Updated: May 10
If you have been around the physical training game for any significant period of time, you have no doubt heard about the importance of protein. I have personally been in gyms since 1997, at the old school YMCA in my home town, and working out on my own since 1995-. Yes, I started when I was 11!
During this time, protein has never really left the limelight in most circles and its benefits are quite widely accepted, yet not always understood.
In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, protein was known to be essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, with other benefits often less talked about. The anabolic window was always regarded as the essential time to get your protein shake down range and it was considered murder for your muscle gains if you missed this 1-hour window following a training session.
Today, we know that this is simply not the case as well as a lot more about how we can utilize protein to help achieve a lot of different performance and body composition goals. This could be a very detailed article, but for the sake of not being too pedantic and getting into the biochemistry of protein, I am going to use point form examples to get the key concepts across.
3 Main sections are listed below
Minimum protein intake requirements
Protein for weight loss
Protein for muscle building and performance
Minimum Protein Intake Requirements
No matter who you are, the human body requires a certain amount of protein intake. The RDA, or recommended dietary allowance is “ the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) healthy individuals in a particular life-stage and gender group.”
Now the key thing to understand about the statement above, is that it indicates a recommended amount for the maintenance of general health and body functions. It is not the recommended amount for specific performance or body composition goals.
Key points for minimum protein requirements:
The RDA is a recommendation to ensure protein intake is sufficient to promote general health
We as humans require a minimum amount to provide the building blocks for functional and structural proteins. These will include enzymes, catalysts, hormones, tissues such as cartilage and collagen, hemoglobin, hair and nails
There are 20 primary amino acids that make up all of the various structural and functional proteins in our bodies
9 of these amino acids are considered essential amino acids (EAA’s), meaning our bodies cannot synthesize them on our own, so we must consume them directly in our diet. These EAA’s are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine just for reference.
We can get our protein from a wide variety of sources. both plant and animal based
Protein And Weight Loss
Many diet styles exist, and many diet styles can be successful for the long-term if they are sustainable and able to be adhered to. When it comes to achieving some degree of weight loss, protein consumption has a lot of benefits outside of functional and structural purposes. Listed below are the some of the primary benefits that protein brings to the table for weight loss success.
Key points for protein intake and weight loss:
Protein can increase feelings of fullness/satiety, potentially leading to less total calories consumed and therefore a total caloric deficit- which will lead to weight loss by means of a negative energy balance
Protein has a high thermic effect of food (TEF), meaning the caloric cost to digest protein is around 20-30%. So, if you consume 100 calories from a protein source, you would only “net” around 70-80 calories, thereby contributing again to a potential caloric deficit
When in a caloric deficit, a higher protein diet has been shown to have a positive effect on retaining muscle tissue
Maintaining muscle tissue has a positive impact on increasing basal metabolic rate (the calories we burn at rest, just to “keep the lights on”)
Although this is not an exhaustive list, it addresses the aspects of a higher protein diet that we promote regularly to the members at Synergy. Losing weight can be done on any diet style and macronutrient approach that creates a caloric deficit, however with the added benefits and lack of negatives that a higher protein intake diet brings, I feel it is a no brainer to at least give it a try and see if it works for you.
There are multiple ways to approach calculating your protein needs on a diet, and you can learn more about that here if you are looking to do so (scroll down to the section on protein calculations).
Protein And Muscle Building
This section is the one that I think has the most traction and acceptance behind it. I don’t think you would find many people who at this point don’t fully support or understand that you literally NEED adequate protein in order to build muscle tissue. So with that said, let’s break this up into a section on why you need protein for building muscle, and then a section on general guidelines.
Key points for protein and muscle building:
A high protein diet ensures appropriate amino acids are available in the blood, to be delivered to the muscle cells following exercise, specifically resistance training that is stimulating enough to cause the addition of new muscle tissue or muscle proteins synthesis (MPS) to occur
High levels of the amino acid leucine have been shown to stimulate the mTOR pathway in muscle cells. This is essentially an anabolic pathway that is stimulated by both high levels of amino acids in the blood, as well as resistance training (both of which are considered to be “anabolic”)
By having a higher than RDA level intake of protein in the diet, we ensure that structural and functional demands are met, as well as providing sufficient amino acid levels for assembling new muscle tissue
Unlike glucose production in the liver, the body cannot synthesize all of the amino acids. Therefore, if we do not consume adequate amounts, even if we do produce an increase in anabolic signalling through resistance training and the mTOR pathway in our muscle cells are stimulated, we simply would not have the materials “on-site” to allow the proteins to be assembled and added.
The above mentioned points lead to a lot of the discussion regarding plant based diets, and their ability to provide all of the essential and necessary amino acids for muscle building. Animal based food sources contain complete proteins, meaning they have all 20 amino acids. Many plant based sources are incomplete proteins or lack certain amino acids, as well as having been shown to have potentially less bioavailability, meaning they are not as easily utilized or processed by the body. All of this aside, we can say with certainty that total protein intake matters for muscle building, and however you choose to get it is less important.
Due to the time it takes for protein to be fully digested, a good recommendation is to aim for every 3-5 hours per protein serving
Aim for a minimum or 20-40g/serving, but this number can be as high as necessary to get your total protein intake as per the recommendations below (some people will need as high as 50-60g or more/serving of protein to meet their daily intake goal)
OK, so hopefully you understand more about the role of protein in our diets, why we require a minimum amount and also that we need above recommended general health amounts in order to promote muscle building. Below are the recommendations I promote to the majority of my clients, knowing that each person is different and some may have needs or considerations outside of those listed below:
Aim for a recommended protein minimum of 1.6g/kg of bodyweight
If you are of average weight, you can go a bit further and aim for 1g/lb of bodyweight
If you are carrying a fair amount of extra body weight, it would be a better idea to aim for total protein intake of around 40-50% of total calories to come from protein. This is a recommendation, and if you really do not know what to do, find someone to help you get started. This number can be higher or lower, so there is no exact start point.
Try to get this protein intake throughout the day, my personal suggestion is to follow the 4 x 4 x 4 guideline for simplicity (4 servings, every 4 hours, 4 times/day)
Protein has 4 calories/gram, so if you consume 170g of protein, this would be 680 calories from protein. Subtract this number from your total goal calories and make up the rest however you want from fats, and carbohydrate sources. Fat has 9 calories/gram and carbohydrate 4 calories/gram just for reference (alcohol is 7 calories/gram).
I hope this article was informative. I did not list specific protein sources, since everyone is different and how you choose to eat is far less important than making sure to get enough of the right nutrients, such as protein, in your diet.
Keep it simple, but keep learning!