If you’re looking to achieve your health and fitness goals, consuming the right nutrients is just as critical as the amount of exercise you complete, and protein is vital to seeing the results in your body composition.
There are also some misconceptions around the role of protein in the body. We often think that it will only help us get bigger, and to a certain extent, that’s true. But more importantly, protein is the conduit to muscle repair and re-growth after exercise, which over time is what helps result in muscle gain.
Should we exercise and not have enough protein to support our muscles, it could result in wastage and shrinkage of muscle tissue – which means they won’t repair and we won’t be able to achieve that ‘toned’ look we’ve all been seeking.
Throughout this article, we’ll take a look at how protein functions throughout our body, how much we need to consume and where we can best find protein within our diet.
Why do we need protein and how does it affect our body?
As outlined by the Better Health Channel, “protein is made up of amino acids that work to build and repair muscles and bones and to make hormones and enzymes.” In other words, protein is vital to ensure our muscles recover well after exercise and can also be used as an energy source if our body does not have enough carbohydrates to burn.
Of the 20 amino acids found in protein, 11 are made naturally in the body and the other 9 need to come through consumption of foods that contain high levels of protein, which we’ll highlight later.
According to Everyday Health, the role of these amino acids include:
- Transporting molecules throughout the body
- Helping repair cells and make new ones
- Protecting the body from viruses and bacteria
- Promoting proper growth and development in children, teenagers and pregnant women
The second dot point underlined above is the one that is most important to the role protein plays in health and fitness, as when you work out through strength and cardio exercises, your muscle fibres are literally breaking down. Although only micro-tears, it’s at this point that protein needs to step to repair the damage done during exercise by ensuring the re-growth of these muscle fibres.
By replicating this process over time and as the muscles continue to re-grow (known as muscle hypertrophy), it will result in both visual and physical improvements as they increase in size and mass. Of course, there are other elements that contribute to this process and will help determine the success of muscle repair and re-growth.
These include (but are not limited to):
- The consumption of other vitamins and nutrients, such as carbohydrates and fats
- An adequate amount of rest and sleep in between sessions
- Physiotherapy or massage to aid in the recovery and prevention of injury
How much protein should we be including in our diet?
The levels of protein differ based on a number of physiological factors, including weight, age and gender. According to the Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand, the average adult needs about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. As an example, a person that weighs 75kg would require at least 60 grams of protein on a daily basis.
Another misconception is that the more protein you have the more your muscles will grow. Whilst we may want to consume protein in higher consumption directly before, during or after exercise to assist in the repair and re-growth of our muscles, it doesn’t mean we need more overall throughout the remainder of the day, particularly at the expense of other critical nutrients such as carbohydrates and fats.
As the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ eatright program suggests:
“Athletes who consume adequate carbohydrates and fat end up using less protein for energy than those who consume a higher amount of protein. This means that protein can go toward building and maintaining lean body mass.”
Therefore, it’s very important to identify and consume the level that is recommended for our unique individual needs, as there can be health effects by consuming too-little or too much protein.
What’s most important to note is that we don’t actually need any more than what’s recommended for us, as the body won’t actually store any extra protein we consume, it will just find ways to discard it.
What are good sources of protein?
There are lots of ways to incorporate protein into our diets, not just through animal products, but also through a range of vegetables as well. This is why vegans and vegetarians can also find it easy to consume the recommended amount of protein.
You’ll find these following foods contain high levels of protein:
- Meat, chicken and fish
- Nuts, seeds and grains
- Legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils
- Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese
- Soy products
The breakdown of energy consumption on a daily basis, according to Dieticians Australia, should be:
- 15-25% from protein
- 45-65% from carbohydrate
- 20-35% from fat (with no more than 10% of this coming from saturated fat)
Should I take protein supplements as well?
If you feel like you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, that’s when you should look at consuming it through supplements such as powders and bars. However, according to a recent National Nutrition Survey, 99% of Australians get enough protein through the food they eat. So the reality is, you probably don’t need to take any supplements at all.
The other things to consider about protein supplements is that they often also contain preservatives and sweeteners, which makes them far less healthy than natural protein sources.
We should all take the opportunity to review how much protein we’re consuming on a daily basis. As it’s such a critical nutrient for not just for the repair and re-growth of our muscles, but also for normal bodily functions, it’s important to know whether we meet the nutritional requirements our bodies need.