Bodybuilding? Protein or Carbohydrate - Which do I need?

Article by James Collier BSc (Hons) - Moderator and Contributor to Muscletalk as an Expert in Nutrition

This has got to be the biggest controversy in modern bodybuilding. Bodybuilders will say you've got to consume loads of protein to pack on quality muscle mass and increase strength. Nutrition 'experts' say that you must eat a high carbohydrate diet, particularly complex carbs, to improve strength and size, and say that a high protein is of no benefit.

Who is right? In essence, both. Remember, we are bodybuilders and are therefore different to other athletes, who should make complex carbs the basis of their diet. Only a few studies have been carried out looking into high protein intake and improvements in strength and muscle size. The results are inconclusive. Study design was poor, often only having very few subjects, who may be over- or under-training, other aspects of diet were often overlooked, and most were only carried out on novice weight trainers who may not know how to train correctly. Also, the topic of anabolic steroids is avoided which do increase demand for protein.

The argument

Protein
Muscle consists mainly of two proteins, actin and myosin. The turnover rate of amino acids in these proteins is high, and increases upon stimulation, i.e. exercise. If the muscle is worked to maximum effort, as is the case in keen bodybuilders, turnover is extremely high. Hence, there is a large demand from the body's pool of all amino acids. High carb fans say this demand can be met by only a moderately higher than normal protein intake. High protein fans argue very high levels of protein are needed to meet demand. Bodybuilders who have plateaued in their gains for long periods, have dramatically increased their protein intake and started making gains. Also, anabolic steroids increase the rate of protein synthesis within muscle cells, further increasing demand for protein.

Carbohydrate
The argument for a high carb intake comes from the fact that we need energy to fuel our workouts and to recuperate and grow. This is certainly the case for athletes who may need as much as 60% of their energy intake from carbs. High carb advocates also say that a 'normal' intake of high protein foods should be eaten, as starchy carbohydrate foods also contain some protein which will increase protein intake sufficiently. The type of carbs which should be consumed are high fibre starchy ones like wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat breakfast cereals, etc.

Both
Dietitians and nutritionists too often look at the percentage of total energy intake for proteins and carbohydrates. It would be better to look at actual intake levels. Both protein and carbs are needed in high amounts in order to gain muscle for all the reasons discussed above.

The problem in giving general advice is that we are individuals and therefore our requirements for different nutrients vary. If you are trying to gain muscle at the same time as trying to lose body fat, your carbohydrate intake will need to be reduced. If you are a beginner bodybuilder who is very skinny, your protein intake will need to be high but you will need to consume high carb foods regularly to gain weight.

Remember, you will not make good gains unless your protein intake is sufficient. Any successful bodybuilder will tell you this, no matter what so-called 'experts' say and clinical trials show. Protein quality will be discussed in a later article.

A reasonably high intake of quality carbs is also required to train on and for recuperation. Eat complex carbs regularly throughout the day.

Also remember that protein and carbohydrate foods complement each other, and their absorption will be optimal if they are consumed together.

It is hard to give you figures of how much is required, as we are all so different. But as a general rule for any bodybuilder who is trying to gain muscle size and strength and does not wish to lose body fat the following would be a good guide:

Protein: 2-4g of protein per kg bodyweight, depending on whether you use anabolic steroids. The intake must be staggered throughout the day at regular intervals.

Carbohydrate: approx. 4g per kg bodyweight, and eat regularly through the day.

As well as the above, remember to eat a balanced healthy diet, which is reasonably low in fat and high in fruit and vegetables.