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Ditch the whey – natural ways to maintain your muscle mass

Ditch the whey – natural ways to maintain your muscle mass

The right food combinations can complement each other's absorption to boost muscle mass, say experts
protein rich foods in a man's arm
Representational Image | Shutterstock

Arvind Sinha, 29, a businessman from Delhi NCR, started out his fitness journey in 2018. He joined a gym and hired a trainer who guided him on diet and exercises. Sold on the idea of whey protein for muscle building, he quickly jumped on the trend. Post workout, he started supplementing his diet with expensive protein shakes. As the pandemic hit in 2020 and protein powder deliveries were a no show, Sinha had to depend only on his diet for his protein requirements.    

“I was sceptical of skipping the protein powders and thought I would end up losing all my gains. But adding a few more egg whites and an extra serving of chicken easily compensated for the protein from the whey powders,” recalls Sinha. 

He continues to skip the whey protein and eat his regular food. Since he changed his diet, Sinha has also managed to bring down his fat per cent further from 22 to 18.  

Given that protein is a pre-requisite to building our muscles, our body demands adequate nutrient intake along with proper training. 

However, gym enthusiasts think they cannot meet the protein requirements through food (diet), and often resort to supplements. That is where the whey protein concentrates come in, which are consumed in the form of shakes, usually after workouts. Along with keeping our stomach full for longer, protein powders help supress hunger. 

Naturally, whey protein powders are also quite popular among weight watchers and lifestyle users. They are also used widely as meal replacements in the form of shakes or smoothies, often compromising on other nutrients from whole foods. 

Interestingly, in a conversation with Shifra Varadkar, lead sports nutritionist at Reliance Foundation Young Champs, we understand that although there are no negative consequences of consuming whey protein, high protein intake over an extended period can cause gastric distress, constipation, flatulence, feeling of fullness and lethargy.  

Fundamentals of muscle building  

Remember the first time in the gym, and the body ache that followed for the next two or three days? When we work out and stretch, our muscles go through micro tears. Post workout and during rest, when those muscle tears heal, new tissues re-grow to fill the gaps, improving the lean body mass percentage. 

However, it is important to remember that our body can only do so much at once. While we work out, our body also needs ample rest in between. A few days of sore muscles, therefore, mean we are building new muscles.   

While the lost muscles grow back to recover the micro-tears, proper nutrition to support the growth is a primary requirement. A study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, says that pre and post workout meals are required to rejuvenate the body with adequate protein and carbs to avoid fatigue and muscle loss. 

Srishti D Chatlani, sports nutritionist, Karnataka Institute of Cricket, says it is not mandatory to take protein supplements such as whey to meet the requirements. “Instead, regular and balanced diet is more than sufficient to meet the needs of your body,” she adds

Understanding the principles of protein

While our body requires a regular supply of protein, there is only a limited amount that it can process at once. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition states one must aim for a protein intake of 1.6g/kg body weight/day. However, for people who are into a regular workout routine the upper limit can go up to 2.2g/kg body weight/day.  

When proteins are taken along with other macronutrients, it enhances the utilisation of the amino acids by slowing down the absorption of proteins, according to the study. Chatlani suggests food combinations such as peanut butter sandwich with a fruit, oatmeal with seeds and nuts, peanut chutney with dosa/ idlis, green peas poha and peanut chikkis, as reliable sources of protein and carbohydrates that can help meet requirements. 

However, Varadkar says that extra protein, when not used efficiently by the body, may impose a burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver. “Moreover, high-protein/high-meat diets may also be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease due to intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol,” she adds.  

Diet that does the trick 

Unlike the weight loss trends that emphasise cutting down on calories, muscle building requires ample calories.  To restore the strength and stamina after a workout routine, a post workout meal ensures you avoid fatigue, as well as regenerate lost muscles. 

Adding protein in each of your meals throughout the day is the only way to meet all your protein requirements. However, pre-workout and post-workout meals play a vital role in restoring the lost fuels and energy that is depleted during the workout routine.   

While protein is the essence of building muscles, one must also compensate for the energy loss with enough carbs and healthy fats to ensure optimum utilisation of the nutrients. 

Chetlani suggests a handful of dried fruits, a bowl of mixed fruits, avocado fresh out of the shell, homemade dry fruit laddus, tisane (herbal tea) with a homemade granola bar, or a handful of boiled peanuts for pre-workout meals. 

Her favourite post-workout meals include celery sticks with hummus, peanut chutney sandwich, eggs, banana milkshake, plant-based shakes, or a yogurt bowl 

Varadkar points out meat, eggs, fish, seafood, dairy, nuts, and seeds are complete sources of protein, that is they contain all nine essential amino acids.  

“Vegetarian sources such as pulses, legumes, and grains are incomplete sources of protein, which means that they have one or more essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) missing in them. Therefore, grains and pulses are best consumed in combination or with other sources of complete protein,” she adds. 

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