Stronger Athletes

Safe Effective Strength Training for Humans


Ellington Darden on high protein diets - Part 2

Q: Some of the sports scientists at the University of Florida recommend extra protein intake for their strength and power athletes. Do you disagree with them, too?

A: I’m not against a little extra protein in your diet. Just don’t go completely overboard and bump it up to three or four times the RDA. Consuming 250 to 300 grams of protein a day—whether it’s from food or supplements—is expensive, wasteful, and not the safest thing you could do for your liver and kidneys. There has been research—including one study from the University of Florida—showing that perhaps there are advantages for power athletes and bodybuilders to consume from 50 to 100 percent more protein than the RDA of 0.36 gram of protein per pound of body weight. I don’t buy into it—not completely, anyway. Here’s what I do believe about protein and muscle. Only intense exercise generates cellular messages (hormones) that stimulate the chemicals to begin the process of expanding muscle fibers. An excess of dietary protein or any other nutrients won’t generate these messages. Nutrition enters the picture only after the muscles are stimulated to grow. And even then, rest is at least as important as nutrition.

Q: Dr. Darden, what influenced you to consume so much protein earlier in your career?

A: The same thing that influences bodybuilders today was what influenced me back in the 1960s.It was muscle magazines—10 years of reading almost every one published. These magazines all contained cleverly designed collections of editorials, articles, and advertisements that promoted protein supplements and high-protein eating. The facts show that you simply do not require much protein to build muscle. Human muscle is at least 70 percent water. Only 20 percent of muscle is protein. Because muscle is mostly water, 1 pound of muscle contains only 600 calories. Calories and water are more important to the muscle-building process than is protein. But if you are the publisher of a leading bodybuilding magazine—from a promotional, money-making point of view—how much revenue could you produce from pushing calories and water? Calories and water are everywhere, at least in the United States. But as a sales pitch, “tasty calories and pure water” doesn’t have the magic of the following phrases: “premium micro”; “ultrafiltration, whey protein”; “advanced protein synthesis complex”; “100% enzymatically digested bioactive protein isolate.” It doesn’t matter what you call protein or how you promote the end result, the truth is that it’s only minimally important to building muscle.

The most impressive bodybuilder that I’ve ever seen in my life, a man named Sergio Oliva, who had arms bigger than his head and who was the last bodybuilder to defeat Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Mr. Olympia contest, trained with Arthur Jones in Florida during the summer of 1971. Oliva trained extremely hard and sweated gallons as Jones pushed him in an unventilated Quonset hut with no air-conditioning. Each of their workouts resembled an episode from the TV drama The Walking Dead, and I’m not kidding! What was Oliva’s favorite after-workout dinner? A large pepperoni pizza, washed down with 32 ounces of Coca-Cola—not exactly a high-protein meal but more than adequate in calories and water.

Q: I’m interested in bodybuilding. I’m sure you realize that just about everybody connected to bodybuilding says the opposite of what you say: They say that a high-protein diet is necessary for building large muscles. Are they all wrong in their beliefs?

A: Perhaps it’s better to say that they all have been misled, badly misled. I’ve told this story about my experiences with protein in some of my bodybuilding books, and it’s worth telling again. From 1970 to 1973, I studied nutrition at Florida State University with Harold Schendel, PhD, who had spent a number of years in Africa working with starving children. I remember him telling me about how his team of doctors rushed into a famine country, assembled the starving children, and tried to force-feed them high-protein diets. Rather than improve, their conditions got worse. They quickly realized that what these children needed were simple calories. What worked best was a mush mixture of water, sugar, and butter, with small amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Later in his career, Schendel had a hand in establishing the Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein. In 1970, he convinced me to do a 2-month study on my body to determine if massive protein intake was beneficial. Back then, because I was really into bodybuilding, I consumed more than 300 grams of protein a day. I kept accurate records of my food intake and activity for 60 days, and I even collected my urine during the same period. Afterward, I used the Kjeldahl method for determining nitrogen in my urine, which is a measure of protein utilization. To my surprise, anytime I consumed more than the RDA of protein, the excess was excreted in my urine. Schendel concluded that my kidneys were working overtime to metabolize the excess protein. He also explained that human kidneys and livers show overuse symptoms in the presence of massive amounts of protein. We know from long-term animal studies that high-protein diets will shorten life spans. So I stopped my massive protein diet and immediately felt a surge of energy from unburdening my kidneys and liver. Over the next 2 years, on a carbohydrate-rich diet, I won several of the bodybuilding contests that I’d been trying so hard to win. Adding carbohydrates and subtracting proteins had made a significant difference in my appearance. As a result, I haven’t consumed a high-protein diet since early 1970.


Created on 5/23/20

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