Energy and Structure: Protein

In the past few days two people have asked me what my thoughts on protein are. And one person asked about my caloric intake. I am particularly active and considering that context I thought I’d cover my reasoning on why I restrict protein. Honestly I’m past the restrict part I tend to eat low protein easily because I hate that overly full feeling like there is a ball of lead in my stomach after a larger-than-life-everything-is-bigger-in-America-steak.

My rationale comes from two angles, the first one considers the mitochondria and respiration and the second angle being growth and metabolism.

The most intense period of growth and metabolism during our lives is when we are babies. The brain is developing, organ systems are developing, etc. It’s actually quite amazing to think about. And I say actually because I think a lot of people don’t consider how amazing that stage of life is. A lot can go wrong.

What are the primary exogenous metabolic substrates in growing babies? For simplicities sake: saturated fat, a sprinkle of polyunsaturated fat, a sprinkle of protein and carbohydrate. There are some other exotic lipids in breast milk and some bacteria but again we are just going to do a surface overview.

From those raw materials the baby develops. And thinking about that is a trip. Babies that are breastfed from birth to 2-5 years old continue to rapidly develop and I think it is fairly well established that breastfed babies have a leg up in a lot of different areas regarding the ability to cope with stress, having higher potential IQ’s (although nurture can ruin that), being resistant to disease later in life, the list is a long one. But wean a baby early or feed them formula and all the sudden you start to see negative consequences.Digestive issues, retarded growth, underdeveloped brains, allergies, mood swings (I’ve always found the disposition of breast fed babies compared to early weaned babies interesting).

Those points there should if anything cause one to pause when thinking about macronutrient ratios and growth and metabolism. Especially in the circles that focus on having high metabolisms. There I must point out that babies have low respiratory quotients, elevated ketones, elevated lactate, etc. I should also point out that breastfed babies are more symmetrical.

The most intense period of growth and the period in life when our metabolisms are probably at their peak are when we are babies.

Now lets think about all the fat on babies. Around 30-35% give or take after a few months. Muscle mass? Not much. But parents who breastfed their babies know that babies are impressively strong for their size and surprisingly coordinated when one considers what kind of coordination it takes to walk upright. We tend to not think of walking or crawling as something impressive but that is only because as adults we take it for granted.

Strength in my opinion is more so a CNS issue. If you watch Olympic lifting especially the feather weight classes what you see is something pretty impressive. You see stick figures lifting 2 or 3 times their body weight over their heads depending on the movement. How is that possible? My opinion is that for the most part strength is a measure of the efficiency of the CNS to fire muscle fibers in a coordinated and explosive fashion. The more accurate the CNS is with activating muscle fibers the greater the strength.

In general you have sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is probably stressful to the body whereas myofibrillar hypertrophy is adaptive. In general when cells take up excess water it’s probably a negative thing. This is why in endurance athletes you often see enlarged hearts and after a while they drop dead.

If you watch kids play in a natural setting it’s almost always myofibrillar hypertrophy that is occurring.

Protein is more dense than water and babies almost always feel heavier than they appear.

So as babies we are growing and are getting strong due to myofibrillar hypertrophy. Strong despite the fact that when we are breast feeding our protein is lower than what we’d expect from adult studies on protein intake. Yet protein synthesis is still obviously occurring and we are still growing and still developing.

Again the body fat percentage in general for babies is around 30-35%. Strength is a measure of the accuracy of the CNS. And increasing strength primarily develops from myofibrillar hypertrophy. Yet the protein content of breast milk is low.

So there a few questions you have to ask yourself. Do these things regarding strength and protein intake agree or disagree with the literature on adults? Has anybody actually shown that increasing protein intake (alone) correlates with increased strength in a dose dependent manner (obviously protein intake does need to be adequate but outside of that the question is interesting)? Why is it that the strongest people in the world almost always look fat? Is there a shredded beast under there? Or is their strength a function of their body fat percentage and more importantly the body fat composition (cough, of the saturated sort) and the ability of their CNS to recruit their muscle fibers? Would they be as strong if they shed the fat? Would the longevity of their careers increase or decrease with leanness or increasing body fat?

If at the end of the day you believe that protein intake (outside of adequate) has nothing to do with the ability to increase one’s strength then you are left to look at the first angle, respiration and/or cellular generation of energy, which is without a doubt going to in part determine the ability of your CNS to fire your muscles, whether it be saturated fatty acids, lactate, creatine phosphate, etc.

A misconception is that the cell is a bag filled with water and all the organelles are just floating around and that the cellular membrane is basically all lipid. I would say a lot of scientists recognize the gel like nature of the cell but at this point we just haven’t gotten to the point where people are making a big deal about it, but the evidence is there. If you look at electron micrographs of cells you can see that this is actually not the case, cells are protein rich. In fact the cellular membrane is to a great degree made of proteins. I’ve seen some extremely varying estimates on the protein content of cells but at this point I’m more comfortable with saying that the cell is not a bag.

The next question then is if that is true (cells are made of a lot of proteins) and a growing baby is indeed growing and is on a low protein diet where is all the protein coming from? Where are the raw materials for protein synthesis coming from? Is the protein in breast milk enough? I would say it is enough and I would bet the farm that outside of adequate protein intake more is not better.

That is my line of thinking. I start there. Essentially looking at things from a functionality point of view rather than theoretical needs or aesthetic goals. The ability of excess amino acids to feed into the TCA cycle concerns me in the sense that I want saturated fat in my mitochondria, or maybe some ketones, or maybe some lactate or glucose were needed (Peter knows more about that than I do). I don’t like the idea of swollen mitochondria.

It does seem to be true that high meat diets can be conducive to leanness (so can vegetarian diets) but when I see things like that I see more of a starving to death syndrome, the undesirable substrates cause fat loss because the mitochondria are trying to maintain respiration and from the organism view, trying to maintain form. And I would say to some extent that the thermogenic quality of eating excess meat probably is at least in part due to elevated fatty acid oxidation which might be okay in the short term but long term I don’t like the idea. There is nothing wrong with having a high body fat percentage if it is the right kind of fat. It’s beneficial and you’ll probably feel better. We’ve all seen babies, we’ve seen some babies that are fat in a bad way (formula fed) and babies that are fat in a good way (breastfed), the breastfed babies fat is of a different quality.

Aside: This post is geared towards flesh meat, I have yet to think about whether protein is protein, or if denaturing proteins e.g. fermentation makes a difference. I also did not consider in this post the ability of the gut bacteria to ferment amino acids.

That’s all for now.


9 Comments Energy and Structure: Protein

  1. Marco

    Hi Edward, thanks. Is there a way to reduce the damage of not having get the breastfed, in adults?

  2. Hayden

    Hi Edward,

    Have you read any of Phil from Pranarupa’s articles?

    His latest post deals a bit about muscle types and he believes that doing exercises which might increase type 1 (or maybe only increase their efficiency) would be beneficial because they are more innervated and have a higher density of mitochondria.

    I think exercises like standing qigong and yogic asanas might cause myofibrillar hypertrophy but the benefits are probably more likely due to improved CNS coordination. What’s your opinion on these types of exercises?

    Thanks for your articles.

  3. Edward

    Hayden, I don’t have experience with the forms of exercise you mentioned. I think any type of exercise that you enjoy is probably beneficial. There are the physical effects, increased mitochondrial density and efficiency, myofibrillar hypertrophy, the increased myelination in the central and peripheral nervous systems and the effects on the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Movement is just as important as thinking.

  4. Isaac

    I’m also curious how to fix some of the damage of being a formula baby since apparently my mom tried to breastfeed me but the doctor said she was starving me because the… err, milk wasn’t of to high quality, so you could say I wasn’t breastfed AT ALL, and guess what… I didn’t turn out too great.

  5. Matt

    Fedor Emelianenko, arguably the greatest mma fighter of all time, has a pretty high body fat percentage relative to most fighters, and I’ve always been shocked at how much power he can generate in his punches. Everything he does is explosive in a way that seems kind of freakish. Watch some youtube vids of him.

  6. Jacob D.

    Here’s an interesting study:

    I find it odd that in a ketogenic diet, people must limit their protein or risk excess glucose. It seems strange because most fat sources that were probably common enough to eat on a regular basis, are milk and animal, both of which has a shit-ton of protein. Like you have said before Edward, ketosis seems besides the point. It’s all about beta-oxidation when you’re on a high fat diet.

    Don’t the Maasai eat high protein?

  7. Edward

    @Jacob, yeah, the Maasai do eat high protein and since most of the diary they consume is fermented it’s also high in “liver toxic” lactic acid. *rolls eyes*

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