Proteins are very important to our bodies. It isn’t just for bodybuilders who use them to gain muscle mass.
Those who are sick use them to rebuild damaged tissue and even in normal states, our body uses protein for many different tasks.
Proteins are made of amino acids that are folded together.
There are essential amino acids
Those that our body cannot make, and non essential amino acids – those that our body can make.
Proteins that are made up of all the essential amino acids are said to be complete while those that lack in one or more essential amino acid are incomplete.
Incomplete proteins come mainly from vegetable sources with the one exception being soy.
The ideal source should be complete proteins.
For most people that isn’t a problem. If you are worried about fat intake, try lean cuts of beef, chicken and turkey.
For vegetarians whose main source comes from incomplete proteins, getting a variety of vegetables and whole grains throughout the day will ensure that all essential amino acids are consumed.
Also, using soy protein (which is the only complete vegetable source of protein) is very beneficial.
The word protein was coined by the Dutch chemist Geradus Mulder in 1838 and comes form the Greek word “protos” which means “of prime importance.”
Your body, after water, is largely made up of protein. Protein is used by the body to build, repair and maintain muscle tissue.
Protein consists of amino acids, usually referred to as the “building blocks of protein.”
There are approximately 20 amino acids, nine of which are considered essential because the body cannot make them, they must be supplied by the diet.
This is essential for growth and the building of new tissue as well as the repair of broken down tissue – like what happens when you work out.
When you hear the term “positive nitrogen balance,” it refers to being in a state of having enough protein available for the needs of the body and the needs of building muscle.
What does nitrogen have to do with protein?
Nitrogen is one of the most important elements in all protein (Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, P. n-31).
It is essential to animal life for tissue building.
This statement alone defines the key need for protein when lifting weights.
For the most part, we are told to eat sufficient protein (every 3-4 hours) to maintain a positive nitrogen balance because your body is actually in an anabolic, or building up phase in this state, where a negative nitrogen balance, from lack of adequate protein, indicates a catabolic, or tearing down state.
This is one reason why protein (and eating enough throughout the day) is important: lack of adequate protein, and your body begins to break down tissue (read: muscle) to meet its daily protein needs.
Our bodies constantly assemble, break down and use proteins (in the form of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein), there are thousands of different protein combinations used by the body, each one has a specific function determined by its amino acid sequence.
Virtually all modern authorities agree that one to 1 ½ grams of protein per lb. of body weight is best for muscle growth.
Besides taking in high quality protein from food (lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs), the best way to keep your protein intake at the proper levels are through the use of protein shakes.
The other part of getting the most out of your protein intake and thereby maintaining a positive nitrogen balance is carb and fat intake; both are needed in reasonable amounts to insure protein synthesis.
As far as powders are concerned
As far as powders are concerned, whey protein is the best quality, meaning your body will absorb and use more of it.
Whey protein remains number one, because of its high quality, but milk-based proteins are making a comeback, largely because of their longer lasting effects in the body: whey is typically touted as a fast digesting protein, milk as a slow digesting protein.
People always judge a protein powder by the number of advertised grams per serving: “This one only has 17 grams, it’s not as good as this one that has 50 grams!”
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Protein contains four calories per gram, that’s how it’s measured, meaning that it doesn’t matter what the label says, they are using different scoop sizes, and number of scoops per serving to get that advertised amount.
Since protein is four calories per gram, and scoop sizes are measured in grams, if you used a standard scoop size and quantity, you would get the same amount of protein, regardless of the brand name (excepting minor variances for fat and carb content).
Test this out yourself
Test this out yourself, the next time you’re at the vitamin store, compare protein labels. Note the protein, carb and fat per serving.
Now note the scoop size and how many scoops equal one serving.
You will see that any label with a high advertised protein content is using a large scoop and probably two scoops a serving.
A smaller scoop and serving amount corresponds to a protein with a lower advertised amount.
Now let’s get back to my main topic regarding protein.
The timing of protein is the key to maintaining a positive nitrogen balance and staying in an anabolic state.
You should take in protein every 3 – 4 hours; your protein intake should be evenly divided up throughout the day over the course of 5-6 meals.
This can be three main meals and 2-3 high protein snacks or shakes.
Critical times to take in protein
Other than that, there are some critical times to take in protein – first thing in the morning, with some simple carbohydrates because you have not eaten since the evening before and your body is in a catabolic state.
You should also be sure to take in a protein shake with fast carbohydrates – like fruit – about 1 hour before you train and you should take in a similar shake after you train – this should be, by the way, 40-60 grams of protein and about the same in carbohydrates.
Finally, you should have a small protein shake or meal before bed, because during the night you typically fall into a catabolic state.
Good Food Choices For Protein
- Lean beef
- Low fat dairy
Adults should consume 10 to 35 percent of their energy intake from protein, according to the Institute of Medicine.
Since protein provides 4 calories per gram, if your goal is to consume 20 percent of your calories from protein you’d need to eat 400 calories, or about 100 grams, of protein per day when consuming a 2,000-calorie diet.
High-protein foods include lean meats, poultry, seafood, soy products, seitan, eggs, dairy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Protein pre or post-workout?
Studies show that protein, both if consumed before and after working out, promotes muscle growth.
However, after your workout it is vital to combine protein intake with carbohydrates.
Protein with every meal
Add a small portion to all your meals to provide your body with sufficient protein as well as keep you fuller longer.
One last tip for a high-quality supply: Opt for vegetable protein whenever possible, e.g. for lentils or beans.
The chicken of the sea is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, among other valuable nutrients.
It’s far more meaty and flavoursome than the canned version (with a price to match) and can be served rare, or even just seared.
The, er, tuna of the land has a good level of protein. If you’re watching your fat intake, make sure to go for breast rather than legs or thighs.
These cuts are great sources of selenium, an essential mineral that’s linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer.
There is five times more selenium in pork chops than in similar cuts of beef.
This cheese boasts 770mg of bone-reinforcing calcium per 100g, which equates to roughly three-quarters of your RDA.
Unlike other cheeses it’ll tak ages spoil too, thanks to its distinctive red paraffin wax coating.
It may be associated with the rich, but the canned stuff can be bought in supermarkets at a price that doesn’t require an offshore bank account.
If you do treat yourself, expect a protein-heavy snack that’s also full of a red blood cell component called haemoglobin that helps your blood carry oxygen more efficiently.
A can of tuna in spring water contains approximately 111 calories and is completely fat-free.
This fish is low in fat, but full of flavour.
Avoid the chip shop battered version if you want your protein without an additional serving of cooking oil and the saturated fat it’s packed with.
The pink flesh of salmon contains loads of omega 3 fatty acids that make it great for a range of things from eye health to fat burning.
Ditch the bacon and have this with your eggs in the morning for a healthier start to your day.
Tempeh is a soy product with high levels of easily absorbed calcium.
Unlike most other soy products, it’s not processed (and therefore packed with extra crap) and is considered a whole food.
This game meat has a significant level of B vitamins, potassium and iron.
It sounds expensive, but head to your local butchers and you might be surprised at how affordable it can be.
Crab meat is low in calories, a good source of vitamins and minerals such as selenium.
It’s also a natural source of omega 3 fatty acids, which can help to improve memory, decrease the chances of having a heart attack.
Decreases your risk of cancer and may even help to improve depression and anxiety.
Content: 21g per can
This fish is remarkably cheap if you buy the canned kind, and it doesn’t skimp on protein content either.
Delivering plenty of omega 3 fats and vitamin D, sardines are also great for boosting testosterone.
A good source of easily absorbed zinc, iron and selenium, which all help to boost your body’s immune system.
This bird is high in protein, low in fat and a good source of vitamin B6 and niacin, both of which are essential for regulating your body’s energy production.
Cheap and convenient in canned form, mackerel also provides high levels of brain-boosting vitamin B12.
While it’s something of an exotic meat here in the UK, bison is definitely worth seeking out.
It tastes delicious and, as well as being a good natural protein source, it’s incredibly lean with only 2.42g of fat per 100g serving.
King of the nuts protein-wise, cashews also have a high level of antioxidants, which according to the British Journal Of Nutrition are essential for good heart health.
A mere 3-4 nuts will provide your entire RDA of selenium, a nutrient that plays a key role in keeping colds at bay during winter.
Fun fact: the tree itself can grow to 50m in height and live for up to 1,000 years.
You should be eating more wholegrains anyway, so quinoa’s protein content is the perfect excuse for adding it to your diet.
It’s perfect for vegans, as well as being free of fat and gluten.
These actually contain more protein than chicken eggs, and they taste richer. Consider switching for a breakfast treat.
These curds are laced with slow-digesting casein protein that will supply your growing muscles with a steady supply of amino acids that are vital for muscle growth.
It can be quite high in sodium though, so be sure to check labels and go for the brands that contain less.
If you’re looking to switch out carbs for extra protein, these buckwheat Japanese-style noodles are a great alternative to pasta.
They contain a great deal more protein than most wheat-based noodles and they cook in about half the time. Win-win.
Greek (not Greek style) yogurt is packed full of healthy bacteria and enzymes that do wonders for your digestive health.
They’re a New Year’s Eve speciality in Italy and Hungary, but given their crucial ability to turn carbs into fuel, we’d recommend indulging in them all year round. Use them to thicken meaty stews and salads
One of the earliest cultivated legumes, dating back 7,500 years in the Middle East, chickpeas are particularly rich in folate, a B vitamin that helps to support and maintain a healthy nervous system.
Use them blended with lemon, fresh garlic and tahini in delicious DIY hummus.
A 200g serving – half a regular can – provides over 50% of your GDA of fibre, which plays a key role in healthy digestive function.
Use them in a chilli con carne topped with Greek yogurt and fresh coriander.
Content: 8g per spoonful
It’s still the best kind of nut-based spread for sheer protein content, despite the increasing popularity of almond butter.
Try to go for the organic versions, which pack in more nuts and far less sugar and fatty oil.
As well as being loaded with healthy fats, hummus’s other nutritional benefits include calcium and natural antioxidants. Use it to replace mayonnaise for healthier and tastier sandwiches.
Manganese is used to strengthen bones and metabolise carbs, amino acids and cholesterol, and you get 184% of your RDA from 100g of tofu.
It also has 24g of unsaturated fats, which makes it a perfect post-gym protein source because, according to a study in the Journal Of The American College of Cardiology.
Eating unsaturated fats after exercise increases the blood flow in your arteries by 45%, encouraging more anti-inflammatory agents to rush to your muscles.
These tasty beans are one of the few frozen vegetables that contain a decent amount of plant protein and they will also add a shot of fibre, vitamins and minerals to your diet.
If you find them a bit too bland try livening them up with fresh lemon juice, smoked paprika and a pinch of sal.
It may seem the most basic, bland, at-least-the-children’ll-eat-them legume there is, but considering the humble garden pea’s high levels of bone-reinforcing manganese and vitamin K, it’s well worth including on your plate – even in mushy form.
Use them blended in a hearty soup with broccoli and Stilton.
Like sugar snap peas, these unripe seeds are picked and served in their pods – which gives them sweetness – and provide plenty of anti-inflammatory flavonoids and carotenoids.
Use them steamed with diced shallots and butter as a tasty side for pretty much any meat or fish dish.