Article 3 of 6: Protein

A basic requirement from food – for Muscle Building and Recovery– especially as it affects sports performance.

Many of us have grown up being encouraged to ‘eat your protein’ so you grow big and strong. And in the world of body builders and frequent gym goers, protein shakes are a familiar supplement taken for the same purpose; namely to build muscle and get stronger.

But is it that simple? Is it true that the more protein we eat, the stronger and more powerful we get?
Unfortunately not.

picture of various high protein foods

Some typical high protein foods

Before we delve into this – let’s have a quick look at what food sources we are talking about when we say proteins – remembering that there are very few food sources that contain only one macronutrient such as protein. In other words, most of what we eat, even if it is a natural unprocessed food, will contain some proportions of two or three of the three basic macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrate.

Obvious examples, often spoken of as if they are pure ‘protein’, are meat and fish: They are both considered high protein food sources, but they also contain fat. Chicken breast meat will contain mainly protein, very little fat and no carbohydrate – until you add breadcrumbs or a batter and fry it, when the carbohydrate and fat content will skyrocket. Eggs also have no carbohydrate and almost the same amount of protein and fat, by weight, where the egg white is pure protein. Salmon has significantly more protein than fat and again no carbohydrates. Milk, another good protein source, has (in the semi-skimmed variety), half as much fat as protein but it actually has more carbohydrate than the two put together.

In vegetarian sources of protein, such as tofu (from soya), unless fried or marinated in fats, contains more protein than fat and small amounts of carbohydrates, whereas peanuts contain twice as much fat as protein and again very little carbohydrate. Quinoa and other similarly used foods (lentils, rice, legumes) contain a far higher proportion of carbohydrates (50-60% by weight) but have a much higher protein content than fat.

Cartoon showing many of the body's needs for protein

Our need for proteins on a daily basis

Our bodies do indeed need protein to build and repair body tissue, including muscle. So, protein is an absolute essential part of our diets. Without protein we cannot grow new cells that enable babies to grow into children and children to grow into adults. Without protein we can also not repair any damaged to parts of our bodies, from illness, but also including damage to muscle tissue that always occurs when we exercise or train with weights. So, for sure, we do need protein, but can we eat as much as we like with only beneficial affects?

The answer lies in how our bodies make clever use of all the nutrients we eat. Part of this ‘cleverness’ and what is perhaps less well known, is that our bodies can also convert protein to simple sugars (carbohydrates) and use these for energy or, in the case of excess, convert them to fat. And this is just what our bodies do if we eat too much protein that is not needed for essential growth and repair work. In fact one gram of protein has the same calorific value as one gram of glucose (the simplest form of carbohydrate or sugar). In other words if you eat 10grams of protein or 10 grams of carbohydrate, you get exactly the same number of calories; namely 40 Calories.

cartoon of fat man showing the process of metabolising proteins

How proteins (and their building blocks, amino acids) are metabolised and used in the body

For this reason, it is important to get the right amount of protein, but no real benefit in getting too much. In the case of people who are trying to maintain or reduce their weight, or people suffering from pre-diabetes or diabetes type 2, simple carbohydrate rich foods such as white bread, white pasta, cakes, etc all need to be reduced or eliminated in the diet. Protein rich foods are one good alternative because, since protein is primarily used to repair or build new, cells in our bodies, it is less likely to be converted to glucose and / or fat than simple carbohydrate foods are. However, for someone who already eats sufficient protein and would like to shed excess weight, eating more protein than his or her body needs is potentially only going to allow excess to be converted to fat.

On the other hand, getting too little or not the right type of protein can be much more dangerous because it will limit our abilities to grow and repair every part of our bodies from hair, nails, skin and muscles to the more hidden parts of our bodies like brain and nerve cells, blood vessels, organs etc. In fact, without sufficient protein to maintain our bodies, they start to self destruct. The lack of sufficient good quality, affordable protein is what has been a main cause of undernourishment in developing countries and in poorer populations in the modern world.

The rule of thumb is that most people need around 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. So, if you weight 60kg, and are neither weight training hard nor a child or teenager needing to grow, you need approximately 48g of a good quality protein per day to stay healthy. If you are a body builder or a growing child, you need more, but probably not much more than 1 – 1.1g per kg of body weight. But remember – this does not mean that if you weigh 60kg, you need a chicken breast of 48g per day……. Actually, since only something like 25% of your chicken breast is protein, you would need a breast of almost 200g to meet your protein requirement for the day……. But, because it is unlikely that this is the only food containing protein that you will eat all day, you will most certainly have had much more than your necessary protein intake during that day, if you do indeed eat a 200g fillet of chicken.

The reality is that in more affluent societies, most people get sufficient or excess protein for their daily needs, especially if they eat animal sources of protein such as meat, fish and dairy products. There are of course lots of good vegetarian and vegan sources of protein such as legumes, grains, pulses, nuts etc, but the trick with these is that because many of them do not include all the constituent parts you need from a protein, you need to combine different protein containing vegetarian foods, in order to get a good quality protein rich meal. Exceptions such as quinoa and soy and buckwheat (which is a seed (like quinoa) and is related to rhubarb and not a wheat!) are complete protein sources that do not need to be combined with other protein sources. But because the protein content is far lower in plant foods than from animal sources, this has to be taken in to consideration too.

If you want to eat only plant based protein or want to understand this in greater depth, please follow this link.

If you are specifically interested in the use of protein to enhance sports performance, please continue reading.

Having recognised that protein is essential to maintaining and prolonging a healthy life, how does this relate to sports performance?

Diagram of muscle and blood vessel showing movement of amino acids in and out of muscle cells

After proteins are broken down, amino acids are transported in the blood to where they are needed eg in muscle building

Because the process of growing muscle strength and size, which includes improving aerobic fitness and muscle strength, naturally and invariably involves the destruction of some cells and the repair and rebuilding of new cells, sports people are entirely dependent on protein for the purpose of improving their athletic performance and stamina. Simply put, if your body is not carrying the essential building blocks of proteins (essential amino acids), within a reasonable time after you have completed your exercise routine or competition, it will not have the raw materials available to build up again what you have destroyed during your workout, match or race. As such, you will not achieve the muscle or stamina gain and improved performance that you would expect, from your sports activities, however hard you work at it in the gym or on the field. (If you want to understand this in terms of how proteins are built and re-built, follow this link)

Picture of muscle man eating a steak straight from the frying pan

When is the best time to eat or drink protein?

If, on the other hand, you make sure you provide your body with the necessary quantity and quality of protein after a workout, match or race, you will be giving it the building blocks necessary to repair inevitable damage and grow your muscle cells to increase muscle strength.

We discussed the necessary ‘quantity’ above, and we have addressed the fact that non-vegetarian sources of protein are both more concentrated sources of protein and they provide us with all the different essential amino acids we need. But what about protein powders, shakes and the like?

As any body builder and keen athlete knows, there are huge numbers of alternative processed, commercialised protein products on the market – advertised as necessary for the muscle building process. It would be ignorant of me to dismiss all of these out of hand, because there are practical considerations involved for top performing body builders and athletes that require significant amounts of protein ‘in the field’ as it were, where grilling a steak or boiling eggs, or indeed eating a vast quantity of quinoa, simply is not practical. However, for most of us, who have easy access to natural, unprocessed foods containing protein as well as other nutrients, it is unlikely if not impossible to imagine that we cannot get sufficient and better quality nutrition, and thereby fewer chemical additives and enough protein, by planning our meals around eating natural high protein containing foods.

Picture of very different body shaped athletes

Even amongst athletes, body shape, size and composition varies enormously

Needs vary enormously based on body size, weight, type (muscle mass) and type and duration of exercise, so there is no ‘one size fits all’, but the principle is the same for all of us: When we perform strength building exercise or tax our muscles over a period of time, we need protein to rebuild and repair them afterwards.

For more information, for assistance with food choices and combining ideas or to discuss your specific needs, please contact me. I would be delighted to hear from you.

For further information about vegetarian and vegan proteins for sports performance and recovery, please follow this link.