Friend or foe?
You probably already know that protein intake has a lot to do with the kind of physique we end up with. We’ve all seen that unbelievably cut bodybuilder talking about the importance of getting enough.
Then again … you can bet the 700lb guy you saw on that talkshow being lifted out his house by crane got plenty of protein too. So what’s the story, is it good or bad?
Is it just a case of taking the proper amount? Or is there such a thing as the right protein and the wrong protein?
We’ll cover all these questions and more in this article. By the time we’re done you should have a much clearer idea of what you should be aiming for protein wise and the best way to get it.
What has it done for you lately?
A lot. Protein is what’s known as a macronutrient, meaning that along with fats and carbohydrates it’s one of the things essential for our body to function.
It makes up 10% of our brain as well as 20% of crucial organs like the heart and liver. Nearly every process in a healthy human body depends on regular supplies of protein, right down to the powering of our cells.
Vital enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters all rely on us getting enough protein. But it’s probably most famous for building, maintaining, and repairing organs and tissues, such as skin, bone, cartilage and muscle.
Protein is made up of amino acids and falls into one of two categories: complete and incomplete.
Complete proteins contain 9 essential amino acids the body needs to operate. These are found in food such as chicken, fish, red meat, eggs and dairy.
Incomplete proteins on the other hand are missing one or more of the magic 9 and need to be combined with foods or supplements containing what’s missing. Examples include nuts and seeds, grains and veg.
Pump up, the volume?
The RDA of protein for a person who does little exercise to stay healthy is 0.8g per kg of weight. but that really is the bare minimum.
For endurance athletes, running and swimming on a regular basis, that number increases to 1.2-1.4g/kg and for bodybuilders keen to pack on muscle mass, a good rule of thumb is 1.4g/kg.
The higher end of that can be tricky to get from diet alone, especially if you’re trying to keep calories down. Luckily there’s no shortage of protein supplements to help you reach your target.
Protein Enriched Bread – Carbs have traditionally been the enemy of anyone attempting to lose weight or increase muscle mass, but any protein devotees jonesing for a sandwich can now go opt for protein enriched bread. It contains about 25g of protein compared to just 2 in ordinary wholemeal bread.
Whey Protein – Complete proteins extracted from milk that are quickly absorbed into the body. Promotes anabolic hormones and contains branch chain amino acids that make it perfect for building muscle while strength training. Obviously not suitable for vegans or those with lactose intolerance.
Soy Protein – Proteins from the soybean plant that also have all 9 amino acids. Not absorbed as quickly as whey and with reduced anabolic qualities, but includes other beneficial nutrients. Maybe not as effective a body builder but useful for maintaining energy levels and muscle mass during exercise.
Too much of a good thing?
With all these advantages for our health, physique and performance, it’s tempting to go overboard with our daily protein intake.
There are some who worry about the health effects of taking way over the suggested dose for even elite bodybuilders. Are they right?
One of the things you’ll hear a lot is that too much protein damages your kidneys. In actual fact there are no studies that prove the organs are damaged by protein. However some byproducts of protein metabolism do make your kidneys work much harder, so if you have problems in that area it would pay to be careful.
Another worry is that too much protein will make you fat. Again, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are plenty of protein rich, low fat options you can add to your diet.
Cooked chicken breasts only come in at 2-3g of fat per serving and lean red meat only has 6-8g. Protein shakes are and exercise aid and will only pile on the pounds if you’re knocking them back with your feet up on the couch.
Other problems such as bad breath, low mood or stomach problems only occur if protein makes up too high a percentage of your diet. In other words, these symptoms don’t result from too much protein, rather carbohydrate deficiency [Editor: Anyone remember the Atkins diet?]. It’s not a case of protein good, carbs bad here, it’s all about balance.
Protein is important. Not only to building muscle and burning fat but also to staying healthy generally.
But it’s not a magic bullet. It can’t do any of those things on its own. If you incorporate your increased protein intake as part of a balanced diet or sensible supplement regime, there’s no reason why you should see anything but rewards.