Protein – why is it so important? Why has it become an essential component of every meal or so often becomes the main focus of our dinner plates? Why do protein supplements so often go hand in hand with working out, training and recovering?
In short, Protein serves a variety of essential roles in our bodies, including building and repairing muscles after training sessions.
What are Proteins?
Proteins are composed of smaller molecules called amino acids. These amino acids are chained with each other just like beads on a string. The connected amino acids create long protein chains, which are then folded into different and complex shapes and patterns.
Eleven of the twenty amino acids can be produced by the body, but in order to function properly we must obtain the rest from our diet. The ones we cannot produce, and must get from the food we eat, are called the “essential” amino acids. The nine amino acids our bodies are incapable of producing are categorized as essential amino acids, while the eleven amino acids it can produce are considered non-essential.
The Role of Proteins
Protein is an essential building block of every cell in the body. Your hair and nails are composed of mostly protein, the body uses protein to build and repair tissues, and your body also makes use of protein to make hormones, body chemicals, and enzymes. Protein is also a critical building block of our blood, skin, bones, cartilage, and muscles.
When it comes to training, protein plays an essential role in repairing and rebuilding muscles, not necessarily gaining or maintaining lean muscle mass.
Suffice to say, without protein life as we know it wouldn’t be possible.
Protein is not just about quantity. It’s also about when you eat protein and the quality of the protein you eat.
When is the best time of day to eat protein?
Protein is most effectively used when spread out throughout the day, rather than in 1 or 2 large meals, for it’s important to give your body 4-6 separate dosage of protein throughout the day. Every meal and snack should have a good source of protein (chicken, fish, tofu, milk, beans, nuts, cheese, eggs, etc. If you are trying to lose weight making sure you have protein consistently at meals and snacks is important, for protein takes longer to digest compared to carbohydrates making you feel satisfied for a longer time, which may assist in weight loss.
Why does source matter?
Depending on the type of amino acids in each protein, they can be considered as complete or incomplete. Complete proteins are those that have all the essential amino acids, whereas incomplete proteins do not, or have only trace amounts.
Generally speaking, animal-based protein have the right ratio of all the essential amino acids for us to make full use of them. This makes sense since animal tissues are similar to our own tissues. Some plant exceptions are quinoa, buckwheat, hemp, and chia.
- Animal protein: Fish, Poultry, Meat, Eggs, Dairy
- Plant protein: Soy and soy-based foods like tempeh, tofu, and milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds, quinoa, and buckwheat
- Plant protein: Some vegetables and fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and beansIf you’re an omnivore, both a plant and meat eater, you’re probably already doing pretty well, protein-wise. Those on a vegetarian or plant-based diet may have to consult with an expert and fill some nutrient aps with vitamins and minerals, and of course plant-based protein supplements.Complex Carbs
- Complex carbs: such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice and quinoa also offer protein, as well as fiber. While these should not be your primary sources of protein, complex carbohydrates can help you meet your recommended protein intake. They can also keep you satisfied for a longer time than simple carbohydrates, which can help assist with weight loss.
How much protein should you have?
Together with fat and carbohydrates, protein falls under the category of macronutrients. This means the body needs relatively large amounts of it. The key word is “relative.”
While it’s true there are individuals who need a lot of protein (e.g. the protein-deficient, bodybuilders, and athletes), the general formula is roughly 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For an 80 kg man, he would need at least 60 g of dietary protein per day. This measurement, however, is not comprehensive as it does not consider other physical or lifestyle variables.
Use Strength.com’s Protein Calculator to find out how much you should take (considering your height, weight, fitness/health goals and more).
Research shows an intake of around 1.3 g-1.8 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight has allowed strength training athletes a more rapid progression than they would attain on a “minimum” dietary protein intake. Moreover, consumption of roughly 3.5 g protein per kilogram of bodyweight leads to larger muscle mass gains and greater strength increases.
Despite the muscle and strength benefits of large protein intake, you can definitely take too much. The poison is always in the dose and protein isn’t any different. Unlike fat and carbs, the human body is unable to store protein as protein. When the body uses protein, it first converts it to amino acids, its working form. When you have too much amino acids, it either gets converted to fat or urea.
Protein to Urea
When you have excess amino acids, the bacteria in your intestines break them down and convert them to ammonia. Ammonia is further broken down by the liver into urea and urea is excreted through, you guessed it, urination.
Protein > amino acids > ammonia > liver > urea > urine
Protein to Fat
It’s worth mentioning that no matter what diet you’re on, an excess caloric expenditure will always be converted into fat. Yes, even if it’s protein.
If you eat more calories than your body requires from protein sources – often the case with high protein, low carb diets – the extra protein you ingest is converted to fat, though in a roundabout way.
Protein is initially broken down into amino acids and ammonia. The remaining carbon compound is then broken down even more into glucose, which your body uses for energy or for stored fat. This entire protein-to-glucose conversion is called gluconeogenesis.
Protein is available in a multitude of whole foods as well as workout supplements. When using protein as a tool for training and recovery, it is best to identify how much protein you eat today and how much you should consume to reach your health goal.
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