One of the main responsibilities you have as a recreational or professional athlete is maintaining adequate nutrition. If you want to maintain optimal physical conditioning, in particular muscle integrity, then the regular consumption of key nutrients is vital…and top of the list is protein! Dietary protein is protein that is consumed via your diet i.e. the food you eat, it is important because it provides the raw materials your muscles need for repair and growth. Not only this, many of the amino acids (building blocks of protein) that make up a protein food source are used to not only build muscle, but to provide energy too
Where can you get your protein from?
First and foremost, protein should be consumed from whole foods including meats such as poultry, beef, pork and fish, soy, egg, milk, nuts and beans, peas and pulses. The consumption of protein via this route is best because it not only delivers protein and amino acids, but also vitamins and minerals, as well as soluble and insoluble fibre. There is no substitute for natural, whole food sources of protein, but there are sources of protein that can be used to ‘supplement’ these sources. Prime examples include nutrition supplements such as whey, egg, pea or soy protein powders (mixed up to make drinks), these are useful for a number of reasons. Protein supplements mainly come in liquid form meaning they’re already partially digested, consequently the body doesn’t have to work so hard to digest and absorb them meaning they are absorbed more easily into the body. The ability of protein supplements to be absorbed more easily means the protein is usually available to the muscles more quickly. As a result, a protein supplement is an ideal and convenient form of protein immediately after exercise, a time when you’re body needs it the most.
Protein supplements are also ‘clean’ sources of protein, implying there is little else in the drink other than protein. Of course, most whole foods also come with little added carbs etc, but liquid nutrition has the added benefit of convenience. Convenience is a big factor in the rise of the protein shake, but it also occupies less physical space in the stomach and tastes great which enables us to consume more of the good stuff!
How much do you need?
There has been a lot of research on how much protein is best to consume. Factors considered have included any potential side effects that may accompany excessive use of protein, whether it effects gastrointestinal function (diarrhoea or constipation), how it may effect major organs (if at all), and whether the protein itself is absorbed and actually used by the body or just excreted out (via a number 1 or number 2). So what has ‘excessive use’ actually been classified as? The Department of Health (DoH) suggest that an average adult should aim to consume between 0.75g-1.5g protein per kg body weight. However, this recommendation is widely considered to be well below the requirements for some recreational and elite athletes who often consume in excess of 2-2.5g protein per kg body weight per day. Therefore a good range is generally considered to be 1.5g-2.5g protein per kg body weight per day, but this is entirely subjective and activity level dependent. Aim to have between 20-25g of fast acting protein within 30-60mins after your gym session.
What does this mean in terms of food and drink?
Well it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the protein counts of foods and supplements, but here is something to give you some context…
1 x Chicken breast = 150kcal; 32g Protein
1 x Thin cut steak = 275kcal; 26g Protein
1 x Medium Egg = 63kcal; 6g Protein
½ Can baked beans = 100kcal; 9g Protein
Compare this to an average whey protein shake where just a 30g scoop in 400ml water provides anything between 20 and 28g protein, and as little as 90kcal (calories). By no means am I implying protein supplements are better, but hopefully above demonstrates how protein dense a supplement can be…this is why protein shakes are a perfect addition to your regular dietary intake AND gaining muscle!
Department of Health, (2008). Dietary reference values for food energy and nutrients for the United Kingdom. Protein. London: TSO.
Tipton, K, D & Luc van Loon, J. C. (2013). Nutritional coaching strategy to modulate training efficiency. Basel: Karger.