Tag Archives: proteins

Glucose-alanine cycle

What is the glucose-alanine cycle?

The glucose-alanine cycle, or Cahill cycle, proposed for the first time by Mallette, Exton and Park, and Felig et al. between 1969 and 1970, consists of a series of steps through which extrahepatic tissues, for example the skeletal muscle, export pyruvate and amino groups as alanine to the liver, and  receive glucose from the liver via the bloodstream.
The main steps of the glucose-alanine cycle are summarized below.

  • When in extrahepatic tissues amino acids are used for energy, pyruvate, derived from the glycolytic pathway, is used as amino group acceptor, forming alanine, a nonessential amino acid.
  • Alanine diffuses into the bloodstream and reaches the liver.
  • In the liver, the amino group of alanine is transferred to α-ketoglutarate to form pyruvate and glutamate, respectively.
  • The amino group of glutamate mostly enters the urea cycle, and in part acts as a nitrogen donor in many biosynthetic pathways.
    Pyruvate enters the gluconeogenesis pathway and is used for glucose synthesis.
  • The newly formed glucose diffuses into the bloodstream and reaches the peripheral tissues where, due to glycolysis, is converted into pyruvate that can accept amino groups from the free amino acids, thus closing the cycle.

Therefore, the glucose-alanine cycle provides a link between carbohydrate and amino acid metabolism, as schematically described below.

Glucose → Pyruvate → Alanine → Pyruvate → Glucose

Glucose-Alanine Cycle
Fig. 1 – Glucose-Alanine Cycle

The glucose-alanine cycle occurs not only between the skeletal muscle, the first tissue in which it was observed, and the liver, but involves other cells and extrahepatic tissues including cells of the immune system, such as lymphoid organs.

The steps of the glucose-alanine cycle

The analysis of the steps of the glucose-alanine cycle is made considering the cycle between skeletal muscle and the liver.
Both intracellular and extracellular proteins are continuously hydrolyzed to the constituent amino acids and resynthesized, and the rate at which these processes occur is balanced precisely, thereby preventing loss of fat free mass.
However, under catabolic conditions, such as intense and prolonged exercise or fasting, the rate of muscle protein breakdown exceeds synthesis. This leads to the liberation of amino acids, some of which are used for energy and others for gluconeogenesis. And the oxidation of the carbon skeletons of amino acids, in particular branched chain amino acids or BCAA (leucine, isoleucine  and valine), may be a significant source of energy for the muscle. For example, after about 90 minutes of strenuous exercise, amino acid oxidation in muscle provides 10-15% of the energy needed for contraction.
The utilization of the carbon skeletons of amino acids for energy involves the removal of the amino group, and then the excretion of amino nitrogen in a non-toxic form.
The removal of the α-amino group occurs by transamination, that can be summarized as follows:

α-Keto acid + Amino acid ⇄ New amino acid + New α-keto acid

Such reactions, catalyzed by enzymes called aminotransferases or transaminases (EC 2.6.1) are freely reversible (see below).
Branched chain amino acids, for example, transfer the amino group to α-ketoglutarate or 2-oxoglutaric acid, to form glutamate and the α-keto acid derived from the original amino acid, in a reaction catalyzed by branched chain aminotransferase or BCAT (EC 2.6 .1.42).

The glucose-alanine cycle in skeletal muscle

In skeletal muscle, the newly formed glutamate may react with ammonia to form glutamine, for many tissues and organs, such as the brain, the major vehicle for interorgan transport of nitrogen. The reaction is catalyzed by the cytosolic enzyme glutamine synthetase (EC, and consumes an ATP.

Glutamate + NH4+ + ATP → Glutamine + ADP + Pi

In this case, glutamate leaves the Cahill cycle.
Alternatively, and in contrast to what happens in most of the other tissues, the newly formed glutamate may transfer the amino group to pyruvate, derived from glycolysis, to form alanine and α-ketoglutarate. This transamination is catalyzed by alanine aminotransferase or ALT (EC, an enzyme found in most animal and plant tissues.

Glutamate + Pyruvate ⇄ Alanine + α-Ketoglutarate

The alanine produced and that derived directly from protein breakdown, and muscle proteins are rich in alanine, can leave the cell and be carried by the bloodstream to the liver; in this way the amino group reaches the liver. And the rate at which alanine formed by transamination of pyruvate is transferred into the circulation is proportional to the intracellular pyruvate production.
Note: alanine and glutamine are the major sources of nitrogen and carbon in interorgan amino acid metabolism.

The glucose-alanine cycle in the liver

Once in the liver, a hepatic alanine aminotransferase catalyzes a transamination in which alanine, the major gluconeogenic amino acid, acts as an amino group donor and α-ketoglutarate as an α-keto acid acceptor. The products of the reaction are pyruvate, i.e. the carbon skeleton of alanine, and glutamate.

Alanine + α-Ketoglutarate ⇄ Glutamate + Pyruvate

Glutamate, in the reaction catalyzed by glutamate dehydrogenase (EC, an enzyme present in the mitochondrial matrix, forms ammonium ion, which enters the urea cycle, and α-ketoglutarate, which can enter the Krebs cycle. This reaction is an anaplerotic reaction that links amino acid metabolism with the Krebs cycle.

Glucose-Alanine Cycle

However, glutamate can also react  with oxaloacetate to form aspartate and α-ketoglutarate, in a reaction catalyzed by aspartate aminotransferase (EC Aspartate is involved in the formation of urea as well as in the synthesis of purines and pyrimidines.

Glutamate + Oxaloacetate ⇄ Aspartate + α-Ketoglutarate

Also the pyruvate produced may have different metabolic fates: it can be oxidized for ATP production, and then leave the glucose-alanine cycle, or enter the gluconeogenesis pathway, and thus continue in the cycle.
The glucose produced is released from the liver into the bloodstream and delivered to various tissues that require it, as the skeletal muscle, in which it is used for pyruvate synthesis. In turn, the newly formed pyruvate may react with glutamate, thus closing the cycle.


As previously mentioned, the removal of the amino group from amino acids occurs through transamination (see above for the general reaction). These reactions are catalyzed by enzymes called aminotransferases or transaminases.
They are cytosolic enzymes, present in all cells and particularly abundant in the liver, kidney, intestine and muscle; they require pyridoxal phosphate or PLP, the active form of vitamin B6 or pyridoxine, as a coenzyme, which is tightly bound to the active site.
In transamination reactions, the amino group of free amino acids, except of threonine and lysine, is channeled towards a small number of α-keto acids, notably pyruvate, oxaloacetate and α-ketoglutarate.
Cells contain different types of aminotransferases: many are specific for α-ketoglutarate as α-keto acid acceptor, but differ in specificity for the amino acid, from which they are named. Examples are the aforementioned alanine aminotransferase, also called alanine transaminase and glutamic pyruvic transferase or GPT, and aspartate aminotransferase or AST, also called glutamic-oxaloacetic transaminase or GOT.
It should be underlined that there is no net deamination in these reactions, no loss of amino groups, as the α-keto acid acceptor is aminated and the amino acid deaminated.

Functions of the glucose-alanine cycle

This cycle has various functions.

  • It transports nitrogen in a non-toxic form from peripheral tissues to the liver.
  • It transports pyruvate, a gluconeogenic substrate, to the liver.
  • It removes pyruvate from peripheral tissues.  This leads to a higher production of ATP from glucose in these tissues. In fact, the NADH produced during glycolysis can enter the mitochondria and be oxidized through oxidative phosphorylation.
  • It allows to maintain a relatively high concentration of alanine in hepatocytes, sufficient to inhibit protein degradation.
  • It may play a role in host defense against infectious diseases.

Finally, it is important to underline that there is no net synthesis of glucose in the glucose-alanine cycle.

Energy cost of the glucose-alanine cycle

Like the Cori cycle, also the glucose-alanine cycle has an energy cost, equal to 3-5 ATP.
The part of the cycle that takes place in peripheral tissues involves the production of 5-7 ATP per molecule of glucose:

  • 2 ATP are produced by glycolysis;
  • 3-5 ATP derive from NADH/FADH2 (see below).

Instead in the liver, gluconeogenesis and the urea cycle cost 10 ATP:

  • 6 ATP are consumed in the during gluconeogenesis per molecule of glucose synthesized;
  • 4 ATP are consumed in the urea cycle per molecule of urea synthesized.

The glucose-alanine cycle, like the Cori cycle, shifts part of the metabolic burden from extrahepatic tissues to the liver. However, the energy cost paid by the liver is justified by the advantages that the cycle brings to the whole body, as it allows, in particular conditions, an efficient breakdown of proteins in extrahepatic tissues (especially skeletal muscle), which in turn allows to obtain gluconeogenic substrates as well as the use of amino acids for energy in extrahepatic tissues.

Similarities and differences between glucose-alanine cycle and Cori cycle?

There are some analogies between the two cycles, which are listed below.

  • The Cahill cycle partially overlaps the Cori cycle when pyruvate is converted to glucose and the monosaccharide is transported to extrahepatic tissues, in which it is converted again to pyruvate via the glycolytic pathway.
  • The entry into gluconeogenesis pathway is similar for the two cycles: both alanine and lactate are converted to pyruvate.
  • Like the Cori cycle, the glucose-alanine cycle occurs between different cell types, unlike metabolic pathways such as glycolysis, Krebs cycle or gluconeogenesis that occur within individual cells
Glucose-Alanine Cycle
Fig. 2 – Glucose-Alanine Cycle and Cori Cycle

Below, some differences between the two cycles.

  • The main difference concerns the three carbon intermediate that from peripheral tissues reach the liver: lactate in the Cori cycle, and alanine in the glucose-alanine cycle.
  • Another difference concerns the fate of the NADH produced by glycolysis in peripheral tissues.
    In the Cori cycle, the coenzyme acts as reducing agent to reduce pyruvate to lactate, in the reaction catalyzed by lactate dehydrogenase (EC
    In the glucose-alanine cycle, this reduction does not occur and the electrons of NADH can be transported into the mitochondria via the malate-aspartate and glycerol 3-phosphate shuttles, generating NADH, the first shuttle, and FADH2, the other shuttle. And the yield of ATP from NADH and FADH2 is 2.5 and 1.5, respectively.
  • Finally, from the previous point, it is clear that, unlike the Cori cycle, the Cahill cycle requires the presence of oxygen and mitochondria in the peripheral tissues.

Berg J.M., Tymoczko J.L., and Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th Edition. W. H. Freeman and Company, 2002

Felig P., Pozefsk T., Marlis E., Cahill G.F. Alanine: key role in gluconeogenesis. Science 1970;167(3920):1003-4 [Abstract]

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Lecker S.H., Goldberg A.L. and Mitch W.E. Protein degradation by the ubiquitin–proteasome pathway in normal and disease states. J Am Soc Nephrol 2006;17(7):1807-19 [PDF]

Mallette L. E., Exton J. H., and Park C. R. Control of gluconeogenesis from amino acids in the perfused  rat liver. J Biol Chem 1969;244(20):5713-23 [PDF]

Nelson D.L., M. M. Cox M.M. Lehninger. Principles of biochemistry. 4th Edition. W.H. Freeman and Company, 2004

Raju S.M., Madala B. Illustrated medical biochemistry. Jaypee Brothers Publishers, 2005 [Google eBooks]

Wu G. Amino acids: biochemistry and nutrition. CRC Press, 2013 [Google eBooks]

Gluten: definition, structure, properties, wheat, cereal list

What is gluten?

Fig. 1 – Wheat

Gluten is not a single protein but a mixture of cereal proteins, about 80% of its dry weight (for example gliadins and glutenins in wheat grains), lipids, 5-7%, starch, 5-10%, water, 5-8%, and mineral substances, <2%.
It forms when components naturally present in the grain of cereals, the caryopsis, and in their flours, are joined together by means of mechanical stress in aqueous environment, i.e. during the formation of the dough.
The term is also related to the family of proteins that cause problems for celiac patients (see below).
Isolated for the first time in 1745 from wheat flour by the Italian chemist Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, it can be extracted from the dough by washing it gently under running water: starch, albumins and globulins, that are water-soluble, are washed out, and a sticky and elastic mass remains, precisely the gluten (it means glue in Latin).

Cereals containing gluten

It is present in:

  • wheat, such as:

durum wheat (Triticum durum); groats and semolina for dry pasta making are obtained from it;
common wheat or bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), so called because it is used in bread and fresh pasta making, and in bakery products;

  • rye (Secale cereale);
  • barley (Hordeum vulgare);
  • spelt, in the three species:

einkorn (Triticun monococcum);
emmer (Triticum dicoccum Schrank);
spelta (Triticum spelta);

  • khorasan wheat (Triticum turanicum); a variety of it is Kamut®;
  • triticale (× Triticosecale Wittmack), which is a hybrid of rye and common wheat;
  • bulgur, which is whole durum wheat, sprouted and then processed;
  • seitan, which is not a cereal, but a wheat derivative, also defined by some as “gluten steak”.

Given that most of the dietary intake of gluten comes from wheat flour, of which about 700 million tons per year are harvested, representing about 30% of the global cereal production, the following discussion will focus on wheat gluten, and mainly on its proteins.

Note: the term gluten is also used to indicate the protein fraction that remains after removal of starch and soluble proteins from the dough obtained with corn flour: however, this “corn gluten” is “functionally” different from that obtained from wheat flour.

Cereal grain proteins

Fig. 2 – Cereal Grain Proteins

The study of cereal grain proteins, as seen, began with the work of Beccari. 150 years later, in 1924, the English chemist Osborne T.B., which can rightly be considered the father of plant protein chemistry, developed a classification based on their solubility in various solvents.
The classification, still in use today, divides plant proteins into 4 families.

  • Albumins, soluble in water.
  • Globulins, soluble in saline solutions; for example avenalin of oat.
  • Prolamins, soluble in 70% alcohol solution, but not in water or absolute alcohol.
    They include:

gliadins of wheat;
zein of corn;
avenin of oats;
hordein of barley;
secalin of rye.

They are the toxic fraction of gluten for celiac patients.

  • Glutelins, insoluble in water and neutral salt solutions, but soluble in acidic and basic solutions.
    They include glutenins of wheat.

Albumins and globulins are cytoplasmic proteins, often enzymes, rich in essential amino acids, such as lysine, tryptophan and methionine. They are found in the aleurone layer and embryo of the caryopsis.
Prolamins and glutelins are the storage proteins of cereal grains. They are rich in glutamine and proline, but very low in lysine, tryptophan and methionine. They are found in the endosperm, and are the vast majority of the proteins in the grains of wheat, corn, barley, oat, and rye.
Although Osborne classification is still widely used, it would be more appropriate to divide cereal grain proteins into three groups: structural and metabolic proteins, storage proteins, and defense proteins.

Wheat gluten proteins

Proteins represent 10-14% of the weight of the wheat caryopsis (about 80% of its weight consists of carbohydrates).
According to the Osborne classification, albumins and globulins represent 15-20% of the proteins, while prolamins and glutelins are the remaining 80-85%, composed respectively of gliadins, 30-40%, and glutenins, 40-50%. Therefore, and unlike prolamins and glutelins in the grains of other cereals, gliadins and glutenins are present in similar amounts, about 40%.
Technologically, gliadins and glutenins are very important. Why?
These proteins are insoluble in water, and in the dough, that contains water, they bind to each other through a combination of intermolecular bonds, such as:

  • covalent bonds, i.e. disulfide bridges;
  • noncovalent bonds, such as hydrophobic interactions, van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonds, and ionic bonds.

Thanks to the formation of these intermolecular bonds, a three-dimensional lattice is formed. This structure entraps starch granules and carbon dioxide bubbles produced during leavening, and gives strength and elasticity to the dough, two properties of gluten widely exploited industrially.
In the usual diet of the European adult population, and in particular in Italian diet that is very rich in derivatives of wheat flour, gliadin and glutenin are the most abundant proteins, about 15 g per day. What does this mean? It means that gluten-free diet engages celiac patients both from a psychological and social point of view.

Note: the lipids of the gluten are strongly associated with the hydrophobic regions of gliadins and glutenins and, unlike what you can do with the flour, they are extracted with more difficulty (the lipid content of the gluten depends on the lipid content of the flour from which it was obtained).

Gliadins: extensibility and viscosity

Fig. 3 – Wheat Grain Proteins

Gliadins are hydrophobic monomeric prolamins, of globular nature and with low molecular weight. On the basis of electrophoretic mobility in low pH conditions, they are separated into the following types:

  • alpha/beta, and gamma, rich in sulfur, containing cysteines, that are involved in the formation of intramolecular disulfide bonds, and methionines;
  • omega, low in sulfur, given the almost total absence of cysteine and methionine.

They have a low nutritional value and are toxic to celiac patients because of the presence of particular amino acid sequences in the primary structure, such as proline-serine-glutamine-glutamine and glutamine-glutamine-glutamine-proline.
Gliadins are associated with each other and with glutenins through noncovalent interactions; thanks to that, they act as “plasticizers” in dough making. Indeed, they are responsible for viscosity and extensibility of gluten, whose three-dimensional lattice can deform, allowing the increase in volume of the dough as a result of gas production during leavening. This property is important in bread-making.
Their excess leads to the formation of a very extensible dough.

Glutenins: elasticity and toughness

Glutenins are polymeric proteins, that is, formed of multiple subunits, of fibrous nature, linked together by intermolecular disulfide bonds. The reduction of these bonds allows to divide them, by SDS-PAGE, into two groups.

  • High molecular weight (HMW) subunits, low in sulfur, that account for about 12% of total gluten proteins. The noncovalent bonds between them are responsible for the elasticity and tenacity of the gluten protein network, that is, of the viscoelastic properties of gluten, and so of the dough.
  • Low molecular weight (LMW) subunits, rich in sulfur (cysteine residues).
    These proteins form intermolecular disulfide bridges to each other and with HMW subunits, leading to the formation of a glutenin macropolymer.

Glutenins allow dough to hold its shape during mechanical (kneading) and not mechanical stresses (increase in volume due to both the leavening and the heat of cooking that increases the volume occupied by gases present) which is submitted. This property is important in pasta making.
If in excess, glutenins lead to the formation of a strong and rigid dough.

Properties of wheat gluten

From the nutritional point of view, gluten proteins do not have a high biological value, being low in lysine, an essential amino acid. Therefore, a gluten-free diet does not cause any important nutritional deficiencies.
On the other hand, it is of great importance in food industry: the combination, in aqueous solution, of gliadins and glutenins to form a three-dimensional lattice, provides viscoelastic properties, that is, extensibility-viscosity and elasticity-tenacity, to the dough, and then, a good structure to bread, pasta, and in general, to all foods made with wheat flour.
It has a high degree of palatability.
It has a high fermenting power in the small intestine.
It is an exorphin: some peptides produced from intestinal digestion of gluten proteins may have an effect in central nervous system.

Gluten-free cereals

The following is a list of gluten-free cereals, minor cereals, and pseudocereals used as foods.

  • Cereals

corn or maize (Zea mays)
rice (Oryza sativa)

  • Minor cereals
    They are defined “minor” not because they have a low nutritional value, but because they are grown in small areas and in lower quantities than wheat, rice and maize.

Fonio (Digitaria exilis)
Millet (Panicum miliaceum)
Panic (Panicum italicum)
Sorghum (Sorghum vulgare)
Teff (Eragrostis tef)
Teosinte; it is a group of four species of the genus Zea. They are plants that grow in Mexico (Sierra Madre), Guatemala and Venezuela.

  • Pseudocereals.
    They are so called because they combine in their botany and nutritional properties characteristics of cereals and legumes, therefore of another plant family.

Amaranth; the most common species are:

Amaranthus caudatus;
Amaranthus cruentus;
Amarantus hypochondriacus.

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), a pseudocereal with excellent nutritional properties, containing fibers, iron, zinc and magnesium. It belongs to Chenopodiaceae family, such as beets.

  • Cassava, also known as tapioca, manioc, or yuca (Manihot useful). It is grown mainly in the south of the Sahara and South America. It is an edible root tuber from which tapioca starch is extracted.

It should be noted that naturally gluten-free foods may not be truly gluten-free after processing. Indeed, the use of derivatives of gliadins in processed foods, or contamination in the production chain may occur, and this is obviously important because even traces of gluten are harmful for celiac patients.

Oats and gluten

Oats (Avena sativa) is among the cereals that celiac patients can eat. Recent studies have shown that it is tolerated by celiac patients, adult and child, even in subjects with dermatitis herpetiformis. Obviously, oats must be certified as gluten-free (from contamination).


Beccari J.B. De Frumento. De bononiensi scientiarum et artium instituto atque Academia Commentarii, II. 1745:Part I.,122-127

Bender D.A. “Benders’ dictionary of nutrition and food technology”. 8th Edition. Woodhead Publishing. Oxford, 2006

Berdanier C.D., Dwyer J., Feldman E.B. Handbook of nutrition and food. 2th Edition. CRC Press. Taylor & Francis Group, 2007

Phillips G.O., Williams P.A. Handbook of food proteins. 1th Edition. Woodhead Publishing, 2011

Shewry P.R. and Halford N.G. Cereal seed storage proteins: structures, properties and role in grain utilization. J Exp Bot 2002:53(370);947-958 [Abstract]

Yildiz F. Advances in food biochemistry. CRC Press, 2009

Body fat: how to lose it and avoid regaining it

Body fat and daily caloric balance

The international scientific literature is unanimous in setting the lower limit for the daily caloric intake to 1200 kcal for women and 1500 kcal for men (adults).

Body Fat: Daily Caloric Balance
Fig. 1 – Daily Caloric Balance

To make negative the daily caloric intake, and therefore lose body fat, evaluation of actual caloric needs of the subject will be alongside:

This will make weight loss easier and protect from subsequent weight gains (body fat).
Ultimately, there must be a change in lifestyle.

Lose body fat and “miracle diets”

So, the best strategy for losing body fat is not a drastic reduction in caloric intake, nor follow constrictive or “strange” diets (such as hcg diet plan, sacred heart diet, paleo diet, Master Cleanse diet, the diet that Beyonce did, etc.) that require to eliminate or greatly reduce the intake of certain macronutrients, mostly carbohydrates.
Such conducts can be:

  • very stressful from psychological point of view;
  • not passable for long periods;
  • hazardous to health because of inevitable nutrient deficiencies.

Finally, they do not ensure that all the weight lost is only or almost only body fat and are often followed by substantial increases in body weight (weight cycling or yo-yo effect).

Body fat and excessive reduction of energy intake

An excessive reduction of energy intake means eating very little and this determines the risk, high, not to take adequate amounts of the various essential nutrients, that is, what we can’t synthesize such as vitamins, certain amino acids, some fatty acids and minerals, including e.g. calcium, essential for bone metabolism at every stage of life, or iron, used in many body functions as the transport of oxygen to the tissues. This results in a depression of metabolism and hence a reduction in energy expenditure.

Body fat and the entry in a “phase of famine/disease”

A excessive reduction in caloric intake is registered by our defense mechanisms as an “entry” in a phase of famine/disease.
The abundance of food is a feature of our time, at least in industrialized countries, while our body evolved over hundreds of thousands of years during which there was no current abundance: so it’s been programmed to try to overcome with minimal damage periods of famine. If caloric intake is drastically reduced it mimics a famine: what body does is to lower consumption, lower the basal metabolism that is consumes less and therefore also not eating much we will not get great results. It is as if a machine is lowered the displacement, it’ll consume less (our body burns less body fat).

Body fat and Carbs reduction

The elimination or substantial reduction in carbohydrate intake in the diet results in an increased intake of protein, fats and cholesterol because it will increase the intake of animal products.
In the body there are no amino acids reserves thus they are metabolized and, as a byproduct of their use, ammonia is formed and it’ll be eliminated as toxic; for this reason high-protein diets imply an extra work for liver and kidneys and also for this they are not without potential health risks.
An increased fat intake often results into an increased intake of saturated and trans fats and cholesterol, with all the consequences this may have on cardiovascular health.
What has been said so far should not induce to take large amounts of carbohydrates; this class of macronutrients should represent 55-60% of daily calories, fats 25-30% (primarily extra-virgin olive oil) and the remainder proteins: thus a composition in macronutrient that refers to prudent diet or Mediterranean Diet.

Body fat and excessive reduction in energy intake 

Whether the reduction in energy intake is excessive or even there are periods of fasting, it adds insult to injury because a proportion of free fatty mass will be lost.
Glucose is the only energy source for red blood cells and some brain areas (other brain areas can also derive energy from ketone bodies, which are a product of fatty acid metabolism) [at rest brain extracts 10% of the glucose from the bloodstream, a significant amount, about 75 mg/min., considering that its weight is about 1.5 kg]. To maintain a constant glycemia, and thus ensure a constant supply of glucose to tissues, we needs to take carbohydrates or alternatively amino acids, both easily obtained from foods.
In the case of a low or absent dietary intake of carbohydrates, whereas after about 18 hours liver glycogen, which releases glucose into circulation, depletes, body synthesizes de novo glucose from certain amino acids through a process called gluconeogenesis (actually this metabolic pathway is active even after a normal meal but increases its importance in fasting).
But what’s the main source of amino acids in the body when their dietary intake is low or absent? Endogenous proteins, and there is a hierarchy in their use that is before we consume the less important and only after the most important ones. For the first digestive enzymes, pepsin, chymotrypsin, elastase, carboxypeptidase and aminopeptidase (around 35-40 g) will be used; successively liver and pancreas slow down their synthesis activities for export proteins and unused amino acids are directed to gluconeogenesis. It’s clear that these are quite modest reserves of amino acids and it is the muscle that will undertake to provide the required amounts of amino acids that is proteolysis of muscle proteins begins.
Note: there is no absolute sequentiality in the degradation of several proteins, there is instead a plot in which, proceeding, some ways lose their importance and others will buy. So, to maintain constant glycemia the protein component of muscle is reduced, including skeletal muscle that is a tissue that represents a fairly good portion of the value of the basal metabolism and that, with exercise, can significantly increase its energy consumption: thus essential for weight loss and subsequent maintenance. It is as if the engine capacity was reduced.
One thing which we don’t think about is that heart is a muscle that may be subject to the same processes seen for skeletal muscle.
Ultimately make glucose from proteins (also food-borne) is like heat up the fire-place burning the furniture of the eighteenth century (amino acids) having available firewood (dietary carbohydrates).
Therefore, an adequate intake of carbohydrates with diet prevents excessive loss of proteins that is there is a saving effect of protein played by carbohydrates.
Mammals, and therefore humans, can’t synthesize glucose from fats.

In summary, the best way to lose body fat, that also protects against future increases, is to make negative the daily caloric balance increasing physical activity and controlling food intake, i.e. change your own lifestyle.


Cereda E., Malavazos A.E., Caccialanza R., Rondanelli M., Fatati G. and Barichella M. Weight cycling is associated with body weight excess and abdominal fat accumulation: a cross-sectional study. Clin Nutr 2011;30(6):718-23 [Abstract]

Giampietro M. L’alimentazione per l’esercizio fisico e lo sport. Il Pensiero Scientifico Editore. Prima edizione 2005

Sachiko T. St. Jeor S.T. St., Howard B.V., Prewitt T.E., Bovee V., Bazzarre T., Eckel T.H., for the AHA Nutrition Committee. Dietary Protein and Weight Reduction. A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism of the American Heart Association. Circulation 2001;104:1869-74 [Abstract] [PDF]

Strategies to maximize muscle glycogen resynthesis after exercise

Post-exercise muscle glycogen synthesis

An important energy source for working muscle is its glycogen store, whose level is correlated with the onset of fatigue.
The highly trained athlete not only has glycogen stores potentially higher but he is also able to synthesize it faster thanks to more efficient enzymes.
To synthesize glycogen it is necessary to ingest carbohydrates; but how many, which, when, and how often?

The two phases of muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise

In order to restore as quickly as possible muscle glycogen depots, it is useful to know that, as a result of training sessions that deplete muscle glycogen to values below 75% those at rest and not fasting, glycogen synthesis occurs in two phases.
To know and therefore take advantage of the biphasicity is important for those athletes who are engaged in more daily training sessions, or who otherwise have little time for recovery between a high intensity exercise and the subsequent one (less than 8 hours), in order to maximize glycogen synthesis and achieve the optimal performance during a second close exercise session.
The two phases are characterized by:

  • a different sensitivity to circulating insulin levels;
  • a different velocity.

Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: the first phase

Muscle Glycogen
Fig. 1 – Glycogen Structure

The first phase, immediately following the end of an activity and lasting 30-60 minutes, is insulin-independent, i.e. glucose uptake by muscle cell as glycogen synthesis are independent from hormone action.
This phase is characterized by an elevated rate of synthesis that however decreases rapidly if you do not take in carbohydrates: the maximum rate is in the first 30 minutes, then declines to about one fifth in 60 minutes, and to about one ninth in 120 minutes from the end of exercise.
How is it possible to take advantage of this first phase to replenish muscle glycogen stores as much as possible? By making sure that the greatest possible amount of glucose arrives to muscle in the phase immediately following to the end of exercise, best if done within the first 30 minutes.

  • What to ingest?
    High glycemic index, but easy to digest and absorb, carbohydrates.
    Therefore, it is advisable to replace foods, even though of high glycemic index, that need some time for digestion and the subsequent absorption, with solutions/gel containing for example glucose and/or sucrose. These solutions ensure the maximal possible absorption rate and resupply of glucose to muscle because of they contain only glucose and are without fiber or anything else that could slow their digestion and the following absorption of the monosaccharide, that is, they are capable of producing high blood glucose levels in a relatively short time.
    It is also possible to play on temperature and concentration of the solution to accelerate the gastric transit.
    It should be further underlined that the use of these carbohydrate solutions is recommended only when the recovery time from a training/competition session causing significant depletion of muscle glycogen and the following one is short, less than 8 hours.
  • How many carbohydrates do you need?
    Many studies has been conducted to find the ideal amount of carbohydrates to ingest.
    If in post-exercise the athlete does not eat, glycogen synthesis rate is very low, while if he ingests adequate amounts of carbohydrates immediately after cessation of exercise, synthesis rate can reach a value over 20 times higher.
    From the analysis of scientific literature it seems reasonable to state that, as a result of training sessions that deplete muscle glycogen stores as seen above (<75% of those at rest and not fasting), the maximum synthesis rate is obtained by carbohydrate intake, with high glycemic index and high digestion and absorption rates, equal to about 1.2 g/kg of body weight/h for the next 4-5 hours from the end of exercise.
    In this way, the amount of glycogen produced is higher than 150% compared to the ingestion of 0.8 g/kg/h.
    Because further increases, up to 1.6 g/kg/h, do not lead to further rise in glycogen synthesis rate, the carbohydrate amount equal to 1.2 g/kg/h can be considered optimum to maximize the resynthesis rate of muscle glycogen stores during post-exercise.
  • And the frequency of carbohydrate ingestion?
    It was observed that if carbohydrates are ingested frequently, every 15-30 minutes, it seems there is a further stimulation of muscle glucose uptake as of muscle glycogen replenishment compared with ingestion at 2-hours intervals. Particularly, ingestions in the first post-exercise hours seem to optimize glycogen levels.

Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: the second phase

The second phase begins from the end of the first, lasts until the start of the last meal before the next exercise (hence, from several hours to days), and is insulin-dependent i.e. muscle glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis are sensitive to circulating hormone levels.
Moreover, you observe a significant reduction in muscle glycogen synthesis rate: with adequate carbohydrate intake the synthesis rate is at a value of about 10-30% lower than that observed during the first phase.
This phase can last for several hours, but tends to be shorter if:

In order to optimize the resynthesis rate of glycogen, experimental data indicate that meals with high glycemic index carbohydrates are more effective than those with low glycemic index carbohydrates; but if between a training/competition session and the subsequent one days and not hours spend, the evidences do not favor high glycemic index carbohydrates as compared to low glycemic index ones as long as an adequate amount is taken in.

Muscle glycogen synthesis rate and ingestion of carbohydrates and proteins

The combined ingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free insulinotropic amino acids) allows to obtain post-exercise glycogen synthesis rate that does not significantly differ from that obtained with larger amounts of carbohydrates alone. This could be an advantage for the athlete who may ingest smaller amount of carbohydrates, therefore reducing possible gastrointestinal complications commons during training/competition afterward to their great consumption.
From the analysis of scientific literature it seems reasonable to affirm that, after an exercise that depletes at least 75% of muscle glycogen stores, you can obtain a glycogen synthesis rate similar to that reached with 1.2 g/kg/h of carbohydrates alone (the maximum obtainable) with the coingestion of 0.8 g/kg/h of carbohydrates and 0.4 g/kg /h of proteins, maintaining the same frequency of ingestion, therefore every 15-30 minutes during the first 4-5 hours of post-exercise.

The two phases of muscle glycogen synthesis: molecular mechanisms

The biphasicity is consequence, in both phases, of an increase in:

  • glucose transport rate into cell;
  • the activity of glycogen synthase, the enzyme that catalyzes glycogen synthesis.

However, the molecular mechanisms underlying these changes are different.
In the first phase, the increase in glucose transport rate, independent from insulin presence, is mediated by the translocation, induced by the contraction, of glucose transporters, called GLUT4, on the cytoplasmatic membrane of the muscle cell.
In addition, the low glycogen levels also stimulate glucose transport as it is believed that a large portion of transporter-containing vesicles are bound to glycogen, and therefore they may become available when its levels are depleted.
Finally, the low muscle glycogen levels stimulate glycogen synthase activity too: it has been demonstrated that these levels are a regulator of enzyme activity far more potent than insulin.
In the second phase, the increase in muscle glycogen synthesis is due to insulin action on glucose transporters and on glycogen synthase activity of muscle cell. This sensibility to the action of circulating insulin, that can persist up to 48 hours, depending on carbohydrate intake and the amount of resynthesized muscle glycogen, has attracted much attention: it is in fact possible, through appropriate nutritional intervention, to increase the secretion in order to improve glycogen synthesis itself, but also protein anabolism, reducing at the same time the protein-breakdown rate.

Glycogen synthesis rate and insulin (H4)

The coingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free amino acids) increases postprandial insulin secretion compared to carbohydrates alone (in some studies there was an increase in hormone secretion 2-3 times higher compared to carbohydrates alone).
It was speculated that, thanks to the higher circulating insulin concentrations, further increases in post-exercise glycogen synthesis rate could be obtained compared to those observed with carbohydrates alone, but in reality it does not seem so. In fact, if carbohydrate intake is increased to 1.2 g/kg/h plus 0.4 g/kg/h of proteins no further increases in glycogen synthesis rate are observed if compared to those obtained with the ingestion of carbohydrates alone in the same amount (1,2 g/kg/h, that, as mentioned above, like the coingestion of 0,8 g/kg/h of carbohydrates and 0,4 g/kg/h of proteins, allows to attain the maximum achievable rate in post-exercise) or in isoenergetic quantities, that is, 1.6 g/kg (proteins and carbohydrates contain the same calorie/g)

Insulin and preferential carbohydrate storage

The greater circulating insulin levels reached with the coingestion of carbohydrates and proteins (or free amino acids) might stimulate the accumulation of ingested carbohydrates in tissues most sensitive to its action, such as liver and previously worked muscle, thus resulting in a more efficient storage, for the purposes of sport activity, of the same carbohydrates.


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Daily protein requirements for athletes

Daily protein requirements and sports

Proteins Requirements
Fig. 1 – Food High in Proteins

It is now accepted by athletes, coaches and athletic trainers that proper diet is one of the cornerstones for achieving better athletic performance. Despite this widely spread assumption, many, even at the highest levels, still believe that an high protein intake is fundamental in the athlete’s diet. This opinion is not new and is deeply rooted in the imaginary of many people almost as if, eating meat, even of big and strong animals, we were able to gain their strength and vitality too.
The function of proteins as energy-supplier for working muscle was hypothesized for the first time by von Liebig in ‘800 and it is because of his studies if, even today, animal proteins, and therefore meats, are often believed having great importance in the energy balance in the athlete’s diet, despite nearly two centuries in which biochemistry and sports medicine have made enormous progress.
Really, by the end of ‘800 von Pettenkofer and Voit and, at the beginning of ‘900, Christensen and Hansen retrenched their importance for energy purposes, also for the muscle engaged  in sport performance, instead bringing out the prominent role played by carbohydrates and lipids.
Of course we shouldn’t think that proteins are not useful for the athlete or sedentary people. The question we need to answer is how many proteins a competitive athlete, engaged in intense and daily workouts, often two daily sessions (for 3-6 hours), 7/7, for more than 10 months a year, needs per day. We can immediately say that, compared to the general population, and with the exception of some sports, (see below) the recommended amount of protein is greater.

Metabolic fate of proteins at rest and during exercise

In a healthy adult subject engaged in a non-competitive physical activity, the daily protein requirements is about 0.85 g/kg desirable body weight, as shown by WHO.
Proteins turnover in healthy adults, about 3-4 g/kg body weight/day (or 210-280 g for a 70 kg adult), is slower for the muscle than the other tissues and decreasing with age, and is related to the amount of amino acids in the diet and protein catabolism.
At rest the anabolic process, especially of synthesis, uses about 75% amino acids while the remaining 25% undergoes oxidative process, that will lead to CO2 and urea release (for the removal of ammonia).
During physical activity, as result of the decreased availability of sugars, i.e. muscle glycogen and blood glucose used for energy purposes, as well as the intervention of cortisol, the percentage of amino acids destinated to anabolic processes is reduced while it increases that of amino acids diverted to catabolic processes, that is, it occurs an increase in the destruction of tissue proteins.
At the end of physical activity, for about two hours, anabolic processes remain low whereupon it occurs their sharp increase that brings them to values ​​higher than basal ones, so, training induces an increase in protein synthesis even in the absence of an increase in proteins intake.

What determines the daily protein requirements?

There are many factors to be taken into account in the calculation of the daily protein requirements.

  • The age of the subject (if, for example, he/she is in the age of development).
  • Gender: female athletes may require higher levels as their energy intake is lower.
  • An adequate carbohydrate intake reduces their consumption.
    During physical activity, glucogenic amino acids may be used as energy source directly in the muscle, after their conversion to glucose in the liver through gluconeogenesis.
    An adequate carbohydrate intake before and during prolonged exercise lowers the use of body proteins.
  • The amount of carbohydrates stored in muscles and liver (glycogen) (see above).
  • The energy intake of the diet.
    A reduced energy intake increases protein requirements; conversely, the higher energy intake, the lower the amount of protein required to achieve nitrogen balance; usually there is a nitrogen retention of 1-2 mg per kcal introduced.
    If the athlete is engaged in very hard competition/workouts, or if he requires an increase in muscle masses (e.g. strength sports) nitrogen balance must be positive; a negative balance indicates a loss of muscle mass.
    The nitrogen balance is calculated as difference between the nitrogen taken with proteins (equal to: g. proteins/6.25) and the lost one (equal to: urinary urea in 24 hours, in g., x0.56]; in formula:

Nb (nitrogen balance) = (g. protein/6.25) – [urinary urea in 24 hours, in g., x0.56)]

  • The type of competition/workouts that the athlete is doing, either resistance or endurance, as well as the duration and intensity of the exercise itself.
    Resistance training leads to an increase in protein turnover in muscle, stimulating protein synthesis to a greater extent than protein degradation; both processes are influenced by the recovery between a training and the next one as well as by the degree of training (more training less loss).
    In the resistance and endurance performances the optimal protein requirements in younger people as for those who train less time are estimated at 1.3 to 1.5 g protein/kg body weight, while in adult athletes who train more time is slightly lower, about 1-1.2 g/Kg of body weight.
    In subjects engaged in a hard physical activity, proteins are used not only for plastic purposes, which are incremented, but also for energy purposes being able to satisfy in some cases up to 10-15% of the total energy demand.
    Indeed, intense aerobic performances, longer than 60 minutes, obtain about 3-5% of the consumed energy by the oxidation of protein substrates; if we add to this the proteins required for the repair of damaged tissue protein structures, it results a daily protein demand about 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg body weight.
    If the effort is intense and longer than 90 minutes (as it may occur in road cycling, running, swimming, or cross-country skiing), also in relation to the amount of available glycogen in muscle and liver (see above), the amount of proteins used for energy purposes can get to satisfy, in the latter stages of a prolonged endurance exercise, 15% of the energy needs of the athlete.
  • The physical condition.
  • When needed, the desired weight.
    Athletes attempting to lose weight or maintain a low weight may need more proteins.

From the above, protein requirements don’t exceed 1.5 g/kg body weight, also for an adult athlete engaged in intense and protracted workouts, while if you consider the amount of protein used for energy purposes, you do not go over 15% of the daily energy needs.
So, it’s clear that diets which supply higher amounts (sometimes much higher) of proteins aren’t of any use, stimulate the loss of calcium in bones and overload of work liver and kidney. Moreover, excess proteins don’t accumulate but are used to fat synthesis.

How to meet the increased protein requirements of athletes

Protein Requirements
Fig. 2 – Road Cycling

A diet that provides 12 to 15% of its calories from protein will be quite sufficient to satisfy the needs of almost all of the athletes, also those engaged in exhausting workouts.
In fact, with the exception of some sports whose energy expenditure is low, close to that of sedentary subject (for example: shooting, or artistic and rhythmic gymnastics), athletes need a high amount of calories and, for some sports such as road cycling, swimming or cross-country skiing, it may be double/triple than that of a sedentary subject.
The increase in food intake is accompanied by a parallel increase in protein intake, because only a few foods such as honey, maltodextrin, fructose, sugar and vegetable oils are protein-free, or nearly protein-free.

Calculation of protein requirements of athletes

If you consider an energy demand of 3500 kcal/die, with a protein intake equal to 15% of total daily calories, you have:

3500 x 0.15 = 525 Kcal

As 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, you obtain:

525/4 = 131 g of proteins

Dividing the number found by the highest protein requirements seen above (1.5 g/kg body weight/day), you obtain:

131/1.5 = 87 kg

that is, the energy needs of a 87 kg athlete engaged in intense workouts are satisfied.
Repeating the same calculations for a caloric intake of 5000 , you obtain  187 g of protein; dividing it by 1.5 the result is 125 kg, that is, the energy needs of a 125 kg athlete are satisfied.
These protein intakes can be met by a Mediterranean-type diet, without protein or amino acids supplements.


Giampietro M. L’alimentazione per l’esercizio fisico e lo sport. Il Pensiero Scientifico Editore. Prima edizione 2005

Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. Report of a joint FAO/WHO/UNU expert consultation. 2002 (WHO technical report series ; no. 935) [PDF]