Protein is arguably the most essential macronutrient for muscle growth and repair. In fact, it’s pretty essential for every physiological mechanism within the human body. There has been a lot of buzz in the last couple of years around protein-based products like protein powder, protein bars, and protein supplements.
So what’s the science? Do high protein diets increase muscle protein synthesis and repair or is it just clever advertising? Let’s find out the truth about protein function.
What is protein and why do we need it?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients, alongside carbohydrates and fats, used by your body to fuel your daily functions. This ranges from liver detoxification to lifting weights, all require protein.
The definition of protein is any class of nitrogenous organic compounds, composed of one or more long chains of amino acids. Protein comes in many forms and can be complete or incomplete. The structure of protein is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. A complete protein is the best source of protein as it contains all the nine amino acids and is the type of protein essential for muscle building and repair. Examples of this type of protein include protein-rich animal products such as chicken, fish, beef and eggs or non-animal products like tofu, tempeh and quinoa.
Insufficient protein intake will make it difficult - if not impossible - to build muscle. This is because amino acids are the building blocks of muscle mass, so without them you will be in a negative nitrogen balance i.e. a catabolic state. Luckily protein deficiency is not common among individuals on a balanced diet, there is 45g of protein in one single chicken breast, and chicken is the most accessible and commonly eaten food in the US. However, vegans and vegetarians may have to be more vigilant as plants contain lower amounts of complete protein.
Catabolism is when your body does not have enough protein available so will break down your muscle tissue for energy. This is obviously problematic for people who spend time in the gym trying to increase their muscle mass and strength, their poor diet is counteracting the benefits of the exercise.
How much protein do I need?
According to research, the recommended daily amount of protein has increased from 0.4 grams per pound of body weight to the current amount of 0.6 grams (per lb of bw). Our bodies have no mechanism to store protein, unlike carbohydrates and fat, so sufficient amounts need to be consumed each day. By not consuming protein consistently throughout the day, we are limiting the time protein has to do its work of building, preserving and repairing muscles.
The ‘anabolic window’ refers to the 30 minute to 3 hour window post-exercise in which you need to make sure you have at least 20g of protein to fuel your muscles that have been damaged during the workout.
Some studies have shown that if you miss this window, your body will start breaking down the muscle tissue. Eating in this window has been shown to significantly elevate the delivery of amino acids to your muscles to stimulate maximal growth and recovery. So be aware when planning your post-workout meal, make sure it contains a complete source of protein, as mentioned above.
We hope this has helped you understand the role of protein in your diet.
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