Whether you’re lifting weights in the gym, involved in team sports or training for an endurance event, you need to make sure you get enough protein in your diet.
Exercise of any form increases the body’s demand for protein. It helps repair, build and strengthen muscle tissue. Without sufficient protein you may be more prone to injury and poor recovery. Protein is not just for bodybuilders either – endurance athletes oxidise amino acids as an energy source over long distances so getting optimal amount is equally important for overall performance. In addition after intense training your immune system can be compromised. The amino acids found in protein form the building blocks of all the body’s cells – including the immune system. Consuming adequate protein particularly post exercise can be helpful in reducing the risk of infections.
If you’re looking to improve your body composition and lose fat, protein is your friend. Numerous studies confirm that following a high protein diet is not only effective in helping you lose fat faster but will help maintain muscle mass and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Adequate protein intake is equally important as we age. If you want to maintain your health as you get older you want to maintain your muscle. Without sufficient protein in your diet you will fail to maintain healthy muscle mass and lose muscle faster as you age.
What Exactly Is Protein?
Protein are complex molecules comprised of chains of smaller molecules known as amino acids. These are the basic building block of your body – tissues such as muscles, ligaments, skin etc are made from proteins as are hormones and enzymes. There are 21 amino acids, nine of which are ‘essential’ which means our body cannot make them and needs to obtain them from the food we eat.
How Much Do I Need?
There is much debate about the optimum amount of protein we need. The general recommendations for adults are to consume at least 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. For those training regularly the requirements are higher. Recommendations are to consume between 1.2 – 2g protein per kg of body weight per day. Protein metabolism during and after exercise is affected by sex, age and the intensity, duration and type of training. This is why there is no “one-size-fits-all” figure. For example research on women endurance runners found 1.6 g/kg/day would be an appropriate amount for optimal health and performance. This translates to around 90g protein for a 9 stone runner or 110g protein for a 11 stone runner.
If your goal is to build muscle then around 0.8-1g of protein per pound of body weight seems to be most effective (1.6-2.2g protein per kg of body weight). More than this does not seem to be result in better gains.
It’s not just the athletes that may need a higher intake of protein. Elderly people also benefit as it can help prevent sarcopenia (reduction in muscle mass) and osteoporosis. Recent studies have shown that as we get older we should be consuming at least 1-1.2g per kg body weight daily.
Type of Protein Matters
But protein is not just about quantity. Quality matters. Some protein rich foods are absorbed by the body better than others and the amino acid profiles vary. Different forms of protein also digest at different speeds. If you’re looking to get the most out of your training what you want is a protein that is absorbed readily by the body and is rich in essential amino acids, including leucine (which helps protein synthesis).
Animal proteins like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy contain good amounts of all the essential amino acids and most of what is eaten is readily utilised by the body. Whey protein is a popular post workout option and for good reason. It is digested quickly and high in essential amino acids including leucine known for its role in muscle growth and repair. In fact research has shown that a fast-digesting protein like whey is ideal post-workout.
The bottom line is that if you get plenty of fish, meat, dairy, and eggs in your diet, the chances are you will be getting your body’s protein needs. Plant proteins generally aren’t absorbed as well as animal proteins and tend to be lower in certain essential amino acids. Peas, legumes and beans (including soya products like tofu and tempeh) as well as grains like rice, quinoa and amaranth, nuts and seeds are useful plant based protein options. While it may need more thought and planning, you can still meet your protein needs with little or no animal products.
Exercise and Timing
It is often suggested that there is a tight anabolic window after exercise where you need to consume more protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and aid growth and recovery. While it is beneficial to consume protein after exercise, what is more important is to ensure that you hit your daily protein and energy requirements. That said the sooner you consume protein after exercise the better. Eating protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis whenever you eat it, but when you consume protein after a workout the effects are greater. Remember that after exercise muscle breakdown rates increase. Eating protein helps to reverse this and promote muscle repair and growth.
If building muscles is your goal, you’ll get more benefit by spreading your protein intake out among all of your meals through the day. Research shows there is a limit to how high protein synthesis rates rise from a single serving of protein (which influences muscle building). Consuming more protein in the same sitting does not appear to result in greater muscle gains. The precise amount of protein at which the muscle-building effects peak will vary from person to person but studies suggest around 30-40g. By eating protein more frequently you are more likely to keep your protein synthesis high through the day, optimising the use of protein for muscle growth and repair. While it is not as important as ensuring you are eating enough protein overall or as getting your training right, eating 4-6 servings of protein through the day may give you better results. Practically this means ensuring you include sufficient protein (20-30g) in every meal (including breakfast) and a couple of protein snacks around your training.
Another popular technique is to consume protein before bedtime. Researchers have found in a number of studies that taking protein before bed is an effective strategy to promote muscle building, recovery and repair. Casein seems particularly useful at bedtime as it is digested slowly. Dairy products like cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are naturally high in casein.
What does 20g Protein look like?
Not sure how much protein you are eating? Here’s how to get 20g protein.
3 extra large eggs
100g raw chicken breast
100g raw turkey mince
200g 0% fat Greek yogurt
120g white fish fillet
100g smoked salmon
100g lean beef mince
1 ½ cans cooked lentils
1 can baked beans
70g natural peanut butter
200g cottage cheese 90g canned tuna
Looking for an easy, healthy way to increase your protein intake? Try ONE PRO Pro Nutrition Whey Protein + Collagen (contains 23g protein per scoop) and ONE PRO Nutrition Protein Bar (contains 17g protein per bar).
Created by Nutritionist Christine Bailey.