• Protein – The Building Blocks of Life

Did you know that the human body is made up of around 45% protein? Now you can see how important protein is in maintaining a healthy body.

So what does protein do?

We need protein to help build and repair our body tissues, produce hormones, enzymes and essential chemicals to help build up antibodies that enable our immune system to resist disease, especially those that are caused by malnourishment.

Protein is also used as a fuel for the body to supply energy, build stamina and reduce fatigue caused by exercise and exhaustion. It also helps to regulate bodily functions such as muscle contraction, water balance and the transportation of nutrients around the body.

Without a good supply of protein we would probably all resemble stick insects, and find it really difficult to lift that bottle of beer to our lips at the bar while trying to impress a girl with the flex of a well-toned bicep!

The process of protein metabolism

All proteins are chains of polymer made from amino acids connected by peptide bonds. Once inside the stomach, digestive enzymes get to work by breaking down the protein bonds making polypeptides that provide amino acids for bodily use.

You may well have heard of essential amino acids. These are nutrients that the body cannot make for itself, so you have to get these from consuming protein rich foods. Non-essential amino acids are made within the body from metabolising essential amino acids, or by the normal breaking down of our own protein supply. Conditional amino acids are also non-essential, and are only produced by the body in times of illness or stress to give the immune system a boost.

The essential amino acids that cannot be made within the body are leucine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, phenylalanine and histidine. All these have to be supplied through food.

Non-essential amino acids that are made within the body are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid. Conditional non-essential amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

You can also buy over the counter amino acid supplements that use different combinations to suit your particular nutritional needs.

A question of quality over quantity

To get the best possible quality protein available choose complete proteins over incomplete proteins. Complete proteins are foods containing all the essential amino acids and come from animal sources, such as meat, fish, milk, eggs etc.

Incomplete proteins come from foods that do not possess all the essential amino acids and usually sourced from grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. Vegetarian body builders have a more difficult time than their meat eating peers, and have to combine their meals from these vegetable and grain sources to ensure they get a full complement of amino acids needed for good health and muscle growth.

So how much protein do I need?

The answer to this really depends on how physically active you are as well as how much you weigh. The normal acceptable requirement or Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is for 0.8g of protein for every 1KG of body weight. However, athletic people, bodybuilders, and anyone with a very physical job usually need a little more. But remember that muscle size and strength will always come from your physical training routine and not from your protein intake.

You cannot sit around drinking protein shakes for 2 weeks and expect to wake up one day looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You have to put in the gym hours to achieve this first. There are no shortcuts!

If you workout regularly, are very physically active, or are weight training to gain muscle mass, you should increase the number used to calculate your protein needs from 0.8 gm/kg to 2 gm/kg.

Is there a limit to how much protein the body can use in one meal?

You may have read in magazines or heard from supplement advertisements that the body cannot absorb more than 30 grams of protein per meal, but is it a coincidence that this magical number seems to change whenever these same supplement stores decide to change their serving sizes?

Intermittent fasting research makes possibly the strongest case that the magical number does not exist.

KS Stote's study A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults was conducted over two 8 week periods and compared two different groups of people. One group eating 3 meals a day and the other eating 1 meal a day.

The group that ate 1 meal a day saw an improvement in overall body composition, with the 3 meal group seeing no significant improvement. Would the 1 meal group have seen improvements if their body could only take in a maximum of 30 grams of protein in that one meal?

While there may be a limit to how much protein can be effective, studies have suggested that it's more in line with the total you consume in an entire day, not meal.

When to chow down, or not to chow down

It is often said that the secret to comedy is... Timing. The art of knowing when to time the punch-line to get the best reaction from the audience. Timing is also essential in athletics – the triple jump for example has to be timed to perfection to get the best possible forward propulsion to achieve the longest jump. So can timing also be applied to nutritional science? Of course it can!

Nutritionists have spent many years researching what to eat and how much to eat, and how to manipulate thermodynamics to enhance weight loss or weight gain. By making wise food choices you can directly affect your metabolisms and control the types of gain and losses you make. But also controlling the time you eat has become an important science for nutritionists, and they have coined the phrase as "nutrient timing".

Put in very simple terms, this suggests ingesting a diluted protein and carbohydrate mix drink during exercise to supply the working body with essential nutrients to stave off fatigue, give instant energy to perform well, and keep the body well hydrated, especially when working out under hot conditions.

During the anabolic post-workout stage, which lasts around an hour or two after your workout, your body switches into "muscle building" priming mode, and it is at this stage that it is now recommended you take in more protein and carbohydrate to maximise muscle growth and repair.

Traditionally weightlifters and bodybuilders would sip nothing but water during their workouts, and usually follow up with a large meal later in the day. But nutritionists are now advocating taking in nutrition before, during and immediately after your workout for optimal muscle growth.

Boring disclaimer warning

This article was written by a Muscle Mayhem staff member. The information on this site is provided in good faith. Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program. All opinions expressed on this site are our own. Always seek professional advice before engaging in any physical activity or diet.