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What's In A Ratio?

By Douglas S. Kalman MS, RD

A few years back, the respected newsman Dan Rather was mugged while walking down a street in New York City. In a weird chain of events, after the mugger obtained Dan's wallet, he looked him straight in the eye and asked, "What's the frequency Kenneth?" The meaning of the question was never discovered, but it was made into a line of a hit song for the great rock band R.E.M. I ask you, the sports nutrition enthusiast, instead of getting mugged while shopping for the perfect post-workout drink, to stop and ask yourself, "What's the ratio?" For our intent, the ratio of carbohydrate to protein in a post-workout drink is as important as knowing the frequency or just what is in your wallet. Since you were a child, more than likely you were schooled to remember locker combinations, pass codes for home alarm systems and the meaning of Pi, the irrational number. Today, I ask you to start focusing on a ratio range. The ratio range that you will learn about is the key to turning on your maximal post-exercise muscle protein synthesis key (MPS). Turn on MPS and do so multiple times daily coupled with smart weight training, and new found strength and muscle gains are possible. Yup, smart nutrition and training can help get you to that next level. The Store Have you ever found yourself in a health food store or vitamin shop surrounded by the many different products, wondering which one is for you? The section of the store that appears to be growing the fastest is the one which contains the meal replacement protein shakes (MRP). Meal replacement protein drinks, or shakes, are not what they once were. Years ago all of the MRPs had the taste of rotten dried milk with bad imitation chocolate flavoring. Today, the advance in food technology has resulted in better-tasting, precision-blended, nutrition-rich shakes. For our concerns, we will not think of the MRPs as replacing a meal, but rather being useful for post-workout nutrition. However, reading the label for the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is your key to understanding what type to use. A Quick Background As in your everyday eating habits, MRPs contain carbohydrates, proteins and fat. The difference most likely is in the ratio of carbs, protein and fat. Also, as in the foods that you eat, the quality of nutrients provided in MRPs may vary product to product. This is an important fact. One of the main traits that you want in your MRP is high quality ingredients. This fact does not change with your goals (if your goal is to lose weight fast or gain muscle, you still want the best ingredients in your MRP). Thus, providing the body with an abundance of high-caliber protein and carbohydrates, healthy fats, as well as a wide array of vitamins, minerals, and other important micronutrients, is vitally important to your efforts to build a better body. The key ingredient in most MRPs is protein. As a matter of fact, a diet devoid of protein will result in malnutrition, disease and ultimately death. Scary isn't it? The reason for protein's essentiality is that it provides indispensable nitrogen to our body. Nitrogen is a basic requisite for life. As you may recall, in grade school we are all taught how the plant and human worlds interact with each other. Plants "breathe" out oxygen; we breathe oxygen in, and in return expel carbon dioxide out, which plants then breathe in. We sustain each other's life. If you are asking, how does this relate to choosing an MRP, it is simple. Another link between the human and plant kingdoms is nitrogen. Both plants and humans need nitrogen to grow and sustain life. There are many sources of protein typically used in MRPs. Each different source of protein is rated or scored for its ability to be absorbed and utilized by the body. One key to picking a good MRP is knowing that the first few sources of protein are of high quality. High quality proteins are easily absorbed and utilized by the body. Most employ derivatives of whey protein, milk protein, casein, egg protein or soy. The ranking of these popular protein sources is of mass importance. For many reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, it is sufficient to say that whey protein isolate is the "king" of all protein sources. Coming a close second is whey protein hydrolysate, third, whey protein concentrate, fourth is egg protein, fifth is casein and last (or the worst source of protein) is soy. The second macronutrient to look for in a MRP is carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are a bit easier to understand than protein and fat. In our diets, carbohydrate sources usually include pasta, rice, juice, fruits, bread, cereals and vegetables. In MRP drinks, the sources of carbohydrates typically are maltodextrin (a derivative of both corn and potatoes), fructose (fruit sugar), high fructose corn syrup (a sugar made from the combination of fruit and corn), or some other similar ingredient. In MRPs, the source of carbohydrate is not really that important. In fact, the amount of carbohydrate in a MRP only really matters under two scenarios. One, if you are looking to lose weight or are an endurance athlete. Secondly, if you are a diabetic or hypoglycemic. Then the amount of carbohydrate is an essential concern. The last macronutrient that is common in the diet is fat. Dietary fat is responsible for the good taste of many foods. We get fat in the diet through salad dressings, fried foods, nuts and seeds, whole milk and dairy products, red meat, fatty fish, and a whole host of other foods. The source of fat in the diet can greatly affect the immune system, exercise performance and health in general. Unfortunately, due to its taste and stability, the healthiest fat cannot be incorporated into a MRP, although you could still take a supplement of fish oil to help boost your omega-3 intake. However, do not despair, scientists have figured a way to incorporate flax seed oil and other healthy fats into many MRPs. Fat should not be feared, rather it should be revered and used in the diet to achieve optimal health. It is essential to understand the role of fat in an MRP. Fat can help slow the absorption of nutrients, thus allowing a greater possible absorption of vitamins and minerals from the MRP, while stabilizing the blood sugar response. In reading the food label on an MRP to help ensure that you are getting healthy fat, look for the label to list a number for poly- and monounsaturated fats, with a minimal saturated fat content. Now that the basics of "MRP" nutrition are covered, let's focus on the ratio best for growth. Ratio for Enhanced Muscle Protein Synthesis & Better Nitrogen Retention When you weight train, the body utilizes both carbohydrate and to some extent amino acids for energy. This is proven through the enhanced oxidation of amino acids (turned into carbohydrate through gluconeogenesis) during and even after exercise. Consuming amino acids (or whole intact protein) before or during exercise mitigates any wasting of your hard-earned muscle protein for energy. One study demonstrated that the ratio to look for if you want to ingest a drink during exercise is 1.25 gm protein to 1 gram carbohydrate, not to exceed 100 or 120 calories. However, most conventional supplement "protein" drinks of this nature have a 1:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrate with minimal fat. Many clinical exercise physiology studies in the genre of "muscledom" have examined different post-workout drinks and their relative effect on muscle protein synthesis or exercise performance. Mind you, the exercise performance research to date has mostly concerned itself with aerobic-type exercise (cycling, not weight lifting). A study using flavored skim milk (which is 1.5 gm carbohydrate for every 1 gram protein) found that the skim milk (when ingested post-workout) increased circulating amino acids, spared protein from being used for energy (catabolism) and helped to maintain growth hormone levels. If drinking skim milk after you workout is not appealing, look for drinks with a ratio of 1.5:1 carb to protein. Additionally, many studies have utilized a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (2 grams carb for every 1 gram protein) and collectively the results indicate enhanced growth hormone levels, better weight preservation (if performing more than one exercise bout per day, and drinking these shakes to help stave off unwanted weight loss), better protein retention in the body and increased muscle protein synthesis. Further, a handful of studies utilizing pure amino acids combined with carbohydrate (essential amino acids only) have also found that a combination of 35 grams sucrose (carbohydrate) and 6 grams essential amino acids (protein) ingested after a workout will enhance muscle protein synthesis 100% greater than carbohydrate alone. The same researchers point out that an approximate 40 gram serving of protein combined with the 35 grams of carbohydrate will or should have this same exact effect on MPS. If you are like many enthusiastic young weightlifters, seeking to gain muscle, strength and size, there are many post-workout shakes that can help you on the road to hugeness. As a former power-lifter and size coach, I can personally attest to the usefulness of post-workout shakes that have two times the amount of carbohydrate to protein, with a sprinkling of fat. Again, your answer is in the ratio range of anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1 of carbohydrate to protein. The fat content should always be minimal. Read your Nutrition Facts labels to decide which products are right for your muscles. Ratio for Weight Loss If you are looking to lose a few pounds or get in shape and are following a high protein diet, look for the protein content to be at least twice the carbohydrate, with approximately three grams of fat. For example, if the MRP has 20 grams of protein, you would want it to have a maximum of 10 grams of carbohydrate and three grams of fat (or 30 grams protein, less than 15 grams carbohydrate and 3 grams of fat). Many MRPs are now available as ready-to-drink, which makes life very easy. Some of the better MRPs are also available in single serving packets and are easy to mix. For people who are weight training with the goal of obtaining new lean mass (muscle growth), products with the aforementioned ratio may be beneficial. In addition, products that have a 1.7 to 2.0 ratio of protein to carbohydrate have remained popular. Weight loss shakes are often best used as true meal replacements and should be combined with a smart salad and/or healthy fruit. Calorie control is the best reason to use these during weight loss phases. NutriPure Supreme by ProSource is one of the highest quality MRPs available and has 42 grams of much needed protein for those on high protein diets. For those of you who are following an "Atkins" diet, a "Zone Diet" or the new "South Beach Diet", MRPs also exist that can help you stay on course. Even the 40-30-30 powders (40% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 30% fat) are delicious, easy to purchase and fit nicely into weight control programs. Labrada Nutrition and other companies have taken the guesswork out of choosing an MRP to use while following their programs. Just look for their name on the product and give it a try. Muscle Convenience Unfortunately, in this hectic world we find ourselves in, it's sometimes difficult, even for the most dedicated people, to find the time to shop for foods, prepare healthy meals, and eat on the run. Thus, if you are looking to lose weight, tone up, gain muscle or even run a marathon, there is an MRP that is right for you. These post-workout shakes are now available in ready-to-drink formats or can be made with a blender. They take the guesswork out of what to eat or drink, and help you key in on two things for your success -- the carbohydrate to protein ratio and timing of intake. Aim for at least one shake after you workout (within a 45 minute window) and one some other time of the day for insurance purposes. Small meals throughout the day which contain protein actually also enhance muscle protein synthesis. Thus it is wise to eat four to six small meals and to have your post-workout shake. Bottoms up! Douglas S. Kalman MS, RD is a Director in the Nutrition and Endocrinology Department of Miami Research Associates ( and contributes to the ProSource Forum.