PROTEIN BASICS - Everything you need to know.
You understand that protein is vital for your body, but how much do you REALLY know about protein? If you use it more than you understand it, it’s time to fill the gap.
Protein is the “word you heard” if you hang around the gym for longer than 3 minutes, so you already know that your body needs it. But where do you get it from? How do you take it? Which type is best? Can It help you lose weight? Does it regrow hair? Can it bring back Arrested Development...
Most of these questions will be answered as we delve deep into the topic of protein.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Protein makes up around 15% of our body weight, making it the second most abundant source in our body, next to water. It’s just about everywhere from our hair, bones, cartilage, skin, blood, and of course, our muscles. It aids our immune system, it regenerates tissue, and helps with the function of our internal organs.
You’re already aware that protein is one of the macronutrients that your body needs for normal and healthy living: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Our body can store excess fat and carbohydrates, but we have no reserves of protein lying around ready for our body to use.
We have to ingest the protein we need, because our body will immediately break it down into the amino acids that it uses for protein synthesis. Not eating enough protein puts your body in a Catabolic State - breaking down your muscle tissue to access amino acids that it’s not getting through your diet. More on amino acids in a minute.
BENEFITS OF PROTEIN
Your body breaks down the protein you ingest into the amino acids we need to build muscle tissue along with hair, skin, blood, cell walls, and many other parts of your body. To do that, it requires energy to break it apart. More energy is required to break apart 1g of protein than 1g of fat or carbohydrates. You actually burn energy when you break down protein.
But be careful, because if you’re not consuming enough carbohydrates, your body will break apart your muscle tissue to get the energy needed to synthesise the protein you’ve eaten. A nasty circle if you’re trying to build muscle mass.
Protein also takes longer to digest so you end up feeling fuller longer. The technical term is “satiety”, and if you want to curb your appetite, eating a healthy amount of protein releases the hormones that signal to your brain that you’re full.
When your body breaks apart the protein you eat, it’s seeking out amino acids. These are the building blocks your body uses to create just about everything inside of you. Amino acids make up the cell structure, they transport and store nutrients, they remove waste, and repair and rebuild tissue.
There are 20 amino acids your body needs, 11 of which it can produce itself. These are non-essential amino acids. The other 9 are essential amino acids, only found in the food we eat or the supplements we take.
We can think about the protein we eat as Complete or Incomplete.
Complete proteins contain all the amino acids our body needs. Most animal-sourced proteins are complete. Incomplete proteins don’t have all the amino acids, and most plant-based proteins are incomplete, meaning you may need to eat a variety of plant-based proteins to get same, balanced results.
SOURCES OF PROTEIN
When we talk about getting protein, there are three main sources of protein that can fulfill your body’s needs: animals, certain plants, and supplements. To understand which protein is best to eat, we measure the protein we have by its Biological Value, or BV. The higher the BV, the better your body can use it to break down into usable amino acids and build lean muscle.
Most of the protein with the highest BV levels are animal-sourced. The highest rated BV protein source is whole eggs, with a rating of 100. Our body can break down 96% of the protein in eggs, so we assign that as the benchmark of how we compare other foods. In comparison, chicken and poultry rates at 79, lean beef rates 69, and fish rates at 70.
Here are the best known sources of animal-based proteins to include in your balanced diet:
- Fish (salmon, trout, whiting, haddock...etc)
- Shellfish (crab, mussels, lobster, mollusks...etc)
- Lean red meat (marbled fat in meat contains saturated fats that inhibit protein synthesis)
- Poultry (Chicken, turkey, squab, pheasant...etc)
- Dairy (Milk, cheese, yoghurt)
- Eggs (eggs)
The general rule is the fewer legs it has, the better source of protein it is. Eggs and fish have no legs (you would hope), poultry only has two, and lean beef, pork, and sheep have four legs, rating further down the scale. Almost all animal-sourced protein is a complete protein.
Plant-based proteins are lower in quality than standard animal-based proteins. Rice has a BV index of 56 while peanuts have a BV of 55. Corn and potato both have BVs around 35, hardly an excellent source of protein on it’s own.
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soybean)
- Vegetables (Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus)
- Grains (Rice, Quinoa)
- Cereals (Wheat)
- Nuts/Seeds (Chickpeas, hummous, almonds, chia seeds)
Plant-based proteins are rarely complete, the only exception being soy-based protein. If you live a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you can still get the amino acids you need by eating the right combinations:(rice and beans, oatmeal and milk, nuts/seeds with legumes)
If you’re not getting enough protein in your food, you should be taking protein supplements to get the amino acids you need. There are three main sources for protein supplements: whey, casein, and soy. Protein supplements mainly come from milk protein, made up of 80% casein and 20% whey.
This is the most common protein supplement because it metabolises quickly making it ideal to take before and after workouts. Because most protein supplements are geared for muscle building, you’ll find whey concentrates, isolates, and hydrolysates abound in the available choices. It absorbs quickly and rapidly breaks down into amino acids that your tired muscles need. It can actually have a higher BV than any food group because it’s pure protein.
Whey Concentrate - BV 104
Of all the whey sources, this is what you’ll see most often. Whey concentrate is 80% pure whey protein, when the casein and water are micro-filtered out, you’re left with a dissolvable powder that is fully metabolised within one hour of consumption. It does contain some fats and lactose sugars in the compound.
Whey Isolate - BV 159
Whey isolate uses a process called cross-flow microfiltration to remove the fats, the lactose sugars and the cholesterol from the whey concentrate. You’re left with a 90% pure whey that your body can metabolise much more effectively than other whey proteins.
WHEY HYDROLYSATE - BV 159
In basic terms, whey hydrolysate has been predigested. Through heat treatment, the amino acids in whey hydrolysate have been broken down into the single amino acids. Normally, amino acids are bound together in chains, but whey hydrolysate is already broken down into the individual amino acid molecules. It’s very bitter in taste and is used mainly in bodybuilding supplements for muscle gains.
CASEIN - BV 77
Casein protein is the largest component of whole milk protein. It’s a slow-acting protein that takes anywhere from 3 hours to 8 hours to fully metabolise into the body for use. The best time to take casein protein is right before bed, allowing that slow trickle of protein to fill the gap while you sleep so your body doesn’t catabolise your own muscles for energy.
Soy or Pea - BV 70
If you’re lactose intolerant or you’re looking for an ethical source of protein that suits the vegan lifestyle, soy or pea-based protein supplements give you the same protein hit right after a workout. It doesn’t have the same efficacy as a milk protein supplement, but you can still get the required protein you need.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO YOU NEED?
This is where we find the meat (pun intended) of the article. This is the million dollar question. What amount of protein do you need? The answer? It depends…
To maintain a normal, healthy balance, the recommended amount is .75g/kg of bodyweight. So, if you’re a healthy 80kg male, you would need 60g of protein per day from a variety of sources. But that’s just the maintenance amount. Can protein help you achieve your fitness goals? Yes. Yes it can.
If you’re trying to lose weight, studies have demonstrated that a 30-40% protein ratio for your diet helps you feel fuller for longer. Here’s that satiety coming into effect. The recommended protein source for losing weight is 1.8-2g/kg.
If you’re very active in the gym (very active is defined as 4-5 cardio exercise sessions every week plus 2 resistance training sessions), you need to increase your body’s consumption of protein to counteract your body’s muscle catabolism. Your muscles need to repair constantly and you need to provide enough protein (as well as the necessary carbohydrates for fuel) to rebuild that muscle tissue. A healthy range for this training regime would be 1.2-2g/kg.
And if you’re into serious muscle gains, (like bodybuilding or extreme body sculpting competitions) you need massive amounts of protein to create tons of muscle mass. This only applies for serious competitors, but the standard number is 3-3.3g/kg.
WHEN TO TAKE PROTEIN?
The last question we want to cover is when to take protein. There are beneficial times to take any protein, and taking it at the wrong time could have a negative effect to the goal you're trying to achieve.
There are 4 basic times you need to think about taking protein:
After waking, pre-workout, post-workout, and right before bed.
Waking: Just out of bed? Great. Your body’s glucose levels have dropped dramatically, and you’re in danger of muscle catabolism to access energy. You need to provide a quick source of protein that stops your body from breaking down the protein in your muscles. Eggs are a good natural source of protein for the morning that digest with medium speed, but a whey supplement will dissolve and digest quickly, rebuilding your muscles within minutes of taking it.
Food Tip: Take a whey protein concentrate shake with a breakfast of eggs
Pre-Workout: Whey protein has been demonstrated to be quite effective at rebuilding muscle tissue and promoting quick muscle recovery if taken before a workout. However, it can be really tough to train hard with a stomach full of protein shake. Try at your own risk. Otherwise, a handful of nuts and seeds promote healthy muscle regrowth and won’t make you feel full.
Post-Workout: Although there is some discrepancy with the experts, most will agree that post-workout, your body craves a quick hit of protein. A whey supplement is perfect for your muscles, which have a “sponge-like” receptivity to protein and amino acids right now. While some experts advocate mixing whey with a casein blend, casein digests slowly, causing the whey to clump in your stomach and can limit that quick blast of protein you’re looking for.
Before Bed: It’s time to rest. Rest is crucial for rebuilding muscle tissue effectively. But to prevent your body from lacking the protein it’s craving the rebuild muscle, take a casein supplement right before bed. It’s slow-acting metabolisation provides a constant “drip” of amino acids to your muscle tissue. Food Tip: If you can’t take a protein shake before bed, a glass of milk is an excellent substitute.
KEY PROTEIN TAKEAWAY
And there you have it.
Protein is one of the most important tools to achieving success in and out of the gym. It triggers your body to burn fat, build muscle, and activates the hormones to build bigger muscle. Get it right and your body will be thanking you.
Credit Scitec Nutrition UK / USA