Protein Explained

Protein is commonly known as the building block of life. As such, it is the most important factor in cell generation, maintenance and repair. In simple terms, proteins are responsible for your growth on a cellular level.

The human body is in a constant state of regeneration, especially when exercise is undertaken. When one ‘works out’ the body is put under large amounts of physical stress. In the field of weight training, exertion causes muscle tissue to break down on a chemical level before being rebuilt to better cope with the physical demands.

In layman’s’ terms; if a bodybuilder wishes to create a larger, stronger chest, he or she will lift an appropriate weight which targets the muscle groups in the chest. The weight, which is greater than the daily demands placed on the chest, will cause the fibres of the muscle to break down chemically. In turn, the body will rebuild the area to be better able to cope with the demands of the stimulus by being stronger and larger (though this is determined by the type of stress placed on it). The body can only do this with the assistance of the essential nutrient protein. Of course, this is a highly simplified version of the events.

As previously mentioned protein is the building block of life and as such, features in every living thing. Chicken, turkey, tuna and eggs are commonly seen as the gold standard of complete proteins (see amino-acids) but non-meat items such as beans, nuts, seeds and tofu also contain large amounts of dietary proteins though these aren’t always complete.

In order to ingest and digest the amount of protein needed through normal foods, one usually has to ingest and digest many other nutrients. This is one of the primary reasons why many athletes and workout warriors choose to take protein supplements as they are often lower in calorie to nutrient ratio and easier for the body to digest. The current UK dietary recommendations are 0.75g per kg of body-weight for sedentary folk, though this figure varies massively depending on the exercise level and goal of each individual.

Meredith et al, (1992) documented the importance of protein in muscle building determining that a combination of weight training and a protein supplement containing 23g of protein per serving enhanced muscle gains when compared to those training without the supplement. Many studies like this exist throughout the scientific world, most of which conclude that the optimum level for muscle building sits at around the 1.7g – 1.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight with little evidence showing that larger amounts equate to larger gains.

That said protein is not simply a supplement for use in mass gaining. Endurance athletes need a larger volume of carbohydrate than just about every other athletic endeavour. That said, endurance athletes can also benefit from a larger amount of protein required than sedentary folk, this is due to the stresses placed on the body during harder workouts such as sprinting. Though protein is rarely used for fuel and the body will specifically avoid using it unless it absolutely has to, an increase in protein from the 0.75g per kg base line anywhere up to 1.8g can be beneficial.

Nutrient timing is one of the often forgotten rules of sports specific training and, if done wrong can greatly hinder your performance. Immediately following a tough workout, specifically involving resistance training, the body goes into a catabolic state. In this state, the muscles are being broken down on a cellular level. In order to help the cells regenerate as quickly as possible an easily digestible protein is needed to supercharge into the working muscles and help to rebuild. This is where protein supplements come into their own as an easily digestible fuel injection of the nutrient that goes right to work repairing the body. Science repeatedly shows that protein supplementation within 30 minutes of finishing exercise is the ideal timing for optimum muscle recovery. Any later than that and muscle repair will not be as great as possible which could leave you lagging by the time you next hit the gym or the pavement.

The murky world of sports supplementation is a bit of a tough one to traverse. After all, products exist in every supermarket, fitness centre and even chemist. So which should you choose and why? With literally millions of products on the market from isolate whey proteins which contain minimal carbohydrate and fat to soy and other meat free versions, it would be impossible for me to say. However, a few rules to stick to when buying your protein powders are thus:

  1. Look for a product which contains at least 20g of protein per serving
  2. For best recovery results a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio is recommended so avoid isolate products.
  3. If you can’t pronounce anything on the ingredients list, don’t buy it. Look for products with as few ingredients as possible.
  4. Disregard flavour over nutritional quality. No matter what the box says, it will NOT taste like a McFlurry – don’t kid yourself.
  5. Just because your protein isn’t the most expensive, doesn’t mean it’s not as good. Often the most expensive brands are packed full of useless additives that no one really needs.

Needless to say I’m sure, protein supplements are not the magic potion which will turn you into Hercules, nor are they mere fiction. With the correct nutrient timing and exercise regime, protein supplements can be exceptionally beneficial to muscle building, weight loss and even recovery following endurance training. So long as one chooses ones supplement wisely and avoids the hysteria of mass marketed hyperbole, protein powders and ready made drinks can assist in just about every sporting capacity. Just never EVER buy banana flavour.