Protein, the basics.
I want to preface this by saying that the subject of protein intake is huge, there are so many variables and so many reasons for higher or lower intake that are goal dependant, so for the sake of this article, I’m making it as simple as possible and will expand on this in the future to cover requirements for different sports and goals.
What is protein?
Proteins are the building blocks of every cell in the body, and every minute of our lives, cells are broken down and repaired. This is called protein turnover and when we add training into the mix, the amount of turnover increases and subsequently our need for protein does too.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, of which there are 20, taurine is not included as it is a by-product of cysteine and methionine.
Amino acids are split into two categories, essential and non-essential. There are 12 non-essential amino acids that can be made by our bodies and 8 essential amino acids that we cannot make ourselves, so we have to get them from the food we eat. Having said that, some foods are better sources than others, with meat, fish and dairy being complete sources. There are some vegetarian options that also have the full complement of essential amino acids, but for the most part, they are often lacking and need to be combined with other foods to make up the full list.
Weight training causes micro tears in the muscle fibres which are repaired when we have sufficient protein. The process by which this happens is called MPS (muscle protein synthesis). To find out how much protein we need we first have to know how much we weigh.
We tend to use metric measurements so set your scales to kg.
Now you know your weight in kg, we need to determine how active you are with training and your lifestyle.
Research tells us (A) that sedentary individuals with no training history need a minimum of 0.89 grams of protein per kg of lean bodyweight (your fat free weight.) Whilst strength trained athletes need 1.76 grams per kg of lean weight. For the sake of convenience, we will calculate all of our requirements on total body weight, this will have several benefits as our protein intake will be much higher.
As discussed earlier in the module, food has a thermic effect and protein has the highest of all costing up to 30% of the ingested calories to break it down into amino acids for use in the body. Therefore, not only will we have enough protein to repair muscle fibres that have been broken down during training, we will actually burn more calories processing the food we eat than we would with a lower protein diet.
So even if you establish your calorie requirements and set your daily intake to a maintenance level, you will, by default of a high protein intake be in a deficit.
This is good for us as it means a lower net calorie intake whilst maintaining and building lean muscle and subsequently, burning more body fat.
To simplify things even further, we will round up the protein recommendations to whole numbers.
· Recommended protein intake for sedentary individuals 1 gram per kg
· Recommended protein intake for strength trained individuals 2 grams per kg
Another benefit of protein, which is often over looked is that is very filling, so it keeps you feeling full for longer, meaning you are less likely to snack between meals and therefore better able to control your calorie intake.
It is widely established that a high protein intake prevents muscle loss when in a calorie deficit, and can actually increase lean muscle mass when training appropriately. The benefit of increased muscle mass is an increased basal metabolic rate, which means you can eat more food without gaining body fat (that’s a win, win situation in my book.)
As you are reading this, you have made the decision to become more active, so below is a quick guideline as to how much protein you should roughly try to consume on a daily basis using the recommendations for strength training individuals as mentioned above.
Where to get your protein.
The answer to this all depends on your dietary preferences, a meat eater will have the largest choice available to them as they won’t be restricted (religious restrictions notwithstanding.)
So, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, vegetables, pulses and grains can all be included.
Pescatarians tend to have all of the above except for meat.
Vegetarians can enjoy a diet based around meat substitutes, dairy, vegetables, pulses and grains and vegans will look to meet their requirements from meat substitutes, vegetables, pulses and grains.
It should be noted however that different sources of protein have different bioavailability, by that I mean the amount of protein available to the body once digested.
Eggs top the list of foods with the highest bioavailability, then the various types of meat, then soy and vegetables below that.
As mentioned above, not all protein sources are equal when it comes to amino acid content. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy are all complete sources.
For vegans and vegetarians, things get a little trickier and the number of foods with complete proteins is much smaller. Quinoa, buckwheat, soy and Amaranth are all complete sources of protein that vegans can enjoy.
Here is a small list of common protein sources with their protein content.
I want to mention supplements because it is a topic I’m frequently asked about, more specifically, will protein powder make me bulky?
The answer is a definite no. It doesn’t work that way in the body. All protein powders are is the left overs from cheese production that is then dried and turned into a powder. They have a huge bioavailability score and are great to add into your diet if you struggle to hit your targets with food. They’re in no way essential to your success in the gym and for the most part, you can get all the protein you need from your food.
Also, don’t be fooled by the softer side of packaging used by supplement companies to appeal to the female market, they are selling you the very same protein you shied away from because of labelling that uses words like, HUGE, JUMBO and RIPPED. Apart from maybe adding green tea or raspberry ketones to the blend and calling it diet whey, it’s all the same stuff, just marketed differently.
Now to answer a common question.
Will lifting weights and eating protein make me bulky?
The short answer is no, not unless that is what you are deliberately eating and training for. It is not something that happens by accident, you need to satisfy certain criteria before you can gain the sort of muscle that could give you a bulky look.
1. You have to train deliberately and consistently for a long time.
2. You have to increase your testosterone level to that of a man (men have approximately 20 times more than women.)
3. You have to eat a calorie surplus
Of course you will be training hard and hopefully consistently, but you still have to satisfy the other two criteria and unless you’re prepared to use performance enhancing drugs, you will never raise your testosterone high enough to get bulky or huge and If you’re training to tone up, you won’t be eating a surplus of calories, so that takes care of number 3.
The beauty of weight training is that you can actually end up smaller for the same weight or even slightly heavier. The reason for this is because muscle is 15% denser than fat, so for a given volume, muscle will weigh 15% more.