Protein is a vital, nay essential nutrient for bone and muscle growth, cellular repair and sometimes even energy. The word protein is derived from the Greek word proteus meaning primary or first so even the ancient Greeks understood the importance of this nutrient for health and well-being. While most bodybuilders know all about the power of protein, the rest of us tend to put carbohydrates first. In fact, the whole Western standard food pyramid is based on carbohydrates. In this article, I’ll lift the lid on protein and explain why protein is not just for bodybuilders.
This macronutrient is made up from chemicals called amino acids which can be thought of as the protein alphabet. Whenever you eat a protein-rich food, for example chicken, your body takes the protein, breaks it down into its constituent amino acids and then uses them as necessary throughout your body. In a protein-packed nutshell, we don’t actually eat foods like eggs, turkey and fish for their protein but rather the amino acids they contain.
Protein can be obtained from a wide variety of sources including the previously mentioned eggs, turkey, fish and chicken. Protein is most abundant in animal derived foods as well as dairy although there are some vegetable sources of protein as well. Foods such as soya, quinoa, buckwheat and gram flour contain reasonable amounts of protein but nowhere near the quantity and quality of the aforementioned animal sources. In addition, some people get their protein from supplements such as whey protein powder which is a milk derivative. Whey protein is generally a very high quality source of amino acids but is really only designed to supplement and not replace “real” food…
In terms of how much protein you should eat; it very much depends on the amount and type of activity you are doing. The RDA for sedentary adults is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight whereas most people involved in regular strength training should consume around 2.0 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. Endurance athletes and recreational exercisers fall somewhere in between these two recommendations. As a general rule, protein should be consumed at regular intervals throughout the day to ensure a steady supply of amino acids.
As well as being essential for post-exercise muscle repair, muscle growth and general health, protein is also a useful weapon in the war of fat loss. It’s no coincidence that some of the best diets for fat loss are high in protein!
Protein has a high thermal effect which simply means that eating protein elevates your metabolism more than fats and carbohydrates. In very simple terms, for every 100grams of protein you consume, between 20 to 30% of the calories are “lost” in the process of ingesting, digesting, transporting and eliminating the protein. This is why many protein-based diets do not restrict protein consumption – it’s very hard to eat too much protein!
In addition to having a high thermal effect, protein does not tend to cause much of an insulin spike. Insulin is a “storage hormone” produced by your pancreas and allows nutrients to enter your cells and as such can promote fat storage while inhibiting fat burning. Insulin tends to be produced in large amounts when you eat carbohydrates, especially those deemed to be “refined”. By eating more protein, and therefore replacing carbohydrate and limiting insulin production, you flip your metabolic switches from fat storage to fat burning. In contrast, excess carbohydrates are easily converted to fat so higher protein diets are very useful for fat loss.
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