In the last couple of years we saw an increasing focus on protein in fitness and diet and to some degree even a hype. In this article we want to help get a better understanding of protein’s role in training by answering the following questions:
- What is protein? Why do we need it?
- How much protein do we actually need?
- How can supplements help?
What is protein?
Protein is one of the energy sources of the body next to fat and carbohydrates also known as the macronutrients. Protein is made up of amino acids. Our bodies need amino acids to produce important molecules such as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. Without them we don’t function.
There are two types of amino acids: non-essential amino acids which the body can produce itself; and essential amino acids. The body cannot produce the latter, hence we need to consume it via food or supplements. There are nine essential amino acids and unlike fat and carbohydrates we cannot store them in our body. Out of those nine, three are the most important for muscle building:
They are also referred to as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). Leucine is the most important one but works most effectively in combination with the other two. Leucine helps to preserve lean mass, increase insulin levels, and facilitates muscle growth by activating the mTOR pathway (Mammalian Target of Rapamycin). mTOR induces muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which essentially is the building of muscle.
Why do we need protein?
The two main reasons why we need the right amount of these proteins to improve performance or body composition are that protein improves muscle recovery and growth (via muscle protein synthesis, MPS), and reduces the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Our muscles are constantly changing between catabolic (=breakdown of muscles) and anabolic states (=creation of muscles). For both we need proteins: during anabolism to help build muscles, during catabolism to slow down or reduce the effect of muscle breakdown. The below diagram from a study analysing protein requirements for strength training illustrates this process. It shows how muscle protein synthesis increases over time after a workout and (lower graph). Vice versa it shows how protein degradation (catabolism) decreases over time. At the point where these two graphs intersect -- after about 8 to 10 hours -- our body actually has a net positive protein balance and we grow our muscles.
(Source: "Protein Requirements for Strength Training" link)
How much protein do we actually need?
The amount of protein that we need strongly depends on various factors. Most importantly it depends on your goals (gain size or strength, lose weight, maintain your current lean mass etc.) and your current body composition. According to a study by Helms et al. from 2014, the leaner you are and the more severe your caloric restriction is, the more protein you need to consume relatively. Other important criteria that determine the amount of necessary protein for everybody’s specific case are training experience (novice, leisure or athlete), intensity and frequency of the training, age, dietary constraints or preferences (including eating protocols like Keto, Paleo or Atkins), or effectiveness of your metabolism. What you cannot change is your daily calorie intake target based on your TDEE. But then within that you determine your macro split between fat, carbs and protein intake. You should make your level of protein intake your priority and define it based on your goals, training and body composition characteristics.
The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends a dietary reference intake of 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight daily. However, this is only of untrained people who do not engage in intense physical activity and are not in a caloric restriction. Other studies showed that a daily protein intake of between 1.5g to 1.7g of protein per kg of body weight is more appropriate and more effective. If we take the 1.7g and a person of 70 kg body weight as an example, that would translate into 119g of protein per day. More concretely that would mean, for instance, 380g of chicken breast or 280g of beef steak per day.
How can supplements help?
An average macro split can easily achieved with a standard diet without the need for supplements. Good sources, for instance, of leucine include chicken breast, soy protein, egg white, nuts milk, fish, and meat. However, the more protein you need to consume to achieve your target to more difficult it may get purely without supplementation. Chicken breast every day may also become quite boring and cumbersome to prepare. This is where supplementation, for example, with protein powder can really help to mix up things a bit. Protein powders can be used for shakes, which are simple and fast to prepare and can easily be transported anywhere, or more delicious recipes such as protein pancakes.
The take away?
So, what is all the fuss about protein for improving performance and body composition after all? We definitely do need protein for muscle build up and to preserve lean mass especially when we engage in high intensity exercise. The range of daily protein intake should be somewhere between 1.5g to 1.7g per kg of body weight. The exact amount -- relative to your caloric intake target -- depends on your specific goals, requirements and body composition. Protein powders can be used to make protein consumption easier and more enjoyable.
Our protein product of choice is GoPrimal's hydrolyzed whey due to its high quality production process and the purity of their protein. Pure Vanilla is our preferred flavour, which is excellent for pancakes.