With a new high-protein version of your favourite food products being launched to the fitness community on what seems like a weekly basis, it’s easy to forget how we actually got here.
Protein is important for several key reasons, but you could be forgiven for losing sight of that amidst all the marketing hype. Today we’ll get back to the basics of why protein matters if you’re regularly taking part in intense sweat-sessions.
The role of protein
Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is one of the three macronutrients that make up all the calories in the food and drink you enjoy. Fat and carbs have many important functions (aside from tasting incredible), but they are mainly concerned with giving you energy and helping to keep your organs function healthily.
Protein’s role is mainly based around building and repairing your tissues. You can think of it like a building block for your skin, bones, blood and muscles. It is also important for your enzyme and hormone production.
What happens when you exercise
Do your exercise classes or workouts involve resistance training such as lifting weights or bodyweight exercises (e.g. press ups, squats etc.)? If so, then you are exposing your muscles to stress and trauma.
You’ve probably felt this first hand in the form of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the dreaded aching which can leave you struggling to climb the stairs a couple of days after a gruelling leg session.
The human body is incredibly complex and scientists still don’t know for certain the exact mechanism by which muscles repair and grow. What they can agree on is that however it happens, protein is a key component in muscle growth and recovery.
To be clear; nobody is saying that consuming only a small amount of protein will mean you collapse into a pile of skin and dust. The point is more that you would be short-changing yourself from fully enjoying all the muscle toning and strength benefits of your workouts.
Aside from directly helping your muscles, protein is proven to keep you feeling fuller for longer. So if you’re trying to lose weight on a calorie controlled diet, getting enough protein is an important way to keep your appetite at bay and prevent the 3pm raid on the vending machine.
How much protein do you need?
This depends on your current bodyweight and your body goals. Research shows a good baseline level of protein for an active person to aim for is 1.5 grams per kilo of bodyweight. If you are restricting your calorie intake you may need more, and the same goes if your training sessions are very frequent or intense.
Also, if you are looking to build more muscle then you’ll want to consume more protein than that. Keep in mind that while it won’t do any harm, once you get above 2.5g protein per kilo of bodyweight there’s no evidence that extra protein will help.
One fitness myth that is common among women is that eating lots of protein will make you ‘bulky’. In reality, building big muscles is hard work which involves lots of heavy eating and will never happen by accident. Plus women have lower levels of testosterone (a key muscle building hormone) than men.
The importance of protein goes beyond sheer numbers though. You need to consider the sources you get it from.
Not all protein is created equal
Protein is made up of amino acids. You can think of them as the building blocks of protein. Your body makes some amino acids, but there are nine types that you can only get through your diet. These nine are known as the essential amino acids.
Animal proteins like meat, dairy and eggs contain all nine essential amino acids so they are known as complete protein sources. These are high quality proteins that are great for supporting muscle recovery.
If you are vegetarian you have a few plant-based complete proteins like soy, quinoa and Quorn. But to keep a varied diet you’ll need to pair complimentary proteins (e.g. rice and beans) to make sure you get all the essential amino acids.
Real food should be where the vast majority of your protein and calories come from. If you’re looking for a tasty and convenient protein top-up then supplements like protein shakes and snacks are a helpful addition to your diet.
Resistance-based workouts and group exercise put your muscles under stress. Making sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet is key to building strength and helping your muscles recover. As part of a balanced and healthy diet you should also make sure you’re consuming good amounts of carbs and fat.
Whilst the importance of a high protein diet is not a marketing gimmick, there are plenty of companies trying to make a quick buck with foods labelled as ‘high-protein’ (some of which only contain a measly few grams). So always check the nutrition label to see the actual protein content.