On the Table

On the Table: Don't fall for myth about muscle

CorrespondentApril 2, 2013 

Want to build muscle? Have a carrot. A sandwich will also do.

Then do pushups and squats – lots of them.

The formula for building bigger, stronger muscles is simpler than you may think. But that’s a message you don’t often hear, especially now as food manufacturers plaster their products with come-ons about the wonders of protein.

When legendary body builder Joe Weider died last month at the age of 93, his muscle-building legacy included popular magazines such as Men’s Fitness, Muscle & Fitness, and Shape, as well as a family of sports foods including nutrition bars and supplements.

Others like Weider live on and perpetuate the myth that to build big muscles you need a diet high in protein, supplemented with more protein.

It’s easy to understand the rationale. Since muscle is mostly protein, you might assume that eating protein would make more muscle.

But it doesn’t work that way. Not exactly.

It’s true that our bodies use amino acids – the building blocks of protein – to repair, maintain and build new muscle. But you only need a little to do that.

About 10 percent to 15 percent of the calories you eat every day should come from protein. The rest should come from carbohydrate and fat.

Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products are concentrated sources of protein, but other good – and healthier – sources include beans, peas, seeds, nuts, vegetables and grains. If you eat a reasonable variety of foods and get enough calories to meet your energy needs, it’s hard to fall short of the protein you need.

Most people need about 60 to 80 grams of protein per day, an amount that’s easy to get without expensive supplements or protein powders.

It’s also important to know that more isn’t better. Too much protein increases the workload for your kidneys and may increase the loss of calcium from your bones.

What does build muscle is simple to explain, but it’s harder to do: work.

When you do strenuous, weight-bearing activity, it causes small tears in your muscles. The small amounts of amino acids you get from food repair and strengthen those tissues.

The rest of the calories from your food – the carbohydrate and fat – provide the fuel you need to do the work that builds muscle.

Get moving!

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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