If you’re into fitness, no doubt you’ve heard that protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery. But what types of protein is best? And how much should you be consuming? What comes to mind when you think of the word “protein” will be different for everyone. Some salivate over pork ribs whilst others guzzle down a protein shake.
Food aside, protein has a huge role to play in the body. From our skin, hair, nails nerves, bones, and, of course, muscle, protein is everywhere! It even has a role to play in our blood, for example haemoglobin is a protein, which transports oxygen around the body. Our immune system and our hormones are made up of protein, and even the way that we burn energy requires enzymes, which are all proteins.
Protein comes from two different sources: plant based (such as soy, nuts, legumes and grains); or animal based (meat, dairy, fish, dairy and eggs). Animal protein is ‘complete’ – meaning it contains the right proportions of the essential amino acids (protein’s building blocks) your body can’t synthesise on its own – hence why you need to source them through your diet. Plant proteins, on the other hand (with the exception of soy) are limited in some of the essential amino acids (aka ‘incomplete’ proteins) hence why vegetarians need to combine different plant-based sources. For example, combining beans with wholegrains will give you all of the amino acids.
When choosing protein-rich foods pay attention to what comes along with it. Plant sources offer a healthy dose of fibre, B-group vitamins, antioxidants and heart-healthy fats. Animal sources can be a great source of iron, zinc and healthy fats if you’re choosing the leaner versions. Think fish, skinless chicken, eggs, low-fat dairy and lean cuts of red meat. Processed meat (bacon, sausages, ham) and Camembert cheese can come with a hefty dose of saturated fat, salt and nitrates.
Just eating protein goes way beyond building muscle. Thinking that downing protein shakes can translate into bigger muscle gains is not necessarily the case. If it is increased muscle mass that you’re after then you need to have the strength-training stimulus, and chow down extra calories – but not necessarily all from protein. The amount of fat and carbs matter, too.
We’ve all heard about the “30-minute window of opportunity”, necessary to stimulate muscle growth following resistance exercise. But how long this window remains open is still debated; it likely exists for several hours. So, fear not gym goers, your muscle gains aren’t going to shrivel away because you didn’t whip up a protein shake moments after your last set of bench press. What matters more is that you eat regular meals and snacks with a focus on higher protein foods throughout the day.
Everyone is different. The type and amount of protein you need in your diet will depend on your overall diet, how often, and how intensely you exercise, as well as your budget. Official figures recommend around 0.8 to 1g of protein per kilo of body weight. For example, a 75 kg adult male would need roughly 63 g of protein per day.
To simplify even further, it is recommended that 15 to 25 per cent of total calorie intake per day is from protein sources. You can happily have between 1g to 2g of protein per kilo of body weight and still be within the safe levels. However the top end of that range is recommended for elite endurance athletes, power sportspeople or those looking to add size to their frame. For example, a 90kg marathon runner may require between 90g – 180g of protein per day.
Bottom line? If the numbers are doing your head in – it’s always easier to aim for the simple plate rule: ½ your plate fruit or vegetables, ¼ plate wholegrain carbs and the remaining quarter protein (fist-sized). This will certainly ensure you’re getting enough protein.