Protein consumption causes much debate and general discussion in the fitness world. Have you ever wondered whether you should take or use protein? If so, you’re like countless others who may see it as a mystery. Perhaps protein is something you have a pretty good idea about, but you know you could understand it better.
Protein is the “building block” of human anatomy and serves a vast number of functions in the body including the following: formation of the brain, nervous system, blood, muscle, skin, and hair; the transport mechanism for iron, vitamins, minerals, fats, and oxygen; and the key to acid-base and fluid balance (American Council on Exercise, 2011). There is no doubt proteins play an important part in the human body.
Protein is also important as part of sports nutrition. The results are clear: protein is an essential part of any fitness program. Resistance training and cardio training break down muscles, and protein helps rebuild the damaged tissues. Athletes and fitness participants have a higher need for protein consumption than the general population. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends 0.5 to 0.8 g/lb of body weight per day for endurance and strength training athletes. Each gram of protein contains 4 calories. This athlete population is not limited to just the elite. If you workout on a regular basis and continually tear down muscle tissue, you are no exception. These protein recommendations have been considered too high by some, but it all comes down to your particular energy intake (anywhere from 10-35% of your daily energy intake). A registered dietitian can program the proper amount of protein based on your energy intake, diet, and workout frequency.
Now that you know the need for protein, and assuming you can find the balanced amount tailored for your body and workout regimen, it’s time to decide how you will get the protein into your body. There are around 8-10 essential amino acids (which protein is built from) that are not made by the body, therefore these must be eaten in the diet. Animal products contain complete proteins, or in other words, all the essential amino acids. Plant foods do not contain complete proteins (soy is the only exception). That being the case, these foods need to be eaten in combinations.
Taking protein naturally in the foods you eat is one way to use protein. When you do this, it’s beneficial to choose healthy proteins. For instance, beef consists of a good amount of protein, but it’s also high in saturated fat and calories. Other foods high in protein are casein, eggs, milk, whey, soy, black beans, peanuts, and wheat gluten. These foods should be part of your sports nutrition as you train, but they are not the only methods of taking protein.
Another way to use protein is to take it in supplemental form. Whey protein is probably the safest and most widely-used form of protein supplementation. It contains all the essential amino acids and comes in three forms – whey protein powder, whey protein concentrate, and whey protein isolate. Each form has different amounts of protein, but all varieties can help increase muscle strength, bone growth, and speed up recovery time between workouts. Protein synthesis, or the breaking down of protein into amino acids in the muscles, is stimulated during exercise, therefore protein should always be consumed immediately after, or within an hour of, completing a workout.
Whether you choose to get all your needed protein naturally in your diet or through supplementation, always consult your physician before beginning any high-protein diet.