Protein is probably the most popular word in the whole fitness community, it’s mentioned in my DMs at least half a dozen times daily.
So what is protein? Let’s start there.
‘any of a class of nitrogenous organic compounds which have large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids and are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, etc., and as enzymes and antibodies’. (Collins English Dictionary)
Protein is made up of amino acids and is often called the building blocks for our bodies. Muscle tissue is an example. Protein can also be used as a backup energy source, however isn’t really an ideal source of fuel.
Now I know what you’re thinking, the more bricks and mortar you have the taller the building right? That’s not the way protein works in relation to muscle mass. You can’t assume eating X amount will mean more muscle mass. There is a limit to the amount of muscle you can build, we’ll leave that topic for another day.
The reason protein is focused on for people who exercise and athletes in particular, is because active individuals have an increased requirement for protein, both to help muscles recover and grow after bouts of exercise. Hence why it’s so closely linked to talks of muscle and bodybuilding.
Interesting things to know
You should note the daily protein range for exercising individuals.
It can be confusing how much protein you should eat daily, 1g per pound? 2g per pound? The actual range is lower. An overall daily protein intake in the range of 1.4-2.0 g protein per KG of bodyweight is sufficient for most exercising individuals. (Jager et al. ISSN, 2017). Those who choose not to eat meat and those looking for efficient fat loss may benefit from slightly more. There is some evidence out there to support more than 2g protein per KG, it certainly wouldn’t be detrimental.
You should focus on protein intake for fat loss.
If weight loss is the goal, then adding protein is perhaps the single most effective change you can make to your diet. This is because protein will help keep you satisfied (high satiety food group). It also has the highest thermogenic effect out of the macros and supports muscle mass retention which is vital to successful fat loss.
High protein diets during weight loss periods lead to larger decreases in weight, fat mass, and triglycerides, whilst maintaining muscle mass way better than lower protein diets. (Wycherley et al. 2012)
You should consider this plant-based blend.
A rice and pea protein blend is equal to if not slightly better than whey protein (see image below). It is also a good option for those of you who are lactose intolerant, whey protein isolate may be another option.
A look at whey vs a rice and pea blend (Source – shreddedbyscience.com)
You should consume your shake with a meal.
Concurrently with resistance training, consuming protein supplements with meals, rather than between meals, may more effectively promote weight control and reduce fat mass without influencing improvements in lean mass. (Nutrition Reviews, 2018)
You should know most people hit protein RDA without issues.
Nutrition reviews have been done in which they’ve found regardless of diet type everyone reached the basic RDA levels for protein with ease. The RDA in USA for protein for the average person is 0.8g protein per KG bodyweight. All diet groups in this study seemed to hit around 75g protein daily, omnivores and vegans (strict vegetarians) alike.
(Source – Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns)
Common myths around protein
You can only digest a certain amount per meal
This isn’t true. You can digest almost whatever amount of protein you decide to eat. In terms of what seems to be the maximum amount of protein you can make use of for muscle-building at one sitting (what people actually care about) it’s probably 20-40g protein or around 2g leucine. This depends on your size and age but in quite a few studies 20g of protein has been shown to almost max out muscle protein synthesis (Moore et al. 2009; Pasiakos et al. 2011).
You need to take protein shakes
You don’t. It might be in your best interest to take a shake alongside a meal for the leucine, recovery and convenience benefits however total protein for the day matters most, regardless of whether it’s from shakes or food.
You need 1g per pound of bodyweight
This technically isn’t far from being a correct amount to shoot for, but is an over simplification. One which is different to the recommended guidelines of 1.4g – 2g per KG bodyweight and one that I’ve not seen much of in my reading. 1g per pound would equate to 2.2g per KG. You may actually get some additional benefits going up to 2.2g per KG. But the vast majority of people are just fine within the range noted above.
BCAAs are needed for gains
In my opinion they’re a waste of money if you take whey protein or are an omnivore. Also they don’t seem to have an anabolic effect alone, just stick to focusing on total protein intake with or without the help of protein supplements. ‘The few studies in human subjects have reported decreases, rather than increases, in muscle protein synthesis after intake of BCAAs. We conclude that dietary BCAA supplements alone do not promote muscle anabolism’. (Wolfe, 2017). Protein supplements are not only cheaper but more effective too.
Most plant-based foods are incomplete proteins and therefore should be combined
It really isn’t as bad as made out. Even an orange contains all 9 essential amino acids, but yes it is true most plant-based foods are lower in protein quality. This is because they usually lack in one or more amino acids. But so long as you’re eating a varied diet and not an only bread diet you’ll be just fine. If you’re really concerned about amino acids or wish to learn about the numbers you’re getting you can use Cronometer (basically MyFitnessPal which also gives you further breakdowns of micronutrients and amino acids).
You need to down a shake post workout in the anabolic window
A look at whey vs plant based protein powders (Source – shreddedbyscience.com)
Firstly carbs are arguably more important post workout. The optimal shake post workout should be around a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio (carbs to protein). Secondly protein timing doesn’t really matter and downing a shake post workout won’t help with gains if daily total protein isn’t in the right range. (Schoenfeld et al. 2013).
You need some protein every few hours otherwise you lose gains
Daily total protein is the first and highest priority. Getting 1.4g – 2g protein per KG bodyweight. Breaking this up into around 4 meals has been shown to be optimal for promoting anabolism and muscle protein synthesis.
Tips for vegans and vegetarians
Because of protein quality issues vegans especially but vegetarians too have been recommended to stick to the upper end of the range (1.4g – 2g). This makes up for the quality issues.
Seeds, beans, lentils, nuts, tofu, tempeh, seitan and milks (soya and dairy) all have ample protein. Quinoa and spinach are also high quality sources. That’s before we even consider protein supplements, breads and snacks etc.
Quorn, Tofurky, Beyond meat, Linda Mcartney, Vbites and many other meat free ranges can be very useful to aid with protein requirements. Usually they’re Soya, TVP or Seitan based.
Bean based Spaghettis are amazing too with a whopping 44g per 100g (uncooked). Check out the Explore Cuisine brand and specifically the black bean spaghetti.
If you consume dairy use greek yoghurt or cottage cheese instead of normal yoghurt.
Lentils contain a whopping 26g per 100g (uncooked) plus lots of micronutrients and workout fueling carbohydrates
The things YOU NEED to take away
Protein intake is not more to grow, less to cut, it’s actually probably closer to the opposite. You need more when cutting weight to preserve muscle mass.
taking BCAAs are a waste of money for people who eat animal products or whey protein especially. They may be useful for vegans with low leucine intake.
You only need to be concerned with whether your food is complete or incomplete if that’s all you plan on eating all day. A mixed and well-balanced diet will give you all the amino acids in abundance.
Focus on total protein for the day (1.4g – 2.0g protein per KG bodyweight) and spreading that out over around 4 meals per day.
Taking protein supplements along with your meals rather than in between meals seems to be better for gains (I only realised this recently too)!
Generally aiming for 20-40g protein is ideal or muscle-building.
Being mindful of your protein source at each meal and designing your meal around that can be a useful tool for newbies to fitness and nutrition in particular.
International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19056590
Supplemental dietary leucine and the skeletal muscle anabolic response to essential amino acids. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21884134
The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24299050
Effects of energy-restricted high-protein, low-fat compared with standard-protein, low-fat diets: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23097268
Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9
Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23988511
A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/6/376
Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598028/
Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864/