Debunking Myths: Protein Needs
Time to Read
Points of Interest
- Protein and Amino Acids
- Plant Protein V Animal Protein
- Protein Requirements in your Diet
- Protein for Performance and Recovery
- Protein Types and Sources
Do you know how much protein you actually require?
Do you know what type of protein to consume, when to do so, and what happens to the excess protein from your diet?
Most people don’t, but consume protein shakes and grilled chicken breast like it’s going out of fashion!
Here is a guide, using facts and evidence, to take you through everything you need to know about protein.
Back to Basics: Protein and Amino Acids
Firstly, lets start with the basic building blocks of protein, amino acids.
There are 20 amino acids, split into 12 non-essential (NEAAs) and 8 essential (EAAs). This means that 8 amino acids cannot be produced in the body, so must be consumed via the diet.
That bright coloured drink you see people drinking at the gym? That's BCAAs, branched chain amino acids. There are 3 and they are also EAAs (isoleucine, leucine and valine). These are particularly important as just these 3 make up a third of muscle protein.
When you consume protein and the amino acids are absorbed, they tend to have 4 particular fates;
- Be used to build new proteins.
- Be oxidised to produce energy.
- Converted into glucose.
- Converted into fatty acids.
Delving Deeper: Plant Protein versus Animal Protein
True: Animal proteins are considered more complete, as they usually contain all essential amino acids. Therefore, arguably the most convenient and optimal way to consume protein.
False: Vegetarians and vegans can’t get enough protein from their diet. They can, easily!
Convenient sources of high value plant-based, or non-meat proteins are egg, soya and quinoa.
A great way to achieve a complete and high-quality plant based protein meal is to combine foods such as grains; with beans, pulses, nuts and seeds.
We do this anyway, as we don’t eat one food per meal! But this is why consuming a varied and balanced diet is so important, especially when you are omitting groups of foods from your diet.
The current recommendation for sedentary or recreational (low to moderate frequency and intensity) exercisers is 0.75g/kg. So, for a 70kg person that’s 52.5g per day. This is not a lot if you consider that 1 steak (approx. 200g) contains up to 40g protein, have yourself an egg and a handful of almonds and you’ve reached your requirement.
Requirements with exercise
The current recommendation, above, is not enough for regular exercisers. The recommendation for training is 1.2 - 2.0g / kg BW per day. This is because protein can be used as fuel and extra dietary protein is required for muscle repair and growth following exercise.
Interestingly, requirements do not increase with fitness level. A study found that experienced athletes require less protein than beginners due to adaptations and efficacy in preserving protein. So, unfortunately, requirements are not always as simple as ‘more exercise, more protein’ or ‘more protein, more muscle mass’.
Protein for Endurance training
When glycogen stores begin to run low after 60-90mins of exercise protein and fats begin to be used for fuel, especially the protein BCAAs. There is also substantial damage to muscle tissue with endurance training so protein will be required for muscle repair. Daily protein intake should be in the lower section of the above recommendation, 1.2 - 1.4g /kg BW.
Protein for strength & hypertrophy training
Think more protein means more gains? Unfortunately no, the correlation between protein consumption and muscle mass is not linear. Sorry. Excess protein is not used and stored at glycogen or fat, so make sure you are smart about how much protein you consume.
Protein break down and synthesis increase after exercise. The initial stages after exercise, muscle breakdown is substantially higher than synthesis, so consuming protein following exercise will prevent excessive muscle mass loss and encourage synthesis. Total daily protein intake should be 1.5-2.0g /kg BW, depending on the frequency and intensity of your workouts and your end goal.
Protein for weight loss
Weight loss results from a calorie deficit. To prevent lean muscle loss during this weight loss (as you only want to lose body fat), you should increase your daily protein intake. Research has suggested that 1.8 -2.7g /kg BW alongside resistance training is ideal. If you do not participate in any resistance training, reduce the amount to within the strength and hypertrophy training recommendation.
Protein is the most satiating nutrient (makes you feel full), so in theory, increasing the amount in your diet will help keep you fuller for longer and reduce cravings.
PERFORMANCE & RECOVERY
The anabolic window
True or false: You must consume your protein within 20 minutes of a workout? False!
As mentioned already, consuming protein after a workout is a good idea, for both endurance and resistance training. However, if you can’t get any protein or carbohydrates in within the hour after exercise, it’s not a disaster. Recent research has shown that this window of muscle building and recovery can last at least 24hours. This means it’s advantageous to consume consistent amounts of protein throughout the day, and to not place too much emphasis on the post workout meal. The recommendation for protein intake following a workout is 0.25g /kg BW, then equally split your remaining protein requirement equally throughout the day for meals and snacks (e.g. aiming for 0.25g /kg BW with each meal and snack).
Protein and performance
The benefits of protein on performance are little discussed, maybe because it’s best use is for recovery and muscle growth. But these can be the things that separate the amateur from the elite and the winners from the losers. There has been evidence of increased performance by 29 to 36% from consuming protein-carbohydrate drinks during exercise. Most studies have been conducted on endurance exercise, especially cycling. The recommended carbohydrate to protein ratio in drink can be 2:1 or 1:1 (e.g. 0.8 g carbohydrate /kg BW with 0.4 g protein /kg BW). You have nothing to lose by trying it out, although some studies show no effect on performance, they show reduced post exercise muscle damage. If your looking for performance improvements, try a simple carbohydrate drink during exercise, as this will prevent your body switching from muscle glycogen to protein for fuel, so will keep you going longer and minimise muscle damage.
PROTEIN TYPE AND SOURCE
High Quality Protein
Eggs, milk, meat, soybean products and quinoa, these are high quality proteins, also called high biological value / high bioavailability. They contain all EAAs and are the best type to consume after exercise. These are rapidly absorbed and the more there are in the bloodstream, the higher the rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). One amino acid in particular, leucine, can be attributed to this effect. It is an EAA and a BCAA and without it, MPS can not take place. Studies have suggested that 2-3g per meal will help optimise MPS. Whey, one of the two main proteins found in milk (the other casein), contains high amounts of leucine, which highlights why whey supplements and milk are exceptionally good for muscle building.
Foods that supply approximately 2g Leucine and 20g protein:
- 600ml milk
- 3 eggs
- 100g fish
- 17g whey powder
Protein supplements are not always necessary. Even though whey contains a lot of leucine and is a quick and easy protein source, you can get the same effects from food (see above list). There is no evidence that supplements improve performance or enhance recovery better than food sources. Food contain mixtures of amino acids, micro nutrients, minerals, fibre and so much more than an isolated whey protein drink or bar! Always try to consume whole foods, and save the shakes for the times your travelling, jam packed busy or just feeling lazy!
I hope this has set straight all the nutrition nonsense you may be seeing in the media or from the 5-a-day protein shake gym goers.
In short, eat a varied diet and spread your protein out across all meals and snacks. You don’t need to buy expensive protein shakes to get your protein in but they are convenient if short on time.
- To start, you need a goal (e.g. are you trying to gain muscle or lose weight?).
- Then you work out how much protein you actually need using the calculations above.
- Ensure you spread out your protein intake throughout the day and don’t forget about breakfast and snacks.
- Finally, try to incorporate at least 1 plant based protein meal in your week.
This will help boost fibre intake, add different phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins to your diet and not to mention add a bit of diversity to your palate and keep you engaged with your diet.
Remember, protein doesn’t have to be chicken, rice and broccoli!
OVER TO YOU
Has this blog inspired you to eat a more varied diet? Get in touch if you have found it hard to distinguish between fact and hype.