In the pursuit of peak physical performance, we carefully dissect workout routines, meticulously track calories, and chase the latest fitness trends. But amidst this scrupulously crafted pursuit, one crucial macronutrient often gets pushed to the sidelines – protein. Protein, the very building block of life, plays a pivotal role in achieving your fitness goals, whether you are chasing sculpted muscles, enhanced endurance, or a healthier overall physique.
Your body is a magnificent temple – protein is the mortar that strengthens its foundation, the bricks that sculpt its magnificent arches, and the fuel that keeps its engines roaring. This vital macronutrient is responsible for building and repairing muscles, boosting satiety, and influencing many critical body functions (1, 2).
Yet, many of us remain puzzled by this powerhouse nutrient. What types of protein exist? How much do we truly need? Can protein help sculpt our dream physique and fuel our athletic conquests? This blog is your comprehensive guide to unlocking the Protein Power within. We will dig into the science behind protein, explore its unique role in various fitness goals, and equip you with the knowledge to craft a diet that empowers your journey towards a stronger, healthier you.
So, ditch the confusion, grab your water bottle, and let's get down to the nitty-gritty of protein! We will break down different proteins, figure out your ideal intake, and debunk the myths holding you back. Get ready to discover how protein can become your key to unlocking peak performance, whether you are chasing a sculpted physique, crushing your next marathon, or just aiming for a healthier, happier life.
The Basics of Protein
Protein comes from the Greek work protos which means primary. It is any class of nitrogenous compounds that consist of large molecules composted of one or more long chains of amino acids and are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, collagen, etc., and as enzymes and antibodies (3). The amino acids that protein is made up of are the most important in the diet. The amino acids can be used for energy or synthesize new proteins such as hormones or digestive enzymes and used in the liver to process and distributed to other cells of the body (3).
I know, I know, if you are not into science or do not have a lot of health and fitness knowledge, you are probably saying, “What the heck does all that mean?!?” To simplify it, protein is the essential building block for your body. It is a special nutrient found in many foods like chicken, eggs, beans, milk, and nuts. Think of it as the tiny bricks your body uses to build and repair muscle, keep your bones strong, and even grow your hair and nails. You would not build a house with cardboard walls, right? Similarly, a good dose of protein helps keep your body functioning at its best.
Now, the cool thing is that protein is not just for muscle-building gym rats. It helps everyone! Whether you are chasing around kids, climbing stairs, or simply want to feel energized throughout the day, protein gives your body the fuel it needs to tackle anything.
Not all protein is built the same and it is important that our diet has quality protein. Your body can produce some amino acids, but nine, known as essential amino acids, must be obtained from our diet. These nine are the superstars of muscle growth and repair. The best quality of protein that has these nine amino acids comes from animals- meat, poultry, eggs, fish, milk, and cheese, making it a complete protein. Protein from plants is lower quality and considered incomplete protein because they do not have all 9 of the essential amino acids (with some exceptions). It is important that we have balance, not just rely on one or the other. This ensures we get all the nutrients we need. It is important to eat lean, natural sources of protein because protein in whole dairy products and fatty meats is difficult to digest (4).
How Much Protein Do You Need?
You have probably received different advice on how much protein you need and how to get it. So, what is the correct answer?
For a sedentary person to get the basic minimum amount of protein, they need 0.8 grams per kg of body weight. One kilogram (kg) equals 2.2 pounds. (Weight in LBS/2.2) X 0.8 grams = minimum amount of protein needed.
If you train at high intensity or have low energy, protein intake should increase to 1.6-2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight. Vegans and vegetarians should take a minimum of 1.1 grams of protein per lb. of body weight.
It has been shown that higher amounts of protein are vital to immune function, metabolism, feeling full after eating, weight management, and performance (3). So many experts recommend 1gram or more of protein per pound of bodyweight (or ideal bodyweight if the person is overweight or obese). 150 lb. woman should include 150 grams of protein in her diet. There are no negative consequences for high protein intake.
If you struggle to get all your protein in daily through natural foods, you can also incorporate a protein supplement. Some common types of protein powder include whey, casein, and soy. It is recommended to stay away from soy protein powder because it is not a complete animal-based source of protein and lowers your testosterone levels (4). Whey is considered the “faster” protein and casein is considered the “slow” protein option. I have put together a table for you to compare the two:
Best Option For:
Daily strength training and no late-night hunger.
Less strenuous workouts and late-night hunger.
You can choose one protein or use both, for example, you can use whey after your workout and use casein before you go to bed (5).
The Repair Process
After a workout, your body identifies the microscopic tears in your muscles and sends in the repair crew. The first step involves breaking down existing muscle proteins into amino acids. These amino acids, like those from your food, are then transported to the damaged areas.
Then, a complex process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS) kicks in. This is where the magic happens! Using the available amino acids as building blocks, your body starts constructing new muscle protein strands. These new strands repair the tears and even create additional muscle fibers, leading to muscle growth.
Fueling the Process
To maximize MPS and optimize muscle repair and growth, it is crucial to provide your body with enough protein, ideally within a short window after your workout. Studies suggest aiming for 0.2-0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight within 1-2 hours of exercise (1, 2).
Weight Management Warrior
Protein is a powerful tool for managing weight, even at rest. Here is how:
- Satiety Superhero: Protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer, reducing cravings and impulsive snacking. This can lead to decreased calorie intake overall, contributing to weight management.
- Thermogenic Power: Digesting protein burns more calories than digesting carbs or fat, giving your metabolism a little boost. This means you torch more calories throughout the day, even at rest.
- Muscle Preservation: Adequate protein intake helps prevent muscle loss during weight loss, which can maintain your metabolism and keep your body burning those calories efficiently.
Remember, weight management is a holistic approach. While protein can be a valuable ally, a balanced diet and regular exercise are crucial for success.
Beyond recovery and weight management, protein plays a vital role in your overall metabolic health:
- Enzyme Building Blocks: Many enzymes, crucial for countless bodily functions, are made of protein. Ensuring enough protein intake supports proper enzyme function, keeping your metabolic engine running smoothly.
- Hormone Harmony: Protein is involved in the production of important hormones like insulin and leptin, which regulate blood sugar and appetite, impacting your overall metabolism.
Protein is more than just a muscle-building wonder. It is your post-workout recovery champion, your weight management warrior, and your metabolic maestro. By understanding its diverse roles and incorporating it into your diet, you can unlock its full potential for optimal health, performance, and well-being. So, fuel your body with protein, and watch your fitness goals soar!
Stay strong and stay faithful,
- Phillips SM. Dietary protein for athletes: from grams to quality. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(3):833S-837S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26596S
- Wolfe RR. The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;84(3):475-84. doi:10.1093/ajcn/84.3.475
- Hatfield, F. Fitness: The Complete Guide. 2019.
- Bryant, J. Bodybuilding The Complete Guide to Unlocking Muscle Hypertrophy. 2019.
- Mikstas, C. Workout Supplements: Whey vs. Casein Protein. https://www.webmd.com/diet/whey-vs-casein-protein, 2023.