Protein as a nutrient is often overlooked by endurance-based cyclists in favour of energy-providing carbohydrates and can carry negative connotations like the development of un-needed bulky muscle.
Diets high in protein are often associated with the intake of foods high in saturated fat thanks to Dr Atkins and the tales of bad breath, poor energy and over-indulgence in foods rich in ‘bad’ fat have meant that protein-rich diets are now frowned upon and have largely been discarded as a healthy option.
Interestingly, over recent years, as the trend to eat Atkins-style has worn off, the science has revealed some benefits of including a little more protein in your diet. This style of eating is not ‘high protein eating’ and certainly doesn’t advocate the high-fat foods of Atkins, but simply suggests that there may be benefits of eating a little more healthy protein than average.
This science has overturned old negative beliefs regarding high protein diets and has revealed a whole host of benefits of eating healthy proteins that should appeal to any improving cyclist.
Science moves on
With government guidelines failing to bring the nation’s waistlines into check, it’s very clear that a simplistic approach to weight management that just looks at ‘energy in versus energy out’ as a way to keep trim is severely limited. The failure of this method has led to lots of research into what motivates us to eat, and this has resulted in a pool of research illustrating the hunger-controlling benefits of protein.
Most of us who gain weight eat a little more than we need each day to balance energy, and considering that half an apple over our needs each day equates to a 30lb weight gain over 10 years, this reveals the ease at which many of us gain a little weight each year.
The reality is that we eat for many reasons, not just because we have 200 calories left in our daily allowance! We eat because we are bored, tired, hungry or even emotional. We eat when we smell food, or sometimes just because everyone else is eating.
With increasing regularity, I come across cyclists who are trying to eat healthily while committing to regular exercise on their bike. However, as they cycle more, they become more hungry and they eat more which often negates the effect on their waistline of cycling. When aiming to control their food intake they’re left over-hungry or over-tired.
Tiredness, hunger and even the size of our emotional response can be controlled by how we eat, and a little more protein, along with the right mix of other nutrients (low glycaemic carbohydrates, good fats, plenty of fruit and veg) can keep these in check, making sustained weight management easier. Here’s what the current research says.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but adding a little more protein to a meal or snack can actually lead to fewer calories being consumed over the day. Many looking to lose weight find it difficult to get their head around the concept that having a handful of unsalted nuts with the regular piece of fruit one might normally eat will help them to control intake at a later meal. But think about it.
I know personally that if I eat just an apple, then it’s only 10 minutes or so before I’m thinking about eating something else! Adding protein to a snack really takes the edge off this appetite drive. In fact, what it actually does is increase the release of hormones that signal feelings of fullness so that you’re not thinking about what’s next in line to eat.
An apple doesn’t become an apple-plus-an-orange-plus-a-biscuit as you’ve achieved a feeling of contented fullness with the simple food combination of protein and carbohydrate.
Studies to back up this effect show that a higher protein snack can even be lower in calories than a carbohydrate-dominant one and still lead to a greater feeling of fullness. Data also indicates that for each gram of protein in a snack or meal, just under six calories less will be eaten in the next meal.
This may sound like a small number, but with a 10-20g portion of protein you can effectively reduce intake in a subsequent meal by 60-120 calories.
If you carried that effect across the whole day, eating 10-20g of protein in each meal then you could find it easy to cancel out between 300 and 600 calories without feeling hungry. This appears to be a new, exciting direction in nutrition science that has placed protein a step higher on the priority list when thinking about how to plan your meals.
Protein reduces cravings
Along with the new science, looking at an increase of hunger hormone release when more protein is consumed in a meal, including protein in an otherwise high carbohydrate dish, will also reduce the impact this meal has on your blood sugar. High carbohydrate meals supplying more sugars can lead to a spike in blood sugar followed by a subsequent dip, which can leave you feeling lethargic and trigger cravings for sugary foods.
It’s not only the type of carbohydrate that results in this response, but the size of the portion too. Therefore, switching from white to wholegrain pasta for example will not make a huge difference on blood sugar response if the portion is not modified. Ideally, eat a smaller portion of carbohydrate leaving more room for protein in your meal to benefit from reduced cravings after you’ve eaten as well as an increased feeling of fullness.
You may have heard sports nutritionists talking about how protein increases calorie burn and the research suggests it does this through a couple of different mechanisms.
Firstly, your body expends more calories digesting proteins than carbohydrates, so if you are maintaining weight on your current diet, simply reducing carbohydrate by 10 per cent and increasing protein by 10 per cent while keeping calories constant should result in weight loss without eating less!
The second mechanism by which protein increases calorie burn is by supporting lean muscle tissue. A slightly higher protein diet (25 per cent rather than 15 per cent protein) will support the retention of lean tissue far better than a protein poor diet. As each gram of muscle we have needs energy to survive, you will burn more calories each day if you have a good lean mass.
We’re not talking huge numbers here, but when you consider just half an apple worth of calories could lead to gradual weight gain, even burning a few more calories each day will make weight loss much easier to achieve and maintain.
Protein increases sleeping metabolic rate
Protein not only increases the amount of calories you burn across the day, but has also been shown to increase your sleeping metabolic rate. The idea of burning more calories while you’re asleep seems crazy, but the evidence is clear.
Again, this is gained with an increase in protein as a percentage in the total diet and has been illustrated at intakes between 25 and 30 per cent of total calorie intake and definitely does not require a commitment to a ‘high’ protein diet that would compromise the intake of other nutrients.
Protein improves body composition
Many cyclists looking to climb a hill faster will be aware that shifting a few pounds is often more effective and less expensive than trading in bike parts for lighter options. Protein can give you a head start here too.
Increasing the percentage of calories from protein while reducing calories slightly (with a 500 calorie maximum reduction from maintenance need) has been shown to lead to a greater loss of fat compared to cutting calories on a carbohydrate-dominant diet, retaining more of your muscle to help power you up those climbs.
Protein will not lead to an increase in size unless accompanied with many more calories Cyclists have been likened to supermodels in their pursuit of a super-slim body, with a fear of anything that might make them heavier.
Often cyclists will avoid weight training, in the belief that it will add pounds of heavy muscle that they don’t want to be carrying over a sportive, but smart weight training could improve their power and stability and help them avoid injury.
The same is true for protein and with high protein meals being more often associated with the musclebound body of a weight-lifting gym goer, I can see where the fear of bulging muscles comes from.
Those that are looking to gain muscle do indeed require more protein, but this needs to be accompanied with a weights routine that includes heavy weights over short sets (the opposite of what’s likely to be recommended to cyclists) and the vitally important ingredient is more calories.
A cyclist, ideally, should be eating 1.2-1.5g of protein per kilogram they weigh per day while meeting their calories for weight maintenance (or a slight reduction if looking to lose weight).
A gym goer looking to gain muscle should be eating at least 500 calories more than they need per day to gain extra muscle, and it will still take some time to add.
The reality for cyclists is that if you eat too many calories while eating adequate protein you could gain muscle. If your calories are balanced, however, you maximise muscle retention while maintaining or losing fat mass dependent on your intake of calories. Protein is filling, so if you up this, you are more likely to lose weight rather than gain it, as you become satisfied with fewer calories. It’s all about balance.
Protein can’t work magic
Of course, if you want to include a beneficial amount of protein in your diet, you do still need to pay attention to the rest of your food choices. Although protein will fill you up and help to control cravings, if you pair up a chocolate bar and some nuts, the negative effect of the sugar from your chocolate treat is likely to negate the beneficial effect of your protein.
A study comparing the effectiveness of different diets for maintaining weight loss after a group had already lost a substantial amount of weight found that a moderate protein/moderate carbohydrate diet was more effective than a high carbohydrate/low protein diet, however both of these groups were restricted to low glycaemic carbohydrates in their diets.
A third group was tested with the same protein as the moderate group, but with the carbohydrate coming from simple sugars. This was the least effective diet for maintaining weight loss. So, if you want to take advantage of healthy proteins, then stick to healthy carbohydrates too, selecting smaller portions of starch-based carbohydrates and complimenting your meals or snacks with vegetables, salad or fruit.
Working healthy proteins into your diet
The new science on protein has led scientists to look beyond how much protein we need for basic survival, which is the premise on which the general 15 per cent recommendation is based, and it now asks, how much is optimal? The old method is rather like only putting enough air in your tyres to allow you to ride, rather than opting for the maximum pressure for your weight and road conditions.
For cyclists, making the jump from 15 per cent protein to 25 per cent of calories could provide a host of benefits for a very small change that wouldn’t compromise the intake of other necessary foods for energy, health and recovery – allowing us to ride, rest and live with our appetites under better control. It’s a step that’s key for long-term maintenance helping us to keep our calorie intake in check, maximise those burned and support a higher power-to-weight ratio.