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All you need to know about protein.

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What is protein?

The building blocks for cells.

Protein is made up from amino acids which are the building blocks for cells. There are 20 different amino acids the human body needs. 9 amino acids are termed 'essential' as they are needed from diet for muscles to grow and maintain themselves. The other 11, although also essential, are termed 'non essential' as they are produced by the body itself. Protein has a high thermic effect. 20% to 35% of the calories consumed from proteins will be used to digest them. There are 4 calories in a gram of protein. Foods that contain protein are split into two groups. Complete protein foods and incomplete protein foods.

Complete Protein.

Complete protein foods contain all 9 of the amino acids the body needs to get from diet. Complete protein foods come from animal produce such as meat, fish, milk and dairy. Some vegetables, like potatoes, soy, amaranth, seitan, hempseed, tempeh, buckwheat, spirulina, chlorella, and quinoa, are also complete protein foods.

Incomplete Protein.

Incomplete protein foods contain some of the amino acids the body needs to get from diet. Many vegetables fall into the incomplete protein category. Consuming combinations of vegetables, beans, peas, and grains, even if eaten separately over several hours, will still form complete proteins for your body.

Protein and Diet.

Benefits of protein.

Protein is vital for repairing and building muscle tissue. Increased protein levels in steady supply have a proven track record in preserving and increasing muscle mass, increasing fat burn and preventing muscle loss when losing weight, and also reducing hunger. Protein stimulates the production of glucagon that helps to stabilise blood sugar levels if they drop too low. Protein speeds your metabolism as it has the greatest thermic effect of the 3 primary macro nutrients. That is, around 20% to 30% of the calories consumed from proteins will be used up digesting them, where as fats and carbohydrates use only 5% to 15% of the calories consumed from them to digest them.

20 to 30 grams protein every few hours for muscle growth.

Using the calorie calculator, you can find out how many calories you should be consuming daily to reach your goal. It's recommended obtaining 10% to 35% of your daily calories from protein. The average person only needs approximately 50 to 60 grams of protein per day, although exercise can easily double this requirement. The actual amount required should always be calculated relevant to your body mass and intensity of exercise, rather than just choosing a random percentage. This will be looked at further down.

Research from 2 independent sources in 2009 (Am J Clin Nutr. 2009, Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2009) conclusively proved for the first time that your body is only able to utilise 20 to 30 grams of protein every few hours, for muscle growth and sustenance. So, for someone who engages in high intensity exercise that will wear your muscles down heavily, it's best to intake your protein up to these doses, every three or so hours, 5 to 6 times throughout the day (or as many times as you need to meet your quota). Any excess protein above these amounts is still used, but it's either converted into blood sugar for energy (albeit less efficiently than carbohydrates creating by-products that put more work on the kidneys), or turned to fat.

Protein Quick 5 Guide.

The best sources of proteins are fish, poultry, red meat and dairy. You can keep a very approximate track of protein consumed daily by making quick estimates with the Protein Quick 5 Guide.

1g protein in each portion of fruit and vegetables.
5g protein in every handful of nuts, an egg, slice of ham, slice of cheese, or pot of yoghurt.
10g protein in each cup of milk.
15g per cup of beans, chicken drumstick, beef burger, or half cup of cottage cheese.
20g per pint of milk.
25g per dinner sized serving of meat or fish, or a single whey supplement.

Remember its just an estimate. See your food packaging for more precise amounts.

Protein Combining.

Vegetarians can use protein combining to ensure they get complete proteins in their diet. For example, mixing two of any of these three groups below within a twelve hour period is one way of doing this. Vegetables contain much lower levels of protein than animal products so obtaining optimal increased protein levels for high intensity exercise is much harder if you are a vegetarian or vegan, than it is for those who eat animal products such as meat, fish, and dairy. But it can still be done. There are also vegetable based protein supplements that can be used. There have been several very successful vegan body builders, however, you may want to see a specialist nutritionist to ensure you are eating enough complete protein to achieve your goals.

- Group 1 (Whole Grains) -
Brown rice
Whole grain Pasta

- Group 2 (Nuts/Seeds) -
Seed sprouts
Sunflower, hemp, sesame, pumpkin seeds
Nut butters
Cashew nuts

- Group 3 (Legumes) -
Black eyed beans
Bean sprouts
Kidney beans


Protein and Exercise.

Protein rebuilds and repairs muscle after exercise.

Exercise in general, and the intensity of exercise, has a direct effect on the amount of protein required to sustain or build muscle mass. To build muscle you need a programme that progressively overloads your muscles to the point of failure and then allows sufficient rest to recover and rebuild muscle. Protein is needed in that last part, the rest period after the workout to rebuild and repair your muscles. Carbohydrates are what's needed during the workout to supply the energy your body needs to efficiently wear down your muscles to the point of failure. Fats assist in the production of testosterone and help joint and muscle recovery. You should aim to consume sufficient protein for the level of muscle repair and rebuilding that may be taking place depending on the intensity and duration of your physical activity. And this is true whether losing weight or bulking up.

How much protein is enough?

The commonly held view for those that do exercise that heavily breaks down your muscles, such as weight lifting, is that a pound of protein per pound of lean muscle mass is enough. So if you were 200lbs with 20% body fat, 160 grams of protein would be enough. Some people opt for a gram of protein per pound of body weight instead when bulking up. So any 200lb person intakes 200 grams of protein. This is on the basis that it's better to have too much than too little, and will certainly do you no harm if it is your preference and doesn't lead to overeating in general.

According to Dr Peter Lemon, professor of exercise nutrition at The University of Western Ontario, and one of the top researchers of the field, the average sedentary male requires just 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Endurance sports athletes require 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Strength athletes and those wishing to bulk up require anything from 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.

With some minor variation in the decimals, this is a widely supported view as an article from displays. The article discusses differing views on protein intake from health authorities, protein researchers, and those that actively obtain results from exercise. And it concludes the agreed consensus, that it's the growth demand caused by the intense training or stress that you do that ultimately determines how much protein your body should take in. And also, that increased protein levels when exercising are not only safe, but highly beneficial.


The protein conclusion.

So, considering this recent research, an optimal level of protein for maintaining and building muscle mass could be estimated using the following formulas:-

For a sedentary person,
Protein required = (0.36) X (your weight in lbs) grams of protein
For an endurance athlete,
Protein required = (0.5 to 0.7) X (your weight in lbs) grams of protein
For strength,
Protein required = (0.7 to 1) X (your weight in lbs) grams of protein
For bulking up,
Protein required = (0.8 to 1) X (your weight in lbs) grams of protein
Protein required = (0.7 to 1) X (your weight in lbs) grams of protein

Aim to consume your optimal protein amount in up to 30 gram portions every few hours throughout the day to meet your quota. Above these levels, you'll unlikely get any further gains in building muscle but might see improved results with better muscle preservation when losing weight on a calorie deficit diet, or for staying lean due to the much higher thermic effect of protein than carbohydrates and fat.

Using the nutrition calculator is the simplest way to find out how much protein you need for your body weight and activity level. It will also provide you relevant healthy balanced food ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to assist you towards your fitness goals.

Or you could do it the maths on paper way.

A macronutrient breakdown example.

As an example, a 25 year old, 5ft 10in man weighing 150lb (12st 7lb), with around 20% body fat, wants to bulk up. He estimates that he wants to have 500 calories above his 'day to day' metabolic rate from the calorie calculator above. He rounds this to 3000 calories. Here's how he might work out his diet plan:-

Protein required in grams = 0.8 x 150lbs = 120g of protein per day
Calories from Protein = 120g x 4 Cals per gram of protein = 480 Cals from protein
(480 Cals / 3000 Cals) X 100% = 16 % protein

So he needs 16% protein as it is the maximum his body will be able to utilise for muscle growth.
He wants a low fat diet so opts for the minimum 20% fat to assist joints, recovery, and testosterone production.
The remaining 64% is allocated to carbohydrates which will be used to provide fibre, vitamins and minerals and fuel his high intensity workouts, ensuring his protein is preserved for recovery after the workout.
(See the food guide and the carbohydrates, protein, and fats sections for more information on these percentages.)

Calories from carbohydrates = 3000 Cals x 64% carbohydrates = 1920 Cals from carbohydrates
carbohydrates required in grams = 1920 Cals / 4 Cals per gram of carbohydrates = 480g of carbohydrates per day

Calories from fats = 3000 Cals x 20% fats = 600 Cals from fats
Fats required in grams = 600 Cals / 9 Cals per gram of fat = 67g of fats per day

From then on he works out what food to eat to meet this macronutrient balance, and focuses on strength training in his workouts to stimulate protein synthesis. He listens to his body's feedback week to week to see if he needs to make adaptations to this eating plan. His aim is to gain strength and weight, as in muscle, not fat. If he is losing weight, or losing strength, or just getting plain fat, he needs to make adjustments to his diet and exercise routine.

Protein intake is relevant to your muscle mass and extent of breakdown.

It's worth noting with the above example, had he chose to opt for 3200 calories per day, the protein percentage would have been just 15% but still reached the exact same optimal level for his body weight. Had he chose to opt for a more conservative 2700 calories per day, the protein percentage would be around 18% but again would have still reached the exact optimal level for his body weight. Had he chose to opt for 2000 calories a day, he'd be training for strength and weight loss rather than bulking up, so would be wiser to also lower his carbohydrate percentage and raise his fat percentage accordingly, but his protein percentage would be 24%, highlighting something worth noting.

Although it seems counter intuitive, as the amount of protein you need is relevant to your fixed body mass and not the variable total calories consumed, the less calories you are consuming for your body weight (ie you're in a calorie deficit to burn fat) the higher end of the 10% to 35% you might find your requirement, and the more calories you are consuming for your body weight (ie you're eating more to bulk up), the lower end of the 10% to 35% you might find your requirement. Whether you have more or less than this optimal requirement is your own preference. So what does this really show? That when it comes to food ratios, don't work your optimal protein intake out by percentage of total calories consumed as it is not dependant on total calories consumed at all but by your own body mass and the extent you wear your muscles down during exercise.

Carbohydrates and fats intake are relevant to total calories.

Carbohydrates and fats, on the other hand, should be worked out by relative percentage once you have worked out your desired protein intake and what percentage of your diet that just happens to take up. To over simplify his diet to put this concept into example, whatever calorie target he picked, he'd end up eating exactly the same large quantity of chicken, in 20 to 30 gram portions throughout the day, and just end up varying the amount of rice, broccoli and avocado to meet the desired calorie limit. So if he's eating more, his percentage protein actually becomes lower, and if he eats less, his percentage protein actually becomes higher. The actual amount of protein he eats remains exactly the same either way as his body can't utilise any more for muscle growth. So long as he then goes and does the progressive overload workout programme to a sufficiently high intensity and allows his muscles sufficient rest between workouts, he will get stronger and his muscles will get bigger.

The right balance is decided by your goal.

It's also worth noting, that the above example is to gain weight. If he was looking to lose weight in a calorie deficit and keep his strength up to retain muscle, he may opt to increase the protein intake a bit more than required, raise the fat percentage slightly too, and then set the carbohydrate percentage to much lower for something like 35% protein, 25% fat, 40% carbohydrates, to assist weight loss via a higher thermic effect and to help reduce the fat preserving effects of insulin. And this could be just one of many potential guide ratios to assist weight loss. There is no one golden ratio, just the general idea that you ensure you have at least your optimal level of protein to rebuild your muscle, more will increase thermic effect, and enough carbohydrates to fuel your workouts and obtain vitamins, minerals and nutrients. The fats make up the difference of the 100%. Stick inside the recommended guidelines for each and it's all good.

What if I have been over consuming protein?

As 10% to 35% is the recommended healthy range for protein, it's unlikely you have. This suggests a lot of safe leeway to allow for personal preference. After all, whichever way you look at it, you are either eating carbohydrates, fats or protein to make up your calorie allowance. Some prefer more protein. Some find it hard to eat a lot of protein. Although only 20 to 30 grams can be utilised for muscle growth every few hours, and the above example demonstrates only enough protein required for maximum muscle growth, this doesn't mean that protein above these amounts is of no use for anything else or is detrimental to your health. Increased protein levels have a proven track record in increasing fat burn and preserving muscle during weight loss. As already said, 10% to 35% is the recommended healthy range for protein, this suggests a lot of safe leeway to allow for personal dietary preference.

Also, consuming protein over the above recommended amounts can still get you amazing results. Clearly people do and have done for an incredibly long time as looking at any body builder who maxes out on protein the conventional way proves. The protein is still used either for energy (albeit less efficiently than carbohydrates creating by-products that put more work on the kidneys), or turned to fat. The important things to note are that a) you are getting enough protein to repair and build your muscles efficiently after workouts and that b) for bulking up or strength training, consuming carbohydrates to provide more efficient energy to power your workouts and fats to aid testosterone production and recovery, would likely promote more efficient results than protein over these levels.

Protein concerns.

That said, there are some real concerns to be mindful of when eating a high protein diet. Not from the protein itself, but from what else you inadvertently end up consuming with it. Animal meats and dairy can contain a lot of saturated fats that raise LDL cholesterol, which in turn can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Opt for lean meat where ever possible, cut off any visible fats, and remove the skin from poultry to minimise this long term risk. Excessive consumption of red meat (over 70 grams a day) has also been recently linked to a higher probability of bowel cancer. To avoid mercury poisoning in the long term, no more than 2 tins a week is the safe recommendation for tinned tuna. Similarly with oily fish, it's recommended to limit your intake to 4 portions per week due to the mercury and pollutants that some fish can contain. Try not to over consume calcium in your dairy. Between 700mg to 1200mg is the optimal amount with 1500mg per day as the maximum recommended intake for calcium. A pint of milk has approximately 700mg. So whilst drinking 4 pints of extra milk per day will do the trick to meet your protein quota, it probably isn't a sensible idea long term. A pot of yoghurt or slice of cheese has around 200mg of calcium and a serving of whey around 150mg. It adds up fast. Drinking lots of water regularly on high protein diets is highly recommended to help the kidneys flush out all the unwanted by-products generated by increased protein digestion. Watch your wallet, both in the cost of protein based foods and if you have been buying supplements to plug the gap just to meet an unnecessarily high intake of protein. In some instances, high protein diets can also lead to bad breath. It's all starting to sound like an unavoidable minefield isn't it? But this is exactly why it's best to get your protein from a variety of different sources and food types in order to avoid these potential long term risks that all stem from trying to get all your protein from a single food type.

Just done the maths for my body ... How much protein??!!

People are usually surprised at just how much protein based food needs to be consumed when exercising to get 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Depending on your size, it can be a lot. Getting enough protein speeds up your recovery time, prevents muscle loss when losing weight, and is required if you want to increase muscle size. If you can get your protein intake comfortably all from food, then by all means do, that's the best way. The trick to doing this is having protein in your 5 to 6 meals (or more) throughout the day. However, depending on your circumstance, this can be impractical and or unaffordable. Also if your dietary preference is vegetarian or vegan, obtaining the protein requirement for bulking up efficiently is much harder but can still be done. There have been several very successful vegan body builders, however, you may want to see a specialist nutritionist to ensure you are eating enough complete protein to achieve your goals. If you are struggling to make the amount required, you might want to consider a protein supplement. It's a good safe option.

Protein supplements.

Specially formulated protein products, such as whey or protein shakes, are often consumed by those engaged in regular high intensity exercise and resistance training. Whey is the high protein liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained to make cheese. For those who are lactose intolerant, or for those that won't eat from animal sources, you can get protein supplements from vegetable sources instead. The benefits of taking protein supplements are convenience, low cost compared to protein foods, not having to transform your entire diet predominantly around meat and dairy, or having to worry about the saturated fats and cholesterol that comes with them.

Opt for a formula that gives you 20 to 30 grams protein per serving as that is the maximum that can be used for muscle growth and sustenance every few hours. Go for the supplements with low carbohydrates and low fat as they will have the lowest calories per serving and carbohydrates and fats are easily obtained from foods so you shouldn't need these anyway. The lack of added ingredients and the leucine content in your whey is a good indicator of quality. This is because leucine is the trigger Branch Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) that activates muscle protein synthesis and is the least likely ingredient to be added just to 'pad out the product' in order to reduce its costs.

Work out roughly how many grams of protein you are intaking daily and how much more you need to reach your target. Then you will know how many formula servings to take each day. 2 servings per day should suffice for most. Make sure you check the calories in each serving and include them in your calorie count for your goal. For your average person doing regular intensive exercise, a serving containing 20 to 30 grams of protein twice a day, one in the morning and one post workout, would probably take them somewhere between 100 to 150 grams per day. This may or may not take you to your optimal amount required for best results but either way it will certainly be enough extra protein to yield improved results over not taking it. Protein wise, this would be the equivalent of drinking 2 to 3 extra pints of milk per day, but with a bit more protein, much less calories, sugar, and fat, a much more sensible dose of calcium, and a much lower volume of liquid to consume.

Some muscle builders also like to take casein protein too either mixed with whey or separately before bed. Casein is known as the 'night time protein'. Casein is an anti-catabolic protein that, like whey, is also obtained from milk. It better prevents your muscles being broken down for energy over the 8 or so hours you are asleep. Sleep, being the ultimate rest period between workouts, is where most of the muscle repair and building takes place. Whilst whey proteins are fast digesting and break down fully very quickly within a couple of hours, making them perfect for the morning and post workout protein dose, casein proteins are slow digesting and therefore a better option to consume just before bed due to them taking over twice as long to break down. In other words, although whey would be fine before bed too, casein prevents catabolism for twice as long as whey overnight. By mixing the two together with each supplement serving you can get the effects of fast burning and slow burning proteins in your blood throughout the day. With casein, look for the same qualities as you would with whey, minimal fats and added sugars, and a protein dosage of around 20 to 30 grams per serving.

Tips On Protein Intake.

  • Consume 10% to 35% of your daily calories in protein depending on your body mass and activity levels. You can use the nutrition calculator to find a balanced food ratio tailored to your calorie goal and weight.
  • The protein intake to repair heavy muscle breakdown is widely thought to be 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass - that is your bodyweight minus your fat percentage. Have this in mind when choosing your how much you want to consume.
  • For those strength training, aim to consume 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per lb pound of body weight per day. For those bulking up, aim to consume 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight per day. Endurance training 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per lb pound of body weight per day. HIIT 0.7 to 1 grams of protein per lb pound of body weight per day. Then work out your carbohydrate and fat percentages around that. Alternatively just use the nutrition calculator.
  • Your body can only utilise 20 to 30 grams of protein every few hours for muscle growth and sustenance. Therefore take your protein in these doses up to 5 or 6 times a day (or however many times you need to meet your quota) approximately 3 hours apart for the most efficient intake.
  • Try to get your protein from a variety of natural food sources to help get a more balanced diet, a wider range of nutrients, and to avoid potential long term health concerns that may accumulate over time. Depending on your goals and dietary preferences, you may want to consider taking a protein supplement.
  • When it comes to protein supplements whey (fast digesting) is best for morning and post workout consumption and casein (slow digesting) is best for consumption just before bed. Both are perfectly fine to intake as the proteins coming from milk, just dried and condensed into powder. Since they are taken as 'protein' supplements use the brands that have the lowest added sugars and fats. Unlike protein, sufficient sugars and fats are very easily obtained from food already.
  • Be aware that red meat and poultry skin can contain a lot of saturated fat. Removing the skin from poultry before eating is a good idea so you can get your protein without the saturated fat. Cut the visible fat off other meats before eating. Try to limit red meat protein sources to under 70 grams a day, tuna to 2 tins a week, oily fish to 4 times a week, and calcium to under 1500mg daily. Drink plenty of water.
  • Protein from dairy products are great as part of a post workout meal as they are broken down much quicker than meat based sources. It will all get used, but in terms of efficiency, the easily broken down dairy products will get to work much faster, potentially speeding up recovery.


Good Sources Of Complete Protein

  • FISH
  • TUNA
  • BASS

  • DUCK

  • BEEF
  • PORK

  • EGGS
  • MILK

  • WHEY

  • Great
  • ways
  • of getting
  • complete protein
  • in your
  • diet.
  • Get your protein
  • from varied
  • sources
  • to get a wider
  • balance of the other
  • nutrients these
  • foods contain
  • and to avoid
  • potential long
  • term health
  • implications.

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