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 importance 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, We’ll lift the lid on protein and explain the importance of protein and why is not just for bodybuilders.
This macronutrient is made up of 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 importance in muscle growth
As we previously mentioned, protein is vital for muscle building as it provides the building blocks, or amino acids, necessary for muscle growth and repair.
During intense exercise, such as weightlifting, you create small tears in your muscle fibers. Protein is then used to repair and rebuild those damaged muscle fibers, making them stronger and more resilient. Additionally, protein helps to increase muscle protein synthesis, which is the process that leads to muscle growth.
Best sources of protein
Protein can be obtained from a wide variety of sources including the previously mentioned eggs, turkey, fish, beef 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 soy, 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…
How much protein should you eat ?
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.
Protein importance in weight loss
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.
Protein is also an uneconomical fuel. If you reduce carbohydrate intake and replace those missing calories with protein, your body will be forced to try and use protein for fuel. While it CAN do this, it’s not a particularly “clean” process and a lot of energy gets used converting protein into usable energy, unlike fat and carbs which are very easily converted to energy.
So, this macronutrient is essential for post-exercise recovery and is very useful for weight control but can you eat too much? Yes; you can but it takes some doing! Many “experts” believe that eating too much of it places an excessive stress on your kidneys but there is little research to support this.
Providing your drink plenty of water and have no history of kidney disease, there is no reason to think that your kidneys will implode just because you eat a few eggs every day and enjoy fish, chicken and other protein-rich foods.
However, even though it’s very hard to convert excess protein to fat, if you really eat way WAY too much, any excess could make you gain fat. To be honest though, if you are gaining fat, it’s much more likely that the cause is too much refined carbohydrate or fat rather than too much protein but as protein contains calories, an excess could, theoretically at least , be converted to fat.
Of all the food groups, carbohydrate is the cheapest and most abundant and this probably why most mainstream nutritional approaches such as the traditional food pyramid are built around carbs. This often means that protein is viewed as less important and something that is not really necessary.
In actuality, the opposite is true. Your body can run very well without much or even any carbohydrate but insufficient protein can quickly lead to poor recovery from exercise, stalled progress and even bone and joint problems.
On the downside, protein is more expensive than carbohydrate and tends to be less readily available – just try and find a decent protein-based snack at the late-night garage!
Cost and availability mean that protein is often overlooked in favor of carbohydrate but smart trainees know better. Try to eat about 1-1.3 grams of protein per lb to ensure you keep your body supplied with those all but essential amino acids – a condition called positive nitrogen balance.
Chances are, if you were protein deprived before, you’ll notice you get leaner, feel stronger and recover better from your workouts. When it comes to exercise nutrition, the power of protein is unbeatable!
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