Burn Fat and Build Muscle With Protein
A visual pursuit, bodybuilding success comes largely as a result of diligently building, shaping and defining muscle so as to bring about a muscularly dense, aesthetically pleasing and well-conditioned physique. Whether you can bench 300lbs is irrelevant. Whether you weigh over 200lbs is also irrelevant. What matters is quality. The look is all important.
Crafting an impressive physique begins at the waistline. A key indicator of whether or not bodyfat levels are approaching the coveted single digits so necessary for supreme definition and razor-sharp conditioning, belly flab should always be among the first casualties in the war on physical mediocrity. Once it’s gone only then can we truly see the physique we’ve spent months building. A degree of leanness provides the best indication of progress and a benchmark for future success.
Muscle-hungry bodybuilders notwithstanding, this same rule applies equally to the average person wanting to look great wearing as little in the way of clothing as possible. Those looking to become healthier and/or aspiring high-performance athletes will also benefit from a fat-free midsection.
According to scientific research and the combined real-world experiences of countless stage-worthy bodybuilders, one of the best ways to shrink the waistline to reveal impressive midsection muscularity is to prioritize protein.
Hardly a revolutionary breakthrough for those who’ve managed to successfully and consistently stay lean where others have faltered in their efforts to fight the flab, regular high-protein meals are, and always will be, the ticket to impressive results and a tight, well-conditioned midsection.
Of all the different populations perpetually striving to lose body fat (in particular the flab that’s sequestered around the midsection), bodybuilders have proven to be most successful in getting, and staying, lean. It’s no coincidence, in this regard, that the bodybuilding diet (whatever form it may take) is always high in quality proteins.
So what is it about protein that makes it such an important lean body essential? Why is it that by increasing protein intake irrespective of total caloric intake we may not only more effectively build more muscle but also strip unsightly bodyfat to miniscule levels? What is the best way to structure protein intake to eliminate belly flab once and for all? Keep reading to find out.
Shredding with Protein
With more and more in the way of conflicting information compounding the fat loss efforts of well-meaning dieters the world over, achieving consistent fat loss appears to have become more complicated than ever before. This should not be the case. In fact, by sticking to a few basic, time-tested rules, getting lean need not be all that difficult.
The first consideration is to ensure that enough quality proteins are consumed at regular intervals.
Containing four calories per gram (the same as carbohydrates), proteins have unique qualities that assist the fat burning process making this muscle-building macro a mandatory inclusion for those seeking a leaner appearance.4, 5, 17 The most successful bodybuilders have known this all along. The general public, wanting similar impressive fat burning results, are apparently taking longer to catch on.
Fueling the Furnace
As most smart lifters will tell you, protein profoundly influences the metabolic rate to help burn stored calories at rest while forcing the body to use more calories for digestion than those burned during carbohydrate or fat consumption.6, 9, 11
The protein digestion process increases calorie burn-off by a whopping 20-30 percent.13 The caloric burn-off of carbs and fats, by contrast, is just 10 percent 0.3 percent respectively. By eating 200 protein calories the body uses a hefty 40-70 calories to aid digestive processes alone. By consuming the same number of fat or carbohydrate calories only 10 calories (or 2.5%) are used via these foods’ thermic effect. 11, 12, 20, 21
Protein is also crucial for building metabolically active muscle tissue. More muscle leads to more fat loss and less fat storage.
Lean muscle, as opposed to comparatively inert bodyfat, needs an abundance of calories for maintenance purposes even when the body is at rest. Therefore a heavily-muscled bodybuilder may get away with eating more in the way of junk and still stay relatively lean compared to the average skinny-fat non-lifter who may fast accumulate an extra roll of flab simply by eating a few off-limits meals.
Including protein with each meal counters high blood sugar and fat storage by keeping insulin levels from surging out of control.7, 8, 15 Whenever insulin levels are spiked throughout the day (as opposed to in an around training times, where more insulin is needed to optimize nutrient storage), fat burning is effectively blunted.
When consumed with other macros protein keeps insulin under control, thus enabling bodyfat to be burned at a more consistent rate.
Another way protein assists with fat loss is by preventing metabolic shutdown caused by muscle catabolism. The less proteins and supplemental amino acids circulating in our system, the more the body will draw from existing muscle tissue to produce energy. This not only disrupts bodybuilding progress but also significantly reduces one’s metabolic rate to make fat burning more difficult than it needs to be.
Having more muscle encourages the body to draw from fat stores for energy while also boosting the metabolism so that more fat is burned during rest.
Protein (specifically whey protein, with its main bioactive component Alpha-lactalbumin) has been shown to blunt cortisol, to enhance muscle gains and decrease body fat accumulation (specifically around the midsection).18 Whenever the infamous stress-hormone cortisol is released beyond levels deemed beneficial to health (in smaller amounts its integral to immune function, metabolism, and blood sugar regulation), muscle gains cease and fat burning is stopped dead in its tracks.
By preventing excessive cortisol from being released by the adrenal glands, protein discourages the body from storing fat (particularly around the waistline) for emergencies and, instead, increases fat burning.
Energy without the Excess
Compared to carbohydrates or fats, the overconsumption of protein is less likely to result in a burgeoning waistline. Through a process called gluconeogenesis, the body may instead turn to the excess amino acids into glucose whenever an additional energy source is needed.
Bottom line: protein may provide all the benefits associated with getting leaner and (muscularly) larger without the danger of fat accumulation.
The Science: More Protein = Less Fat
Consuming more calories than needed for consistent weight reduction is usually a bad move for obvious reasons. Bumping up the carbs and fats beyond levels previously conducive to consistent shredding (notwithstanding the occasional strategically-planned ‘cheat’ or ‘refeed’ meal) will almost certainly lead to the storage of unwanted adipose in all the wrong places. When it comes to protein, however, different rules are to be followed.
It’s believed that a key ‘ingredient’ when intelligently programming nutrition for maximum shredding is to determine the specific number of calories of each macronutrient (fats, proteins, and carbs) needed to steadily drop fat while retaining as much muscle mass as possible. This process can take some time and comes largely as a result of trial and error combined with expert guidance. Indeed, once determined, increasing carbs and fats beyond a certain point may ultimately result in body transformation suicide. However, the same cannot be said for protein.
In short, by significantly ramping up protein beyond the usual 1g per pound of bodyweight, calories that may otherwise be stored as fat are, instead, used to build more muscle. Even better for shredders, fat loss may also be increased.19
Again, bodybuilders have intuitively known this all along. In fact, when in the throes of stripping fat pre-contest it’s standard practice for steady-shredders to further increase protein as carbs and fats are correspondingly decreased (best achieved with the inclusion of several protein shakes per day along with the usual protein sources). Recent research has not only confirmed the validity of this approach but has shown that calories from protein may also enhance fat loss irrespective of whether fats or carbs are simultaneously reduced.
Antonio and colleagues found that under otherwise identical dietary and training conditions, two groups of experienced bodybuilders experienced vastly different outcomes when instructed to consume either 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (group one) or 3.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (group two) over an eight-week period.1
While group one (who had during the course of the study chosen to slightly increase their protein intake to 2.3g per kg of bodyweight) gained the same amount of muscle as group two (the higher protein group), the second group lost considerably more fat mass (an average of 1.6kg compared to 0.3kg for the lower protein group) despite consuming an extra 400 calories per day (in the form of protein).
Furthermore, bodyfat percentage for the high protein group dropped by 2.4% whereas for the lower protein group a comparatively inconsequential 0.6% reduction in fat mass was experienced. The researchers speculated that the decrease may have come as a result of thermic effect of the extra protein (discussed earlier) or this thermic effect combined with greater activity related energy expenditure and non exercise-related energy expenditure.
The Study: More Protein = More Muscle
It’s not all about bodyfat reduction. Without adequate muscle, there’ll be nothing to show despite the best of fat loss intentions. So how does protein affect fat reduction while simultaneously building muscle?
The debate over whether muscle building and fat loss may occur concurrently is hotter than ever. For many, it’s an impossible task. For others, it’s entirely possible. To help quell the speculation researchers at McMaster University devised a rigorous study centered on, you guessed it, protein consumption.14
In this study, two groups of 20 slightly overweight young men were placed on a strict four-week diet and exercise program. Each participant was instructed to consume forty percent fewer calories than needed to maintain their current bodyweight. While each subject followed the same stringent approach, 20 subjects were given more protein (2.4g per kg per day compared to 1.2g per kg per day for the remaining subjects). While both groups lost bodyfat during the four week training/dieting period, the higher protein group collectively lost more (10.5 pounds compared to an average of 8 pounds for the lower protein group) – a significant finding given that such a decrease would equate to a 15 pound per-person reduction of fat over a six-month period for the higher protein group.
However, the bigger finding showed the higher protein group had gained 2.5 pounds of muscle while the lower protein group, while not having lost any muscle, had not gained any either. While the key variable for muscle mass retention for both groups was attributed to weight training combined with optimal protein consumption, the more favorable body composition changes experienced by the higher protein group came down to the higher protein intake alone.
Protein Pacing and Caloric Composition
It should be clear by now that an optimal and evenly-spaced intake of quality proteins is essential for both muscle building and fat loss. Indeed, recent research has lent support to the notion of protein pacing (frequent feedings of protein throughout the day).10 Though it’s still a hot topic of discussion for many, smart bodybuilders have been structuring their nutrition in exactly this for decades.
For most bodybuilders, 5-7 meals per day, each containing around 25g of protein (more for larger lifters) is standard practice. In fact, it’s essential for facilitating progress. In another study, Arciero and colleagues investigated how regular protein feedings may influence training success.2, 3
For this 12-week study, all 50 subjects (30 women and 20 men) consumed the same number of calories and followed the same exercise program. However, half the subjects were given 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day whereas the other group received 1g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day.
At the end of the study, both groups had built more muscle and were also stronger and leaner. However, the higher protein group had built more muscle, lost more bodyfat and gotten stronger overall (even demonstrating greater flexibility). The researchers concluded that by keeping total calories the same but by bumping up the protein, better training results can be experienced. They also concluded that more protein may have produced even better results, suggesting that the 2g per kg is a good place to start but more may be better (most experienced bodybuilders consume between 1.5 to 2g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day).
More than Just a Muscle Builder
Protein: it’s become a byword for bodybuilding success, and for good reason. While having achieved widespread recognition as a peerless muscle-building nutrient, protein has also been heralded as an effective fat burner and performance booster. In its muscle building/maintenance role protein exacts an energy cost which far exceeds that of both carbs and fats. It moderates insulin production, can be substituted as an alternative fuel source to power physical activity, keeps muscle tissue from being used as energy and blunts the stress hormone cortisol to keep belly flab at bay.
- Protein helps reduce bodyfat, even when consumed in excess of what’s needed to enhance muscle growth. If over-consumed it’s less likely than any other nutrient to be stored as bodyfat.
- Consuming more than 2.0 g per kilogram of protein does not appear to be wasteful. In fact, research has indicated that closer to 3g per kg may be better for muscle growth and fat loss (an amount closer to what most experienced bodybuilders already utilize for best results). In short, err on the side of more protein rather than less.
- High protein diets are not damaging to health, contrary to what some reports may suggest. Research has confirmed that high-protein diets ate not detrimental to the kidneys or any other markers of health.16
- With enough quality proteins, muscle building and fat burning can occur side by side. When shredding it’s best to eat more protein than usual as this will ensure muscle is built while bodyfat is gradually reduced.
- Protein consumption, whatever the level, is most effective when combined with regular intensive weight training. When consuming low calories and less protein than ideal for muscle growth, weight training will help the lifter to maintain a degree of muscle mass.
- Studies have suggested that not all calories are created equal. While study subjects were given the same number of calories, only those consuming more protein made superior improvements in body composition.
- It’s common practice for advanced level bodybuilders and regular lifters alike to get much of their daily protein from protein shakes. Protein shakes (ideally a combination of whey and casein) provide a convenient way to get the highest quality protein to the muscles in the fastest possible timeframe.
- Antonio, J., et al. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow up investigation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 20 October, 2015.
- Arciero, P. J., et al. Timed-daily ingestion of whey protein and exercise training reduces visceral adipose tissue mass and improves insulin resistance: the PRISE study. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2014
- Arciero, P. J., et al. Protein-Pacing from Food or Supplementation Improves Physical Performance in Overweight Men and Women: The PRISE 2 Study, Nutrients. May, 2016
- Astrup, A. The satiating power of protein—a key to obesity prevention? Am J Clin Nutr 2005;82:1–2.
- Batterham, M. et al. High-Protein Meals May Benefit Fat Oxidation and Energy Expenditure in Individuals With Higher Body Fat. Nutrition & Dietetics. 2008-12; 65(4):246-252.
- Bier, D. The Energy Costs of Protein Metabolism: Lean and Mean on Uncle Sam’s Team. [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224633/ – retrieved on 27.4.18
- Franz, J., Protein: metabolism and effect on blood glucose levels. Diabetes Educ. 1997 Nov-Dec;23(6):643-6, 648, 650-1
- Gannon, M. et al. An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. October 2003 78 no. 4 734-741
- Halton, T. L., et al. The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Oct;23(5):373-85.
- Ives, S. J., et al. Multi-modal exercise training and protein-pacing enhances physical performance adaptations independent of growth hormone and BDNF but may be dependent on IGF-1 in exercise-trained men. Growth Hormone & IGF Research, 2016
- Johnston C., S. et al. Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002, 21 (1): 55-61.
- Kafri, M., The Cost of Protein Production. Cell Rep. 2016 Jan 5; 14(1): 22–31.
- Kollias, H. A Calorie Isn’t a Calorie. [Online] http://www.precisionnutrition.com/digesting-whole-vs-processed-foods – retrieved on 1.5.18
- Longland, T. M., et al. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 2016.
- Margolis, L. et al. Calorie Restricted High Protein Diets Downregulate Lipogenesis and Lower Intrahepatic Triglyceride Concentrations in Male Rats. Nutrients. 2016 Sep; 8(9): 571.
- Manninen, A. H., High-protein diets are not hazardous for the healthy kidneys. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, Volume 20, Issue 3, 1 March 2005, Pages 657–658
- Merens, W., et al. (2005). The effects of a diet enriched with α-lactalbumin on mood and cortisol response in unmedicated recovered depressed subjects and controls. British Journal of Nutrition, 94(03), 415-422.
- Markus, C. R., et al. The bovine protein alpha-lactalbumin increases the plasma ratio of tryptophan to the other large neutral amino acids, and in vulnerable subjects raises brain serotonin activity, reduces cortisol concentration, and improves mood under stress. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jun;71(6):1536-44.
- Phillips, S., et al. The optimal Source of Protein for Performance Nutrition. American Society for Nutrition. 2015.
- Westerterp, K. R., Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2004; 1: 5.
- Westerterp-Plantenga M. S., et al. Satiety related to 24 h diet-induced thermogenesis during high protein/carbohydrate vs high fat diets measured in a respiration chamber. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1999; 53:495–502.