Protein is best known for its role in muscle building. Whether you’re a body-builder or an occasional gym-goer, the discussion surrounding protein seems to be the most important one when it comes to exercise nutrition.
However, protein is so much more than just a means to build mass.
In fact, here’s a list of just a few great things protein can do for you:
- Promote healthy digestion
- Boost your immune system
- Support your metabolism
- Improve your mood
Yep, protein helps out with all of these things…all while keeping your body strong and fit! After all, “protein”, says Dr. Spencer Nadolsky who has been coined America’s Fat Loss Doc, “is KING”.
Is your protein intake sufficient?
There’s reason to believe that the daily recommended amount of 0.8g of protein per kg body weight is just not enough1. If you consider the average sedentary man or women, the amount of protein they have been told to eat a day only amounts to about 56g and 46g respectively. That equates to just over 2 portions of chicken breast… While this may sound like it’s enough, your body may be struggling to get enough of the protein building blocks necessary for repair, specifically if you take part in regular exercise.
How do you know whether your protein intake is optimal for your physical activity levels? Look at your own body.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you sore for a long time after workouts or do you feel your muscle building is inadequate compared to your training routine?
- How is your digestion - do you commonly experience digestive distress?
- Do you frequently get colds or feel like your immune system is run down?
- Do you have anxiety, depression, irritability or aggression?
- Do you struggle to lose weight?
All of these symptoms may relate to inadequate levels of proteins or. more precisely, the levels of protein building blocks, called amino acids2,3,4.
Amino acids and their functions in your body
There are nine essential amino acids and 11 non-essential ones your body needs to perform a variety of functions.
Essential simply means that your body can’t make these amino acids by itself, and you have to obtain them from your diet5. Non-essential, on the other hand, are amino acids that can be made by the body through breaking down and utilizing other compounds.
Let’s start with the importance of essential amino acids.
Leucine, isoleucine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, histidine, methionine, lysine and phenylalanine can only be obtained from the diet. If levels of these amino acids are insufficient, you may experience the following consequences6:
- Compromised bone health
- Increased risk of infection
- Loss of muscle mass
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased appetite
- Compromised organ functioning
- Hormonal imbalances
- Poor stress response
- Digestive distress
Then, there are non-essential amino acids, which may also become essential in certain situations.
Six of the other 11 non-essential amino acids are known as conditionally essential amino acids. This term implies that your body may be unable to keep up with the demand of making these particular amino acids during certain biological conditions, such as during disease. Arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline and tyrosine are the six amino acids which are depleted easily during times of stress and illness, thus making them important to obtain from diet - especially for those who experience regular stress, which includes regular exercisers.
Insufficient levels of conditionally essential amino acids can result in the following consequences7:
- Slow wound healing
- Diminished immune capacity
- Headaches or migraines
- Bladder infections
- Leg cramps
- Brain fog
- Increased risk of depression or mood disorders
- Reduced joint and muscular integrity
Lastly, we have amino acids which are non-essential in all cases. These amino acids include alanine, serine, asparagine, glutamic acid and aspartic acid, and they contribute to:
- Regulating the body’s energy cycle
- Promoting mental alertness
- Supporting liver health
- Balancing mood
- Maintaining athletic stamina
- Supporting digestive health
Now that you know how essential protein is, let’s discuss how much of it you should be eating!
Getting enough protein
If you’re a moderately active to active man, your protein intake should range between 84-119g of protein a day with variances depending on age, weight, activity level, etc. For a women in this category, your intake should be around 66-94g. If you regularly lift weights and take part in strengthening exercises, your intake should be on the higher end of the scale.
Now, before you rush out and buy a protein powder that promises 30g of pure protein in one scoop, here’s the thing: its best to get your protein intake through divided doses throughout the day and spread it across multiple meals and snacks.
Of course, a protein supplement is the easiest way to boost your daily protein intake, and it comes in very handy! A good tip, however, is to mix your shake, and drink half of it before your workout to boost your levels of the energy and muscles building amino acids, and then consume the other half after your workout as a recovery shake.
Additionally, remember to incorporate wholesome, high protein foods such as eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, nut butters, quinoa, meat and animal products, or whatever your suits your dietary requirements!
When you begin to balance your protein intake and your workout intensity, you’ll not only notice improvements in body composition8,9 but, also, in overall health. Whether it’s digestion, mood, immunity or any other area you may currently be struggling with10, protein may just be the essential factor in your improvement!
- Phillips, S., et al. Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2016. 41(5):565-572.
- Burke, L., et al. Effect of intake of different dietary protein sources on plasma amino acid profiles at rest and after exercise. Int. J. Sport. Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 2012. 22(6): 452-462.
- WHO Technical Report Series 935. Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition: report of a joint FAO/WHO/UNU expert consultation. Report of a Joint WHO/FAO/UNU Expert Consultation. 2011.
- Wu G, Bazer FW, Dai ZL, Li DF, Wang JJ, Wu ZL. Amino acid nutrition in animals: protein synthesis and beyond. Annu Rev Anim Biosci. 2014. 2:387–417.
- Hou, E., et al. Dietary essentiality of “nutritionally non-essential amino acids” for animals and humans. Experimental Biology and Medicine. 2015. 240(8):997-1007.
- Churchward-Venne, T., et al. Supplementation of a suboptimal protein dose with leucine or essential amino acids: effects on myofibrillar protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in men. J. Physiol. 2012b. 590(11): 2751-2765.
- Phang, J., et al.. Bridging epigenetics and metabolism: role of non-essential amino acids. Epigenetics 2013. 8:231–6.
- Burd, N., et al. Exercise training and protein metabolism: influences of contraction, protein intake, and sex-based differences. J Appl Physiol. 2009. 106:1692-1701.
- Churchward-Venne, T., et al. Research Group. Nutritional regulation of muscle protein synthesis with resistance exercise: strategies to enhance anabolism. Nutr. Metab. 2012a. 9(1): 40.
- Dong, J., et al. Effects of high-protein diets on body weight, glycaemic control, blood lipids and blood pressure in type 2 diabetes: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br. J. Nutr. 2013. 110(5): 781-789