Protein for Performance
Protein is a popular nutrient in the sport community but is a topic that we often lack a thorough understanding of. We know it’s important and that active people need a lot of it, right? You want to gain muscle? Eat more protein. It’s simple. Or is it? Protein is a complicated nutrient and one of great interest in the sport nutrition discipline. In this blog post I will attempt to scratch the surface and bring you some answers about how to optimize your protein intake for performance.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that make up our diet, along with fat and carbohydrates. It is made up of a combination of 20 amino acids. Our body can make some of these amino acids, but the 9 “essential” amino acids must come from our diet. Protein is part of many structures and functions in our body. It is important to our immune system, digestion, hormones, and movement, among many others.
I’m sure you already know that foods like meat, dairy and eggs are high in protein. But did you know that nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains like wheat, millet and kamut also contain protein? Animal foods are a complete protein source meaning that they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Plant foods, on the other hand, are an incomplete protein source because they only have a subset of the essential amino acids.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan who only consumes plant proteins, then it is important to combine foods which have complementary amino acids profiles. For example, grains are high in the amino acids methionine and cystine, but low in lysine. Legumes like beans and lentils are low in methionine and cystine, but high in lysine. That means eating grains and legumes together, like rice and beans, ensures you are getting all the amino acids you need.
How Much is Enough?
The National Academy of Medicine recommends that adults consume 0.8 g of protein each day for each kg of body weight they have. For example, someone who weighs 68 kg (150 lbs) would need to consume at least 54.4 g of protein each day (68 kg x 0.8 g) to maintain good health. However, there are extra considerations for athletes and individuals who want to gain muscle.
Endurance athletes like runners, cyclists or triathletes need 1.2 to 1.4 g of protein each day per kg of body weight.
Strength athletes like weight lifters or body builders who are trying to gain muscle need 1.6 to 1.7 g of protein each day per kg of body weight.
Below are some examples of what a 68 kg (150 lb) strength athlete could eat in a day in order to hit around 110 g of protein. The Fit Kitchen example comes from our Small Performance meal plan which typically provides about 100 to 130 g of protein each day.
Muscle Protein Synthesis
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is another way to describe muscle gain, muscle growth or muscle hypertrophy. MPS does not result from eating protein alone. It has to be accompanied by a form of resistance exercise that puts strain on your muscles. The rate that your body can perform MPS depends on the type and frequency of exercise, the type and amount of protein being consumed, as well as genetics.
On the nutrition side, there are a few ways we can optimize protein intake in order to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
Eat More Leucine
Leucine is one of the 9 essential amino acids and is also one of the “branched-chain” amino acids. It is the easily absorbed and is broken down in the muscles. Leucine is a key activator of MPS and can increase muscle growth even without a very high intake of protein. Some foods high in Leucine include dairy, poultry, beef and edamame. The World Health Organization recommends adults get 20 mg of leucine per day, per kg of body weight. However, this could be higher for athletes and active people. Eating 1 cup of yogurt, or 3 oz of chicken or steak would meet this recommendations for most people.
Eat Protein during the Anabolic Window
The “Anabolic Window” is usually considered the 30-60 minutes after exercise in which consuming protein has the greatest affect on muscle growth. This happens because of cellular pathways which are activated during resistance exercise and that allow more efficient absorption of protein post workout. It is important to eat carbohydrates along with protein after a workout, otherwise the protein will be used for energy right away, rather than muscle building. A snack like chocolate milk or yogurt and berries can be great during the anabolic window because the whey protein is high in leucine, is a complete protein and is digested quickly.
Eat Protein Throughout the Day
It is important to spread out your protein intake over the whole day, rather than consuming it all at one or two meals. This is because muscle protein synthesis ebbs and flows throughout the day as protein becomes available. Eating a high protein snack before bed can be beneficial too because it allows MPS to continue while you sleep.
Keep in mind that as time goes on you will start to see a lower rate of muscle gain compared to protein intake. You might notice that at the beginning of a new workout plan you are gaining muscle very quickly, but that by the 6th month on that plan, you are seeing very small gains. This is to be expected and is called the “Law of Diminished Returns”.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1. Is protein used as a fuel source during exercise?
-> Short answer – No. Protein is rarely used as a fuel source during exercise. It might be used during a long endurance event like a marathon or Ironman if you don’t consume enough carbohydrates during the event. Protein is only burned when your carbohydrate and fat sources have been exhausted.
Q2. Should I consume protein during a workout?
-> Probably not. Since protein isn’t used as a fuel source during exercise, there is not much benefit to consuming it. It’s best to consume easy to digest carbohydrates during exercise. However, if you’re only working out for an hour or less, you likely won’t need anything as long as you fueled enough beforehand.
Q3. Should I use protein supplements like powders or bars?
– > Protein powders, bars and other products can be a great supplement to the protein you get from whole foods. They are easy to eat or mix into foods and it’s easy to measure how much protein you’re getting. However, these supplements can be quite expensive and they don’t provide the same range of nutrients that a normal meal would. Sport nutritionists generally recommend that athletes should get their protein from whole food sources and only supplement if they are really struggling to get enough from food. Another consideration is that protein powders are not always strictly regulated and may contain substances that are banned by some sport organizations. Check to see if your supplement has been certified safe at this link: https://www.nsfsport.com/certified-products/
Q4. If I’m using a protein powder, what type is best?
-> Whey protein powder is widely believed to be the most effective at generating muscle protein synthesis for a few reasons. Whey is high in the amino acid leucine, it is a complete protein meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids, and it is easy to digest for most people. Soy protein can be a good option for those that can’t tolerate dairy or who are vegan.