by Team Snapbac
Protein is the buzzword in every gym and training facility across the country and has taken the supplement industry by storm in powders, snacks, bars and fortified food, yet most of us still have no idea how much we need or how to use it properly. If you are an athlete or dedicated gym goer, you may be familiar with the idea that you need a greater protein intake than the sedentary individual, but do you know how much? Before you added in the daily protein shakes, did you calculate the quantity of protein that was coming through your foods and fortified beverages? Protein intake for an athlete may be higher than that of a desk jockey, but the numbers vary greatly depending on your athletic and physical needs. Are you building muscle, losing weight, gaining weight or eating for endurance? Are you a vegan or vegetarian and looking for complete proteins? Do you understand what a complete protein is and why we need it? Not all protein is created equal.
To get the best nutritional profile on your plate, you must understand what protein actually is and the different ways our bodies use it. It’s also necessary to grasp the protein, fat, carbohydrate balance and how that affects overall energy availability and expenditure. For example, if you eat food for energy and performance, your body will pull carbs first, but if you don’t have any available glucose, it will pull from protein and can alter muscle size, development and recovery. You need the right macronutrient ratio to fuel your body and be the best athlete at whatever you do.
Basically, protein is a sequence of amino acids linked together in different sized chains that are used in our bodies for numerous processes not only within muscle tissue but throughout the nervous system, organs and brain. There are twenty amino acids in total, but nine of those are considered essential, which means your body cannot make them on its own. You must ingest them. This is where dietary protein becomes critical, and not all forms of protein are the same. There may be protein in broccoli, but all nine amino acids are not in that protein chain. You need to consume histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine to give your body what it needs to survive, but you don’t need them all in the same amounts. This is where you need to get clear on your goals.
A body builder or athlete needing to bulk muscle would want to focus on leucine, around 16 mg a day per kilo of body weight, while an endurance athlete would want to supplement with 16 mg of valine and 5-10 mg of glutamine. We need all of them, but the amounts and combinations are specific to our goals.
For digestive, neurological and cerebral health an estimated 8-10 mg of histidine per kilo of body weight is best. If you want to fight fatigue and improve overall recovery, work in 12 mg or more of lysine per kilo of weight. To stay motivated and positive, as well as protect nerve impulses in your muscle contractions, aim for around 14 mg of phenylalanine per kilo of body weight, but keep this one in moderation. More is not better. Methionine is great for boosting metabolism and fat loss and is essential to creatine production, so aim for 12 mg per kilo of body weight. Muscle recovery and the release of HGH are augmented with 10-12 mg of isoleucine each day. Every athlete and human would benefit from 8 mg of threonine per kilo of body weight as it aids in nutrient bioavailability of various nutrients and is used to create collagen and elastin in the body.
Don’t worry; you don’t need to become a biochemist to meal plan effectively. As long as you are getting the right amounts of high quality, animal protein sources, you will get what you need. Vegetarians can also get their protein requirements, but it will take a bit more research, and vegans should look into quality supplements.
So how much do you need? Well, this also breaks down into goal and sport requirements, but the current U.S. recommended daily allowance or RDA for daily protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or .4 grams per pound. This is a fundamental maintenance quantity to retain nitrogen balance in the average American adult. If an athlete were to use this quantity, they would fall into a negative nitrogen balance and the body would begin to break down healthy muscle tissue for the necessary protein to survive. Even non-athletes should eat 1 - 1.6 grams per kilo of body weight to ensure optimal health, but athletes need greater protein intake to keep up with the demand they put on their body’s energy output and to ensure muscle growth. Even so, the amount of protein may not be as high as some have claimed.
It is a common belief that body builders and those working to increase lean muscle mass and bulk need to drastically increase their daily protein consumption. This idea is due to protein’s role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis as well as sustaining lean body mass during caloric cuts. Muscle protein synthesis is what increases our strength and size and is the anabolic effect of protein which is mostly due to leucine, one of the branched chain amino acids. The other 8 essential amino acids have not been shown to increase mass on their own. Because muscle tissue is made up predominantly of proteins, having adequate levels in the system also improves recovery times after strenuous workouts.
It would be difficult to be an athlete in today’s health and fitness scene and not have heard about branched chain amino acids, BCAAs. Many body builders, marathoners and weekend warriors are adding this supplement to their water bottles and protein shakes. This is primarily due to the addition of leucine which has been proven to activate a protein kinase in our muscles called mammalian target of rapamycin or mTOR. It is this activation that boosts our muscle protein synthesis. This does not mean you can load up on leucine and forget the rest, as it only has a short-term effect.
This is where BCAA supplements become useful. They are a combination of the three primary amino acids, valine, iso-leucine and leucine, needed for muscle building and repair. Valine and iso-leucine do not have much of an anabolic effect but when combined in adequate doses, they will increase the anabolic nature of leucine. You must consume these amino acids together to support the leucine and sustain your new muscle growth. Remember that no matter how many BCAAs you add in your diet, muscle is only formed with resistance training. Diet is simply one piece of the athlete puzzle.
If you are using a high-quality BCAA supplement, the quantities of each amino acid will be proportioned adequately, but it is common practice based on FDA recommendations to take two parts leucine and valine to one part iso-leucine. If you choose to take this supplement, a handy hint to increase its bioavailability is to combine it with a B-complex vitamin.
Now that you understand the breakdown and function of protein to increase muscle mass, just how much of it should you be eating? There is no magic number, but most experts recommend 2 – 2.8 grams per kilo of body weight, so you can calculate your protein intake accordingly. You can experiment with your ideal quantity but it is worth noting that consuming more than 2.8 grams daily has not been studied for long-term side effects.
If your preferred sport or activity keeps you at peak levels of energy expenditure for 90 minutes or more, you are considered an endurance athlete. It has been a long held assumption that endurance athletes do not need the same protein requirements as muscle building sports, but this is not entirely true. It’s not that an endurance athlete wouldn’t benefit from the same protein consumption. It is actually due to the increased need for rapid energy which is delivered more efficiently through a higher consumption of carbohydrates, such as carb loading. If an endurance athlete is eating a diet high in fats and carbs, which will provide usable energy and effective nutrient values, they will not need protein for energy. The smaller protein intake will be conserved for lean muscle mass. Eating large amounts of protein does not automatically increase muscle mass. That requires resistance training, so an endurance athlete will not need higher protein levels unless they are specifically working towards building muscle mass.
So how much protein do you need for stamina? If you are actively training, you need increased protein for rapid muscle recovery, optimized performance and to maintain your body composition. The recommended standard of 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight will suffice if you are limiting your caloric intake but wanting to conserve your current lean body mass. If you are training and competing regularly, it is advised to have up to 2.4 grams each day per kilo of body weight to restore muscle tissues after rapid turnover. The key to remember as an endurance athlete is to prioritize carbohydrates and moderate quantities of protein based on current training goals.
Athletic protein requirements are completely dependent on their training and event schedules. There comes a point when macronutrients need to be recalibrated to adjust for reduced energy outflow, but they still need to be considered for proper weight maintenance or loss. The benefit of protein for physical composition is its high level of satiation due to not being very energy dense and therefore rather voluminous. It also tends to signal the brain that the body is full faster than other nutrients. They have shown that the protein-brain connection is partly because of the levels of amino acids in the blood during a set time period after protein has been consumed. The feeling of satisfaction also comes from protein’s effect on hormones which reduce hunger and cravings like peptide YY, glucose-dependent insulinotropic peptide, cholecystokinin and glucagon.
Choosing higher protein over carbs when reducing energy levels is also preferable for weight control in athletes and individuals because protein has a higher thermic effect than carbs or fat, which means it takes more energy to metabolize than other macronutrients in effect burning off a percentage of the calories consumed. The thermic effect of protein is nearly 30% higher than the 5-10% burn of carbs and the 0-3% thermic effect of fat. As amino acids fold over on themselves into their most biologically active and stable form, it takes adenosine triphosphate or molecular energy which will naturally burn calories and when monitoring your caloric intake, can increase weight loss in a deficit or provide a slightly higher caloric allowance when maintaining your weight. If you were to create the same deficit based on a high-carb/low-protein diet, the body would rob from your lean body mass for its energy requirements. Less lean body mass means less fat burned on a daily basis. Muscle burns fat. By retaining muscle an off-season or retired athlete can avoid weight regain and sustain a better metabolic rate.
So exactly what is the protein intake requirement for an off-season or resting athlete? Well, one study took it all the way up to 4.4 grams per kilogram of body weight and discovered that there was no fat gain even when subjects ate nearly 300 calories more each day. This is a direct reflection of the thermic effect of protein, but it might not be our best recommendation for your athletic diet. Stick to 2.4 – 2.8 and reduce your fats and carbs accordingly. This will help you prevent weight gain while retaining your lean muscle mass and keep you within statistically safe levels.
If you are not competing or training, you do not need a supplement. If you are a weekend warrior or twice a year racer, only take your protein shake on the days you train or race. For those athletes who have high energy output daily, then choose a clean sourced protein that is either whey or plant-based. Whey protein is more quickly viable than casein because it is rapidly absorbed and will also give you a better sense of satiation due to the abundance of amino acids rushing into your bloodstream.