When Life Gives you Lemons,

Ask for Something Higher in Protein

Protein intake is a topic of constant discussion among athletes and weekend warriors alike.  What is the importance of protein, what does it do for our bodies and how much is too much?

Protein is one of the three main macronutrients required by our bodies.  Along with carbohydrates and fats (and many micronutrients), all of our bodies function using these nutrients.  The building blocks of proteins are amino acids.  Amino acids are organic molecules linked together by peptide bonds to form chains.  All proteins are built from a set of only 20 amino acids.  These amino acids are linked together in different configurations for different cellular functions.  Amino acids are classified as either essential or non-essential.  As the name suggests, essential amino acids cannot be produced by the body and therefore must come from our diet.  Non-essential amino acids can be produced by our bodies.

Our bodies are made up of thousands of different proteins, each with a specific function.  They make up the structural components of our cells and tissues.  They also form many enzymes and hormones.  These body proteins are constantly breaking down, repaired and replaced throughout our lives.  This is a process called “protein synthesis”.  Although some amino acids can be recycled for repair use again, this process is inefficient.  This means that we must eat dietary protein to keep up with the body’s demand for amino acids. 

The million dollar question:  How much protein do we need??

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. To determine your daily protein intake, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.  For a relatively active adult, a daily protein intake to meet the RDA would supply as little as 10% of his or her total daily calories.   The RDA needs to base their recommendations on the “average American ” and what’s reasonable and attainable for “most” Americans.  Let’s face it – we’re not the healthiest of humans.  If you’re even moderately active – and especially if you’re an athlete, 10% of your total calories coming from proteins won’t even come close to meeting your needs.

Athletes expend more energy than the average person and their bodies need additional nutrients to recover from intense physical activity. Protein plays an important role in an athlete’s eating plan as it helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. High protein diets are popular among athletes — especially those seeking a leaner, more defined physique. But how much protein is necessary?   The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training.  That’s over twice as much as the RDA recommends!

 Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day.  In other words, your body can only metabolize about 30-40 grams of quality protein at a sitting.    Binging on excessive amounts of protein will just cause your body to “spill” it and you will excrete it in your urine.

Muscle growth and repair only happen when exercise and nutrition are paired.   It’s very important to consider the timing of protein intake in relation to exercise.   Eating high-quality protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy or soy) within two hours after exercise — either by itself or with a carbohydrate — enhances muscle repair and growth.  Most protein needs can be met with whole food nutrition, but at times, it’s helpful to use supplementation to help meet daily needs.  A protein shake can be especially useful after a workout out for convenience.

As a personal trainer, I feel comfortable counseling my active clients to aim for ingesting 1gram/kg of body weight (specifically lean weight).  This makes calculating daily grams easy if they know how much they weigh.  I also look for a 40%protein/ 40% carbohydrate/ 20% fats macro breakdown per meal as well as total calories for the day.  These percentages and grams can easily be tracked on the many apps available today.  Two popular tracking apps are, My Fitness Pal and My Plate.  I tell my clients that they don’t need to track forever, just long enough to get an idea of what the food on their plates looks like in numbers.  

Eating and drinking high protein foods and shakes are brought up often when people make fun of “bodybuilders”.  However, in all seriousness, high performing athletes, individuals building large amounts of muscle or strength or even a highly active Average Joe needs more (almost double) the amount of protein a sedentary American needs.  Keeping your protein intake safely in the 1-2 grams/kg of body weight range will most definitely help you perform at a higher level.  You will be able to repair damaged tissues faster, aid in protein synthesis better and burn fat more efficiently.  Now go get your protein on!