletes consuming high doses of protein for a long period of time.”
Surprising research on high-protein diets
In one study, Antonio and colleagues tested the effects of subjects consuming 2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. This is a lot of protein, more than most people would be able take in without drinking at least a few extra protein shakes per day. For a 150-pound person, it’s 300 grams of protein per day; for a 200-pounder, it’s 400 grams.
The anti-high-protein-diet crowd would have you believe that this much protein is excessive and could cause kidney damage. At the very least, most people would think taking in that much extra protein – equal to 1,200 calories from protein alone for a 150-pound individual, and 1,600 calories for the 200-pounder – would cause a person to gain unwanted weight (body fat).
Antonio’s study showed that was not the case.
Extra protein did not make people fat
“In that initial study, the results were actually kind of surprising, because – get this – nothing happened,” says Antonio. “[The subjects] didn’t gain fat, they didn’t gain muscle, and we didn’t change their training. It was just, ‘eat a lot of protein.’ These people were downing four or five extra shakes a day just to hit their protein limit.”
“It’s extremely difficult to get fat eating protein”
That’s the conclusion Antonio came to from his study.
“Calorie intake and calorie output… people think these are separate equations, when in fact they’re intimately tied,” says Antonio. “The cool thing about protein is, the more you eat of it, it seems like the more you oxidize it.”
“It’s almost as if you pour protein in, and energy expenditure goes up,” says Antonio, theorizing why a significant increase in calories didn’t cause subjects to gain body fat.
He’s referring to what’s known as the thermic effect of protein. The data suggests that the body uses more energy (burns more calories) digesting protein than it does carbs or fat.
He can only assume it’s because those additional calories came from protein.
“If they had consumed the equivalent amount of extra calories from carbs and fat, they get fat,” he states definitively. “There’s data on that: If you eat more carbs and fat, you get fat. If you eat a bucket full of protein, you don’t seem to get fat.”
Take Home: Protein is the Key to Gaining Muscle without the Fat
Antonio’s study not only discredits the myths that high-protein diets are somehow unhealthy or will lead to gains in body fat. His research also points to the fact high protein intake is the key to gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously – something many people mistakenly claim is impossible. It’s not, provided you follow a proper diet, one that includes sufficient protein.
To build muscle mass, you need to be in a calorie surplus. Yet to lose weight (body fat, specifically), you need to be in a calorie deficit. This is what makes doing both at the same time difficult, but not impossible.
Question is, How do I add muscle without putting on at least some body fat? Here’s how: By making sure those additional calories that put you in a surplus come from protein. We all know eating protein is crucial for building muscle. And as Antonio explains above, the added protein is highly unlikely to cause a gain in body fat, even if it puts you in a calorie surplus.
So, that’s how you make sure your weight gains are muscle and not fat – with protein.