Does Total Calories Lead to Muscle Growth? Or Is It About Protein?

Does Total Calories Lead to Muscle Growth? Or Is It About Protein?

The concept of taking massive amounts of protein to gain muscle and weight has been going on for years.  There are arguments for and against the total amount of protein you would need.  On one end, there is the argument that large amounts of protein will help build muscle.  On the other end, there is the argument that it is all about the total amount of calories.  Both arguments make sense.  But to understand the arguments, one first has to understand where protein is coming from.

All proteins are composed of something called amino acids, which are your basic building blocks of protein.  While carbohydrates, fats and proteins contain different amounts of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, protein differs in that it also contains about 16% nitrogen.  When your proteins are ingested, they are converted into amino acids.  After proteins are broken down in your system, they are reassembled in the body to form a variety of proteins.  Your body will then use the variety of proteins to perform several functions.

The main reason gym enthusiasts take protein (and why some people avoid it), is for tissue protein synthesis.  Others will call it structural tissue building.  Whatever which way you want to call it, people will take protein before, during and after a workout so that it can help rebuild broken down muscle tissue.  Another function of protein is for proper balance.  The nitrogen within the protein will make sure you have a proper synthetic and catabolic balance.  In other words, it is looking to see how well the muscle tissue is being maintained.  Protein will do many things for the body, but from a muscle growth standpoint, these two make the most sense.  For the most part, these functions are the reason as to why people believe in a higher protein intake than anything else.

With pros, there are also cons.  The con to increasing total caloric intake is that people may take that information and just eat as much as they can.  If 3500 calories equals one pound, then to gain muscle and weight you would have to add 3500 calories to your diet.  It makes sense when you think about it but people may focus more on the quantity as opposed to the quality of their food choices.   The con to the higher protein diet is that people may lay off of carbs and fats.  Higher protein diets have been linked to ketosis, cardiovascular disease and gout.  Some experts may also say that there will be a strain on the kidneys due to excessive protein breakdown, but based on the conversations with a few nutritionists, they are on one side or the other.

Looking at both of these concepts, which one is better?  Which one will put the least amount of damage to the body?  Dr. Mike Roussell, owner of Naked Nutrition and based out in State College, Pennsylvania says its both.  In a short conversation with Dr. Roussell, he says, “you need to be in a caloric surplus to build muscle (at a rate that is worth it).  Studies show that protein synthesis is proportional with the amount of leucine (an amino acid) in a meal.”  Leucine is one of nine essential amino acids.  They are vital to life and health.  Your body can’t manufacture any one of these nine in sufficient quantities, so you would have to take them in from an outside source.  The research Dr. Roussell was talking about was pertaining to an article in the 2009 edition of The American Institute of Nutrition.  The article titled, The Leucine Content of a Complete Meal Directs Peak Activation but not Duration of Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Mammalian Target of Rapamycin Signaling in Rats researchers tested muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and plasma leucine, among other things, at 0, 45, 90, 135, 180 and 300 minutes after consuming a four gram complete meal containing 20% whey protein.  That whey protein also contained 94 milligrams of leucine.  Prior to feeding rats the protein, they were meal fed three times a day for five days.  They then didn’t eat for a few hours and reexamined them at those times after feeding them their four gram meal.  They stated that “MPS increased from 0 to 45 minutes after the meal and reached peak values at 45 and 90 min postprandial.”  Values then returned to baseline at 180 minutes.  Plasma leucine concentrations increased at 45 minutes after the meal and remained elevated through 300 minutes.

The data that was found in this article was leading us to think that the distribution of protein intake, especially leucine, throughout the day is an important factor to optimize muscle growth response with each meal.  Pair that with the ingestion of leucine after a workout and you have a good recipe for muscle tissue repair.

Another article from The Journal of Nutrition supports this concept.  The article Leucine Regulates Translation Initiation of Protein Synthesis in Skeletal Muscle after Exercise states that “Carbohydrates, nonessential amino acids and other essential amino acids do not have stimulatory affects on protein synthesis when compared with leucine.”  It goes on to say that, “in most cases, the combination of amino acid supplements with carbohydrates produces additive effects on the stimulation of the P13-iinase and mTOR pathways, producing the maximum rates of protein synthesis during recovery.”  If it sounds confusing (and to many people it may), the author find that carbs and nonessential amino acids won’t help with muscle growth.  But carbs and essential amino acids (leucine) will help stimulate muscle growth.

Your nonessential proteins the article mentioned was pertaining to such foods as: nuts, broccoli, beans, fruits, spinach and many dark green leafy vegetables.  Your essential amino acids (or complete proteins) are any mammal, egg or fish.  From a vegan standpoint, essential amino acids will consist of any soy product and a grain called quinoa.  You can find foods highest in leucine here: Foods highest in Leucine.

In summary, to help build muscle, repair muscle at a good rate or to gain weight proper intake of food will help as opposed to one extreme or the other.  Pre-workout and post workout nutrition are very important as well.  A good mix of carbs and protein can help you reach your goals.  Another point to bring up is the timing of these nutrients.  Many people will say that you will want to ingest a carb/protein drink a half hour to an hour pre-workout, a carb rich drink during (For example, Gatorade),  protein afterwards followed by your carb/protein meal.  Based off of current research, it’s not necessarily about how much protein but rather what kind of a mix of protein and carbs you are taking in along with when you are taking it.

Always remember that at the end of the day, you will want to do what works best for you.  I am not a nutritionist.  I base my nutritional knowledge off of research, inquiries and facts.  The responsibility of a personal trainer is to not cross that line when it comes to nutritional prescription.  Giving advice, separating fact from fiction and giving suggestions are one thing.  Writing out a meal plan for them when they don’t have the credentials to do it is another.


  1. Norton LE, Layman DK.  The Leucine Content of a Complete Meal Directs Peak Activation but Not Duration of Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Mammalian Target of Rapamycin Signaling in Rats.  The American Institute of Nutrition.  2009.
  2. Norton LE, Layman DK.  Leucine Regulates Translation Initiation of Protein Synthesis in Skeletal Muscle after Exercise.  The Journal of Nutrition.  2006; 136: S533-7.

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Vancouver Health Coach