Protein is essential to the diet, especially for an athlete. Whatever the exercise might be – bodybuilding, CrossFit, endurance sports, or weightlifting – muscle tissue is broken down, and that is where protein comes into play. The body uses amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to strengthen and repair muscle tissue.
Eating foods that contain protein such as meat, milk, and eggs should be a priority for anyone strength training. But how much protein is required for optimal use, and how can you be sure that you are eating the right sort of protein?
In this article, we will cover:
• Protein’s role in the body,
• How much protein you should eat,
• When you should consume protein,
• What type of protein you should eat,
• Will I bulk up eating too much protein?
Protein’s Role in the Body
Protein is a macronutrient. While it is vital for muscle building, it also has several other roles within the body. Protein is a catalyst for enzyme and hormone production, is required for the structure, function, regulation of the body’s tissues and organs, and helps keep the immune system healthy. It also provides energy during gluconeogenesis – when muscle glycogen stores become depleted.
Protein is used in every single cell and tissue in our bodies and is recycled daily with the new proteins provided by our diet.
The Importance of Protein When Exercising
Intense exercise damages muscle fiber. The act of rebuilding them up again is what leads to muscle growth. The body needs amino acids, consumed from food, to begin this rebuilding process. If you fail to supply your body with enough essential amino acids from protein in your diet, your body will cannibalize its muscles instead. Such cannibalization can slow metabolism, interfere with anabolic hormones, compromise the immune system and lead to poor athletic performance. If stiffness or soreness occurs after a long, intense workout, it is an indication that some muscle cannibalization has occurred.
Lack of, or low, dietary protein can lengthen recovery time after exercise and, over time, negate the benefits of working out. A chronic deficiency in protein can cause lethargy, fatigue, and anemia.
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
Experts recommend that 10-35% of an average person’s daily calorie intake should come from protein. So if they eat 2,000 calories a day, for instance, 200-700 of them should come from protein.
You can also calculate protein requirements using body weight. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests recommended daily intakes of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. People over 50 years old should increase their protein to 0.45 grams per pound of body weight to maintain muscle mass.
Of course, performance athletes are not ordinary, and that is why the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes or weight lifters eat between 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight. Individuals new to strength training may want to increase that amount up to 1 gram of protein per pound. They will be making more radical gains at the beginning than a seasoned athlete.
Is it possible to consume too much protein, and are there side effects?
The good news is that for healthy people and athletes who have healthy kidneys and no renal disease, high protein diets should not have any detrimental effects. If anything, high protein diets have been shown to reduce hunger levels, increase muscle and strength, and more.
When Should I Consume Protein?
Several studies indicate that consuming protein following intense resistance training can help to stimulate protein synthesis (the building of muscle). Failing to eat any protein after exercise could limit the potential development of lean muscle tissue. We also recommend consuming carbohydrates post-workout to help the body shift to parasympathetic mode (a.k.a. recovery mode).
What Type of Protein Should I Eat?
Protein breaks down into what are called essential and non-essential amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins in the body. The body cannot create essential amino acids on its own, so these must come from food.
It is important to note that there is a difference in protein quality from food. Certain foods, such as animal proteins (meat, milk, and eggs), are known to be complete proteins, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids which you can only get from the food you eat.
Other protein sources are known as incomplete proteins (found in plant-based foods), meaning they lack one or more of the essential amino acids.
The best protein sources for complete proteins include beef, poultry, salmon, eggs, and whey. Whey protein is a popular choice in the protein supplement market. It is rapidly absorbed by the body, meaning protein synthesis (the act of muscle building) can begin faster.
Will I Bulk Up Eating So Much Protein?
The specific exercise will determine how much muscle or bulk a person will add, not the protein consumed. The protein gives the muscles the ability to repair or build-up, depending on the exercise of choice.
For example, endurance athletes will not add bulk, and the protein they consume helps to repair muscles. Weight lifters, in contrast, can add size relatively quickly as the protein helps to rebuild muscle.
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