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Research Blog: Protein Intake During Caloric Restriction

By: Derek Charlebois The word protein comes from the Greek word prota which means of primary importance. Therefore it is not surprising that so much focus and attention is given to protein and how to optimize its consumption to maximize athletic performance and improve body composition. Unfortunately there are many different opinions on what is optimal; studies on protein intake often give conflicting recommendations. A recent research review was published that examined the currently available research on protein intake in resistance training athletes during caloric restriction to give us some insight as to how much protein we should be eating when trying to lose fat.

Helms, E. R., C. Zinn, et al. (2013). "A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein During Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes: A Case for Higher Intakes." Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. Caloric restriction occurs when athletes attempt to reduce body fat or make weight. There is evidence that protein needs increase when athletes restrict calories or have low body fat. PURPOSE: The aims of this review were to evaluate the effects of dietary protein on body composition in energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes and to provide protein recommendations for these athletes. METHODS: Database searches were performed from earliest record to July 2013 using the terms protein, and intake, or diet, and weight, or train, or restrict, or energy, or strength, and athlete. Studies (N = 6) needed to use adult (>/= 18 yrs), energy-restricted, resistance-trained (> 6 months) humans of lower body fat (males </= 23% and females </= 35%) performing resistance training. Protein intake, fat free mass (FFM) and body fat had to be reported. RESULTS: Body fat percentage decreased (0.5% to 6.6%) in all study groups (N = 13) and FFM decreased (0.3 to 2.7kg) in nine of 13. Four groups gained or did not lose FFM. They had the highest body fat, smallest magnitudes of energy restriction or underwent novel resistance training stimuli. Two groups lost non-significant amounts of FFM. The same conditions that existed in the groups that did not lose FFM existed in the first group. These conditions were not present in the second group, but this group consumed the highest protein intake in this review (2.5-2.6g/kg). CONCLUSIONS: Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.

My Comments:
The researchers concluded that a protein intake of 1.05g-1.41g/lb of fat free mass is ideal for athletes to maintain muscle during caloric restriction. Note that is fat free mass, not total bodyweight. The leaner you are or the more severe your calorie restriction the higher in that protein intake range you should be.


So we have a pretty straightforward recommendation for protein intake, but what about the other two macronutrients? As long as you are eating enough protein everything is good to go right? Nope. In order to examine the effects of various protein intakes on body composition changes and performance total calorie intake must be kept constant between the subject groups to decrease the total number of variables. For example, if you are looking at two groups with Group 1 eating 1g protein/lb, 2g carbs/lb, and 0.5g fat/lb and Group 2 is eating 2g protein/lb, 2g carbs/lb, and 0.5g fat/lb then Group 2 is eating more total calories which skews the results. So when protein intake is increased carb and/or fat intake must be decreased to control the total caloric intake. The review noted that in studies where carbohydrate intake was reduced to account for an increased protein intake the athletes performance suffered. In addition, in studies where fat intake was decreased subjects reported reduced feelings of well-being. So what does that mean? It means you need to have a BALANCED diet that supplies sufficient amounts of all three macronutrients. Setting your protein intake TOO HIGH will decrease the amount of carbohydrates and fat you can eat. Now during final weeks of contest prep there may come a time where your performance in the gym does suffer due to a decreased carbohydrate intake. But ideally you should strive to keep your carbohydrate intake as high as possible (without compromising your fat intake) while you are still progressing consistently.

The take home from this study:

Protein intake of 1.05g-1.41g/lb of fat free mass Reducing carbs too low can impair performance Reducing fat too low can impair mood Paying attention to all three macronutrients in a must to maximize overall progress