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What is protein?

If you were to look into any new fitness or muscle building program, equally as important as the training is the nutrition. A key part of the nutrition is knowing how much protein, fats and carbohydrates are in your diet, the best types of these nutrients as well as when to time your meals.

This article will take a detailed look at what protein is, what the body needs it for and how much you need depending on your lifestyle and training goals.

So what is protein?

Essentially protein is a vital nutrient that the body needs every day for healthy function of organs as well as muscle growth and healthy hair, nails and skin.

While healthy carbohydrates certainly play their role in recovery after a training session, they are primarily used to provide your body with energy. Protein will be the nutrient that promotes recovery and repair in muscles after a workout.

A higher protein diet will also help to prevent muscle loss when on a lower carbohydrate diet and trying to lose weight but keep muscle mass.

The best meal plan for the day will include both protein shakes and foods that are naturally high in protein such as eggs and chicken

Foods that are high in protein include whey powder, fish, chicken, eggs, beef and milk.

How much protein do I need?

While the recommended daily allowance varies between countries, it can be as low as 0.8g per kg of bodyweight (80g for a person weighing 100kg)

To put this into perspective, if you look at the list of ingredients on many of the modern protein powders you will usually find that each serving provides between 20g and 40g of protein.

So drinking two protein shakes per day will grow muscle mass and give you all the protein you need right? I’m afraid not.

Recommended daily allowances have long been a source of controversy and many believe they are just the bare minimum someone needs each day, certainly not for someone taking part in strenuous daily activities or weightlifting programs.

U.S.D.A recommended daily ounces of protein

  • Men 19-30 yrs – 6.5 ounces (185 grams)
  • Men 31-50 yrs – 6 ounces (170 grams)
  • Men 51 yrs+ – 5.5 ounces (156 grams)
  • Women 19-30 yrs – 5.5 ounces (156 grams)
  • Women 31 yrs+ – 5 ounces (142 grams)
  • The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends between 1 and 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight and is a better guide to go by when planning your daily protein intake for fitness or weightlifting programs.

    Essentially you are trying to avoid a protein deficit by keeping your protein intake at or slightly above your expenditure for that day.

    So if you are working out in the gym with heavy weights 7 days a week with a job that has a lot of manual labour then you will be burning a lot more calories and using a lot more muscle groups.

    In this case it would be better to look at closer to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight rather than per kilo, but this is at the very top end of the scale due to the constant energy expenditure and heavy workload on the muscles.

    The amount of protein you need each day will depend on how physically intensive your day is, as well as how frequently you train with weights

    Protein and exercise

    So we know how to work out our protein intake for the day, but what effect does it have on exercise and how much do I need to consume before and after workouts?

    Although protein is vitally important for recovery and growth of muscles, your main source of energy for being able to finish that 20km run or lift that 500lb deadlift will come from complex carbohydrates (whole grains and foods made from them, such as oatmeal, pasta, and whole-grain breads, green vegetables etc.).

    Supplement companies have become very proficient in knowing what people who take part in regular physical activity need before and after workouts.

    While the range of ingredients in protein shakes will vary from brand to brand, the average serving size will usually contain between 30 and 45g of protein.

    Try to consume around a third of your total protein intake for the day split evenly across your pre and post workout meals or protein shakes.

    As carbohydrates are our main energy source for workouts and exercise, consuming half of your daily requirement spread across the pre and post workout meals is recommended.

    Try to make sure you get some quick release protein such as a whey protein shake within 30 minutes of exercise

    This is particularly true if you have a fairly sedentary job where you may be sitting at a desk 10 hours a day and just don’t need stacks of carbohydrates that just won’t be getting used up.

    What happens if I don’t eat enough protein?

    If you do have to miss a meal or don’t reach your protein target for the occasional day then try not to worry too much.

    As long as you stick to your required protein intake the vast majority of the time then you will still make progress towards your goals. While a few days of muscle soreness is normal, if you suddenly feel like your muscles aren’t recovering as quickly as they used to then try increasing your protein intake by 5% on the day you train that muscle group.

    When is the best time to drink a protein shake?

    While the main different types of protein shake fall under the banner of either whey protein (fast digesting) or casein protein (slow digesting), the best time to consume either will depend on if you are working out or exercising that day.

    A protein shake between 45 and 75 minutes before your workout is recommended, with another shake within 30 minutes of completing your workout.

    Try to make sure you get some quick release protein such as a whey protein shake within 30 minutes of exercise

    The most popular choice at this time is whey protein to breakdown and support the recovery of the muscle tissue quicker.

    If you are facing an extended period of time without access to a meal such as when sleeping at night, then a casein protein shake before you go to sleep will breakdown slowly to fuel your muscles as they recover and prevent muscle breakdown.

    On non training days, particularly if you are drinking protein shakes with a higher level of carbohydrates, time your protein shakes around when you need the most energy. For many this will be first thing in the morning and mid morning / lunch time depending on if you are on a 3 meal per day or 6+ meal per day nutrition plan.

    I heard a high protein diet helps promote fat loss. Is this true?

    Although protein doesn’t directly help you lose fat like supplements such as CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid), the long term effects of meeting your daily protein requirement means you are more likely to maintain or grow your muscle mass.

    UK researchers found that when subjects consumed a whey protein shake 90 minutes before a large meal, they ate significantly less food compared to when they consumed a casein shake.

    The scientists reported that this was due to whey’s ability to boost levels of the hunger reducing hormones glucagon-like peptide-I and cholecystokinin.

    Studies have suggested that increasing protein intake up to 2g per kilo of bodyweight also reduces muscle loss whilst following a calorie controlled diet designed for weight loss.

    Increasing your metabolism with smaller meals more frequently that are high in protein has been proven to increase fat loss

    Which foods are naturally high in protein?

    In our next article we will take a look at the best sources of protein apart from protein shakes, and some of the best options on the menu if you are going to a restaurant.

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