The importance of protein
Do you know much protein you need? What are some good food sources of protein, vegetarian sources included? When do you need to eat more protein?
Let’s get started with answering the question; What is protein and why is it important?
The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, protein. Unlike carbs and fats, protein is not primarily used for energy; however, it does play a role in keeping you full and satiated after a meal. Compared to carbs, protein takes longer to break down, resulting in those feelings of fullness. Every cell in your body is made up of protein, from your muscles, hair, skin, nails, and much more. All of our hormones and neurotransmitters need protein to be manufactured in the body. Therefore, protein is considered the building block of life. Protein is also involved in many bodily functions, from digestion to blood clotting, immunity, and hormone production.
There are three main functions that protein is responsible for. They are the building blocks of our immune system, important components of neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes, and critical for maintenance and growth of lean muscle mass as well as promoting tissue recovery and repair.
So, you are probably wondering, how much protein should I consume?
A general rule of thumb is to consume 20-30 grams of protein per meal and 15-20 grams of protein per snack. In other words, consume about 25-30% of your calories from protein per day.
Increase in Protein Needs
Now let’s chat more about when protein needs increase and what that looks like. There are many circumstances where protein needs will increase, however I am going to cover the main ones.
Strength athletes should aim to consume 1.8-2.2 grams per kg of body weight each day versus endurance athletes, who should consume 1.2-1.6 grams per kg of body weight. The key thing here is spacing out your protein intake throughout the day. Muscle protein synthesis (MPS), is maximally stimulated when isolated high-quality protein is consumed at a dose of 0.25-0.4 grams of protein per kg per meal or 0.4-0.5g per kg per meal for real food. Furthermore, leucine rich rapid digested proteins elicit greater stimulation of MPS. I recommend you distribute protein intake in 4-5 equally spaced servings throughout the day for maximal effects.
Regarding which amino acids are the most important when it comes to muscle building, I would prioritize your three BCAA; leucine, valine and isoleucine in a 3: 2: 1 ratio. In order to have anabolic effects of MPS, you want the rate of MPS to be higher than the rate of degradation. The amino acid leucine is the driver for MPS and will help maintain and build muscle tissue. **Please note that in order to build muscle it’s not just about eating more protein, but rather consuming protein in addition to an exercise stimulus. Without the stimulus, you will not gain more muscle just by eating more protein. Anyone who is active needs to have a positive nitrogen balance – meaning they consume more than is used by the body.
Protein and Age
Protein intake increases with aging, especially the need for leucine, which is the driver for MPS. After 45 years, your protein synthesis decreases, therefore your needs will increase. Young children who perform intense activities will also need to consume more protein.
Lastly, a protein intake of 30% of your daily calories is optimal for weight loss. It has been shown to boost your metabolism and reduce your appetite; it takes more energy to break down protein therefore increasing the thermic effect of food. Additionally, protein will help keep you feeling satiated. If you want to calculate how much 30% of your calories would be, you first need to know how many calories you need to consume, then multiply your caloric intake by 0.075 to get the amount of protein in grams that would total 30%. Keep in mind that 1 gram of protein is equal to 4 calories.
What are good sources of protein?
Written by Diane Tuerke, Registered Kinesiologist, Certified Nutritional Practitioner and founder of Nourished Movement.