The Relationship Between Protein, Essential Amino Acids, Muscle Mass and Body Composition

High quality protein sources like whey protein, particularly isolate versions which provide greater than 90% protein by weight are critical components to a person’s diet.  If you think, however, that protein is just for people who want to bulk up and simply get bigger, you are dead wrong!  A handful of recent studies provide evidence to show that intake of dairy foods, protein content and even the timing or distribution of your protein feeding can all favorably impact your body weight, body fat and body composition.  In other words, if you want to get leaner, become more toned, and improve your body composition you need to seriously consider what this data represents and find a way to work high quality protein feedings into your diet each day.  For starters researchers at Southeast Missouri State University recruited 27 people to record their dietary intake, timing of their feeding and complete a body composition scan.  The researchers used a simple straight forward approach to evaluating protein quality; the ratio of the essential amino acids to total dietary protein was determined as an assessment of protein quality.  Therefore, a higher quality protein had more essential amino acids when compared to the total amount of protein it contains.  It was also noted how many times a meal consumed by the participants had greater than ten grams of essential amino acids, a key threshold determined by research to stimulate positive adaptations.  The two factors, protein quality and the number of times a meal had more than ten grams of essential amino acids were related to the participant’s lean mass and body composition.  Higher amounts of quality protein and more frequent feedings of at least ten grams of essential amino acids were positively related to lean tissue and were inversely related to body composition.  The greater the quality protein, the greater the positive change in lean mass and the more body fat percentage was reduced (LOENNEKE ANN NUTR METAB REF).

Know anyone who would like to reduce fat in their abdomen?  I think every person knows (or is) someone!  The same authors performed a specialized follow-up analysis where they again compared if any relationship existed between quality protein intake and the number of meals which exceeded ten grams of essential amino acids to the amount of fat found specifically in the midsection of the research participants.  In this examination, the authors also reported that the greater the quality of protein consumed and the higher the number of meals which provides greater than ten grams of essential amino acids was associated with lower amounts of abdominal fat or obesity around a person’s midsection.  All in all, the more quality protein you consume in your diet the more lean mass you have, the lower your body fat percentage was and the lower your levels of fat in your abdominal region.  Now if you just knew where to get a good high quality whey protein isolate…

Still not convinced?  Researchers from Canada had 90 overweight and obese women follow a daily exercise program for four months.  The women in the study were required to follow one of three diets: 1) a diet which provided adequate amounts of protein (according to the RDA) and low (to no) intake of dairy foods, 2) a diet which provided adequate amounts of protein and moderate amounts of dairy and 3) a diet which provided high amounts of protein and high amounts of dairy.  Regardless of what diet they consumed, all women were told to exercise each day and burn approximately 250 calories each day (approximately 25 – 30 minutes of exercise).  Furthermore, each woman consumed a specially prescribed amount of calories based on their age, height and weight that was intended to stimulate weight loss.  For starters, all women in the study lost weight, regardless of what diet they followed.  Stop right there!  If you want to lose weight (approximately 9.5 pounds over a four month period) then get 25-30 minutes of exercise each day and consume around 1,800 calories per day while eating a balanced diet.  Greater losses of body fat and greater increases in lean mass were seen, however, in the group that consumed the highest amounts of protein and the highest amounts of dairy.

Why this response occurs no one really knows for sure yet. What matters is that it does occur.  Many scientists have examined any specialized impact of calcium or dairy foods and some feel this may be a reason, but more questions remain than answers at this point.

In closing remember these three things; first that diets which contain higher amounts of high quality protein are associated with greater gains in lean tissue, healthy bone changes, reductions in body fat percentage and abdominal fat.  Second, increasing the number of meals which exceed ten grams of essential amino acids is also associated with these same favorably improvements in body composition lastly that followed a moderately restrictive diet with daily exercise results in significant reductions in overall body weight as well as reductions in fat mass.  When higher amounts of protein and dairy are consumed, the improvements in body composition are even greater.