Let’s Talk about Protein……

Protein is a topic we get questions about on a daily basis. What is it? Where do I get it from? How much do I need? Do I need to take protein supplements? In this article we aim to look at what the research says, the practical application, dispel any myths and hopefully by the end we will have answered all of your questions.

What is protein?

Protein is much more than the piece of chicken on your plate or scoop of powder in your shaker. As well as being an important macronutrient in the diet, protein is also involved in bodily structures, function and regulation of metabolic processes.

Protein makes up part of muscle tissue, internal organs, tendons, skin, hair & nails. It is necessary for growth and repair of body tissue. It is required to make enzymes, antibodies, neurotransmitters and hormones. It has a role in blood clotting, transporting oxygen around the body and maintaining optimal fluid balance. In a fasted stated, or when insufficient carbohydrates are present, protein can also be used an energy source.

In addition to all that, protein is also important for promoting satiety, meaning it can keep you feeling fuller for longer. This is important if you are trying to lose or manage your weight. You may have heard talk about the thermic effect of food, and how protein burns more calories than carbohydrates or fats. This will be covered in a separate article looking at the components of energy expenditure.

What are amino acids?

Proteins are large molecules made up of long chains of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are 20 different amino acids. 8 of these are essential for adults, meaning we cannot synthesise them in the body and so have to get them from our diet. You don’t need to worry about eating essential and nonessential amino acids at every meal. Instead focus on eating a wide variety of foods and getting a balance over the day.

Protein & muscle building

If you are reading this you are probably a current exerciser or thinking about starting an exercise programme. Your goal may be to change your body composition. It is important to remember that eating protein alone is not enough to build muscle. Muscle needs a stimulus to grow, and this is achieved with a properly planned weight/resistance training programme. If you need individual advice or are nervous about starting to train with weights speak to a qualified Personal Trainer. For more information on our Group Personal Training sessions click here or drop us a message via the contact box on the homepage.

Also remember that other factors such as total calories, carbohydrate intake, rest & recovery, age, gender, years of training, training volume, training intensity, progressive overload and programme design will also affect your ability to build muscle and get stronger.

How much protein do you need?

The recommended daily amount (RDA) for protein is 0.8g per kg of body weight per day. It is important highlight however that this figure is to set to prevent deficiency in the majority of the population. It is not considered optimal, especially in the context of exercise and fitness where higher protein intakes are required. There is now good rationale for recommending daily protein intakes that are well above the RDA to maximise metabolic adaptation to training (Philips, 2012).

It is the position of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), 2017, that the majority of exercising individuals should consume a minimum of 1.4-2.0g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day to optimise exercise training induced adaptations.

1.5g protein per kg of body weight per day is a good starting point for both men and women.

So if you weigh 80kg:

80kg x 1.5g = 120g protein per day.

HUSTLE HINT: Most people we see don’t eat enough protein and tend to snack on carbohydrate and fat based foods. With some swaps and planning in advance you can improve the quality of your diet and increase the amount of protein you eat at the same time. To make it easier divide this up throughout the day and ensure you have a good quality source of protein at all meals and snacks.

If you have read about higher recommendations, there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that in some instances higher protein intakes of >3g/kg/day may be recommended. However, this is beyond the scope of this article and only applies to a certain population group. We need to point out that some of this research has been conducted on the basis of fat free mass (FFM) rather than total body weight, so would be very difficult to apply to the general population.

What happens when you eat more protein than you need?

There is a myth floating about that the body cannot handle more than 20-25g of protein at any one time. It’s fine to eat more than that it just may not be involved in more muscle building stimulus. Anything above and beyond what we can use for muscle repair and growth will be used as energy or stored as fat. This will depend on individual energy requirements.

Protein timing

So now we have covered how much protein you should be eating on a daily basis, the next question you are probably going to ask is “how soon after exercise should I eat/drink protein?”

Research now suggests that the post-exercise ‘anabolic window of opportunity’ to consume protein is much wider than once thought and the main thing to consider is your total protein intake over the course of the day. There are of course some exceptions. For example, if you tend to exercise fasted taking protein post-workout may be advisable. But for most people who train once a day there is no need to worry about throwing back a protein shake immediately after your workout in fear of “losing your gains”. To counter-argue, not consuming protein post-exercise offers no benefits.

What the research says: For the vast majority of people, assuming that they have eaten beforehand, getting your protein in whether immediately or 1–2 hours post-exercise, is likely sufficient for maximizing recovery and anabolism (Aragon & Schoenfield, 2013).

Current recommendations for optimal protein intake per serving to maximise muscle protein synthesis are 0.25-0.4g per kg of body weight, or an absolute dose of 20–40 g, ideally evenly distributed every 3–4 hours. This appears to be most favourably when compared to other dietary patterns and is associated with improved body composition and performance outcomes (Kerksick et al. 2017).

So what does 20g of protein from food look like?

Each option below provides approximately 20g protein.

Note: Some brands may vary. We are not suggesting you consume these foods in these portions. Figures are for reference only.

  • 3 eggs
  • 80g uncooked chicken
  • 70g uncooked lean beef mince
  • 80g salmon
  • 100g prawns
  • 170g tofu
  • 150g Quorn pieces
  • 200g Greek yoghurt
  • 400g natural yoghurt
  • 600mls semi-skimmed milk
  • 5000mls/5 litres almond milk (can see that plant based options are not a good source of protein)

The problem we see with most clients is that they come to us eating a very low protein diet. Let’s use the example below from one of our clients……

Meal Food Protein (g)
Breakfast 2 slices toast + butter + jam 7
Snack Packet of crisps 1
Lunch 1/2 packet shop bought pasta salad 15
Snack Cup of coffee and 2 chocolate digestives 2
Dinner Chicken kiev and chips 23
TOTAL INTAKE 48

We can see that if they want to meet their daily protein target changes needs to be made! Head over to our next article on protein shakes to find out how we can make changes to our diet and boost our intake.

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