If you spend any amount of time in a gym, you are bound to see lots of protein shakes. It has become something of a culture amongst even the mere mortals attending the gym and not just restricted to the body builders! So what magic does this macronutrient weave that makes it so sought after and is it that important that we need to supplement our diets to ensure we get enough?
The Role of Protein
Proteins play a major role in the repair, regulation, and protection of the body. They actually take on many roles. They help to keep the skin, hair and nails healthy and are essential for body processes such as water balancing, nutrient transport, and muscle contractions. Protein is required for building and repair of body tissues (including muscle) which explains the abundance of protein shakes consumed in gyms!
They also form enzymes, hormones, and many immune molecules. Enzymes help increase the rate that the chemical reactions occur in your body and immune molecules perform the function of protecting our bodies against disease. Hormones are what provide the signals to the organs to perform certain functions for growth and regeneration. Unfortunately, they also like to wreak havoc on our emotions giving us some truly joyous times in our lives like puberty and, for the women; pregnancy, menopause and the delightful PMS!
Protein can also be used as a source of energy, but is generally only done so if there are insufficient carbohydrates or fats to be used.
Sources of Protein
Proteins are made up of amino acids which are referred to as the ‘building blocks’ of the human body. There are 20 essential amino acids required by the body, but the body can only produce 12 of these. The others must come directly from food sources. When we consume protein in our diet, it gets broken down into the individual amino acids and then put back together again as a new protein that the body requires.
Sources of protein include:
- lean meat, poultry and fish;
- dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese;
- seeds and nuts;
- beans and legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas);
- soy products like tofu; and
- some grain and cereal-based products.
The foods derived from animals contain higher amounts of protein than their plant based counterparts. That is why if you choose a vegetarian lifestyle, you need to be more mindful of ensuring you consume enough protein based foods to meet your daily requirements.
How Much Protein?
Your weight, age and health will play a factor in the amount of protein you need in your diet. As a rough guide, the recommended dietary intake (RDI) for protein is:
- Adult women should consume 0.75 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight.
- Adult men should consume 0.84 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women, and men and women over 70 years should consume around 1 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight.
Protein Deficiency / Excess Protein
Muscle or organ wasting can result in order for the body to meet its protein needs if enough protein is not being consumed through food sources. Our bodies can store fats and carbohydrates but must have protein replaced via our diets.
On the other hand, consuming an excess of protein can increase the excretion of calcium which can affect bone strength. Excess protein may also contribute to increased kidney problems.
There is generally little need to use protein supplements as you can obtain the required protein amounts from a well-structured diet. Most protein supplements are derived from cow’s milk and do not offer much other nutritional value.
Supplementation should only really be considered when it is impractical to consume sufficient foods to obtain the required protein. Having said this, the absorption time ‘window’ where consumption of protein is beneficial to stimulate muscle growth is actually 24 hours or more after a workout. Therefore, the need to have a quick ‘hit’ of protein post-workout is really just a myth! In fact, having a meal containing protein an hour or two prior to a workout can be just as effective for protein absorption for the aid of muscle building as having protein after a workout.