1

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Human breast milk: Low protein ratio but great for growing babies?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created July 26, 2011 at 7:56 PM

I have been lifting weights recently so protein and growth have been on my mind.

I was reading about the composition of human breast milk ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_breast_milk#Composition ). I was a bit surprised because it doesn't have as much protein as I thought it would since babies grow so fast during the breast-feeding stage. What implications might this have for an adult seeking to build muscle?

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on January 17, 2012
at 03:18 AM

Did you miss the part where I said simple explanation and "not totally accurate". Sometimes you just need a simple model to get the basic idea.

1c67bc28f4e44bbb8770b86df0463df3

(6719)

on January 17, 2012
at 12:46 AM

Protein does not 'fill up the muscles', it IS the muscle about 90 grams out of 454, water/glucose/glycogen/fat/trace elements make up the rest of the 75% of 1lb of muscle that 'fill it'.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on July 27, 2011
at 04:21 AM

Or, even better, fatty meats...

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on July 27, 2011
at 03:29 AM

"Misguided bodybuilders" is right, there is a definitely limit to how much protein is useful and it actually becomes counterproductive at a point

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on July 27, 2011
at 03:28 AM

Ah. It is a bit complex because while Paul is right that there isn't a whole lot of need for protein in muscles, there are better and worse amino acids for muscle growth and more of some amino acids produces better results. Ingesting large amounts of protein will provide more of the useful ones, particularly leucine, which ramps up the pathways involved in muscle synthesis better than any other amino acid. At the same time too much protein is bad for testosterone levels, pretty much all of the time lower protein intakes amount to more T than higher protein intakes. It's a fine balance.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 27, 2011
at 03:23 AM

and I sincerely doubt an American eating animal products would have similar problems since most eating products we eat have plenty of fat. I'd really worry about a low carb pregnant woman reliant mainly on chicken breast and fish. The negative effects would be mild though, perhaps a lower birth weight and perhaps a little bit a cognitive impairment, but scientists aren't sure how much.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 27, 2011
at 03:19 AM

an example of too high would mean a hunter-gatherer reliant mainly on lean game without a reliable source of fat or carbs.

Ede6029838b9d17195c84bab64a5d88d

(181)

on July 27, 2011
at 02:56 AM

All pregnant women I know who consumed lots of animal products and plenty of protein remained pretty healthy. Babies were healthy as well. There were no signs of toxicity whatsoever.

D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 27, 2011
at 02:43 AM

@Ms Raccoon - I wasn't making any statement regarding the value of meat, which I do agree is beneficial apart from protein. I was more focused on the issue of even for a given protein source (say beef), what is the level of protein intake required for muscular development and/or maintenance. Melissa's comment regarding vegan protein is really a different topic since we would be comparing apples and oranges then.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on July 27, 2011
at 02:19 AM

Meat is useful for reasons other than the pure amino acids. Creatine, carnosine, etc. If people put on muscle with more meat perhaps it is those nutrients and not total protein

D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 27, 2011
at 02:06 AM

@Melissa - I agree. Given my dietary background, I have never been wasting away and am as strong as most of my meat eating friends when adjusted for height/weight. Perhaps there is some strong confirmation bias, but I'll own it!

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 27, 2011
at 02:04 AM

there are a few raw vegan bodybuilders who have low-protein diets and big muscles

D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 27, 2011
at 01:56 AM

@Jesse - Good question. I don't know. I guess since both my Olympic dreams and Mr Olympia dreams have faded, I've stopped worrying about it. I do understand that for some people performance is an important consideration, but I'm an old fart that just needs to be strong enough to carry the groceries, my daughter, and laptop bag to work :-)

Ffbae451fdea9352a40cf7176c2c29f5

(143)

on July 27, 2011
at 01:44 AM

This article has a great description of many of the details involved. One question I would have is what is the distinction between 'muscle-building' athletes and weight training athletes that have already built the majority of their muscle mass. The length of muscle building periods for adults are over-estimated, in my opinion.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 27, 2011
at 12:33 AM

You've forgotton something. The simple explanation you propose completely ignores the fact that the main nutrient in milk is carbohydrates. Babies would not survive on fat, cholesterol and protein alone. Not even paleo babies.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 26, 2011
at 10:51 PM

I don't drink milk, but I eat a fair amount of dairy. If I want protein I eat cheese.

C4134ed417dbc0a6b79ab2cee32632d3

(1811)

on July 26, 2011
at 08:10 PM

Babies aren't adults. We're a carrying species, not a cache, therefore breast milk can be low in protein as we feed our children (very) often.

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6 Answers

8
510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on July 26, 2011
at 08:56 PM

Protein is but one building block. A simple explanation (not totally accurate, but gets the point across) is that protein "fills up the muscles". That is, a weightlifter doesn't really make new muscle cells (no one does), the protein just makes them bigger and stronger. A growing baby is actually making new cells (and quite rapidly), and the building blocks of cells (cell walls) are primarily saturated fat and cholesterol, which breast milk is quite rich in.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 27, 2011
at 12:33 AM

You've forgotton something. The simple explanation you propose completely ignores the fact that the main nutrient in milk is carbohydrates. Babies would not survive on fat, cholesterol and protein alone. Not even paleo babies.

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on January 17, 2012
at 03:18 AM

Did you miss the part where I said simple explanation and "not totally accurate". Sometimes you just need a simple model to get the basic idea.

1c67bc28f4e44bbb8770b86df0463df3

(6719)

on January 17, 2012
at 12:46 AM

Protein does not 'fill up the muscles', it IS the muscle about 90 grams out of 454, water/glucose/glycogen/fat/trace elements make up the rest of the 75% of 1lb of muscle that 'fill it'.

5
9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 26, 2011
at 08:41 PM

Anthropologist John D. Speth has written a lot on the issue of protein. The protein needs for a fetus and an infant, and even gestating mother, are surprisingly low and higher levels of protein might even be toxic. Pregnant hunter-gatherer women generally eat low-protein diets. Goes to show that our association with protein and growth is not as neat as it seems. It als goes to show that life stage matters quite a bit in human nutritional needs.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 27, 2011
at 03:23 AM

and I sincerely doubt an American eating animal products would have similar problems since most eating products we eat have plenty of fat. I'd really worry about a low carb pregnant woman reliant mainly on chicken breast and fish. The negative effects would be mild though, perhaps a lower birth weight and perhaps a little bit a cognitive impairment, but scientists aren't sure how much.

Ede6029838b9d17195c84bab64a5d88d

(181)

on July 27, 2011
at 02:56 AM

All pregnant women I know who consumed lots of animal products and plenty of protein remained pretty healthy. Babies were healthy as well. There were no signs of toxicity whatsoever.

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 27, 2011
at 03:19 AM

an example of too high would mean a hunter-gatherer reliant mainly on lean game without a reliable source of fat or carbs.

5
D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 26, 2011
at 08:08 PM

This is covered in Perfect Health Diet. Here is one article for you from the blog - http://perfecthealthdiet.com/?p=2712

This was, in part, their basis for 20% carbs, 15% protein, 65% fat. For adults they essentially double the protein and take half the carbs in breast milk as one way to "justify" their optimal levels. There were other aspects of their ratio justification in the book.

I have posted this before here on PH - I think most people overestimate their protein requirements. The answer your question is one does not need nearly as protein as conventional wisdom suggests. The old 1 g/lb bodybuilder mantra seems to die a hard death like the Diet-Heart Hypothesis.

EDIT - Page 9 in PHD covers this in "Human Breast Milk and the Adult Diet" section - "How will the optimal adult diet differ from an infant's? The brain is the body's primary consumer of carbs, and the brain accounts for 50% of calorie consumption in infants, but only 20%...in adults. Since adults require less than half the carbs that infants do, the optimal adult carb intake is likely about 20% of total calories rather than the 39% of infants. Starting from human like ratios (39%C, 54%F, 7%P), and changing half the carb calories to fat and protein, we get a ratio of 20% carb - 64% fat - 16% protein.

Other quotes from the book on Page 24

  • Except for some protein deficient vegans and misguided bodybuilders, almost everyone eats a healthy amount of protein
  • Only a few - very few! - protein calories can support rapid muscle growth. The protein content of muscle is 16.4%, so adding 26 pounds of muscle per year requires only 5 gms (20 calories) of protein per day [Aravind editoral - this one has me a bit vexed]
  • In the normal range of protein intake, controlled trials have not been able to detect any additional muscle gains from higher protein consumption

I am NOT vehemently asserting that PHD is the gospel, just giving you a relatively popular Paleo source for your consideration.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on July 27, 2011
at 02:19 AM

Meat is useful for reasons other than the pure amino acids. Creatine, carnosine, etc. If people put on muscle with more meat perhaps it is those nutrients and not total protein

D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 27, 2011
at 02:06 AM

@Melissa - I agree. Given my dietary background, I have never been wasting away and am as strong as most of my meat eating friends when adjusted for height/weight. Perhaps there is some strong confirmation bias, but I'll own it!

D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 27, 2011
at 01:56 AM

@Jesse - Good question. I don't know. I guess since both my Olympic dreams and Mr Olympia dreams have faded, I've stopped worrying about it. I do understand that for some people performance is an important consideration, but I'm an old fart that just needs to be strong enough to carry the groceries, my daughter, and laptop bag to work :-)

9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on July 27, 2011
at 02:04 AM

there are a few raw vegan bodybuilders who have low-protein diets and big muscles

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on July 27, 2011
at 03:29 AM

"Misguided bodybuilders" is right, there is a definitely limit to how much protein is useful and it actually becomes counterproductive at a point

Ffbae451fdea9352a40cf7176c2c29f5

(143)

on July 27, 2011
at 01:44 AM

This article has a great description of many of the details involved. One question I would have is what is the distinction between 'muscle-building' athletes and weight training athletes that have already built the majority of their muscle mass. The length of muscle building periods for adults are over-estimated, in my opinion.

D1c02d4fc5125a670cf419dbb3e18ba7

on July 27, 2011
at 02:43 AM

@Ms Raccoon - I wasn't making any statement regarding the value of meat, which I do agree is beneficial apart from protein. I was more focused on the issue of even for a given protein source (say beef), what is the level of protein intake required for muscular development and/or maintenance. Melissa's comment regarding vegan protein is really a different topic since we would be comparing apples and oranges then.

Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on July 27, 2011
at 03:28 AM

Ah. It is a bit complex because while Paul is right that there isn't a whole lot of need for protein in muscles, there are better and worse amino acids for muscle growth and more of some amino acids produces better results. Ingesting large amounts of protein will provide more of the useful ones, particularly leucine, which ramps up the pathways involved in muscle synthesis better than any other amino acid. At the same time too much protein is bad for testosterone levels, pretty much all of the time lower protein intakes amount to more T than higher protein intakes. It's a fine balance.

3
93f44e8673d3ea2294cce085ebc96e13

(10502)

on July 26, 2011
at 10:24 PM

Babies aren't simply small, scaled down versions of adults.

1
E5c7f14800c5992831f5c70fa746dc5c

(12857)

on July 26, 2011
at 10:15 PM

It might be low in protien but babies still get around 2g protien/kg of bodyweight which also seems to work quite well for athletes.

0
D226a3fd05d4962db607e352256d36d9

on July 26, 2011
at 08:10 PM

You're right, milk isn't a good idea. Babies develop primarily because of the hormones and fat in milk, not protein. Milk for adults is completely unnecessary and even damaging; stick to quality lean meat for your protein needs.

For more info on cutting out dairy: http://whole9life.com/2009/07/dairy-manifesto/

Medium avatar

(10611)

on July 26, 2011
at 10:51 PM

I don't drink milk, but I eat a fair amount of dairy. If I want protein I eat cheese.

100fd85230060e754fc13394eee6d6f1

(18706)

on July 27, 2011
at 04:21 AM

Or, even better, fatty meats...

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