Nutrition Experiment Week 4: Protein

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Week four is here and it’s time to delve into the fun and exciting world of protein!  So what the heck is protein, and what does it really do?  Personally, protein brings to mind images of body builders at the gym slamming weights, drinking Muscle Milk, and yelling as they do curls.  But it’s not just about building muscle.  Proteins are the Lego sets of the biology world, that your body can use to build almost anything it needs.

To start, proteins are made up of amino acids (Legos).  Our bodies break down the proteins we eat and use these amino acids to build other proteins our bodies need, just like when you use Legos from one set to build something totally different.  We use these proteins to do everything from build muscle, form DNA and RNA and boost our immune systems, to creating hormones and enzymes, and a host of other cool stuff.

Amino acids, unlike Legos, can also be used for energy by our bodies (FYI, if you try to burn Legos, you get an icky mess).  This process, however, requires more effort than carbs, so you get less bang for your buck.  Also, your body does not stockpile protein like it does with glucose (Carb Week).  Instead, it either uses it, converts it to fat, or flushes it from your system.

I have also found, though, that high protein consumption can also have some dark, unforeseen negative consequences.  According to Heidi Skolnik and Andrea Chernus (Human Kinetics), our bodies produce ammonia as a byproduct of protein metabolism.  Ever wonder why some people smell like ammonia when they workout?   This effect is bad because it will cause our bodies to slow the rate of digestion to protect itself from excess ammonia build-up.  This defense mechanism can lead to nausea and discomfort during runs.

Skolnik and Chernus also found that athletes with high protein diets need better hydration.  The reason is that our muscles need more oxygen to burn protein.  In other research (Wiles, 1991), subjects’ perceived excertion was higher one hour after having a high-protein meal compared with those having only water.  So, your body can run on protein, but it is less efficient, like trying to run in snow boots .

From what I have read and experienced so far, I must say that while I am really excited, I’m also a bit nervous about this week, especially because I have struggled with things like nausea on my runs.  But, as my awesome wife would say, “you can do anything for a week”.  So, here we go! Over the top and all that! Hope to see you on the other side for the protein week wrap-up coming your way soon.

Images from and Meijer.