Protein has become a buzzword in the fitness industry and every health food appears to boast a high content. But without understanding what protein is and its role in the body, how can you know how much you need? Today we’re going to cut through the gimmicks and give you the facts, so you can work out whether you’re falling short, keeping the perfect balance, or even going overboard.
What is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient – as are carbohydrates and fats – which means that the body needs it in large supply to function. One of its main purposes is to repair, maintain, and build muscle mass which is why it’s so focused on by the fitness industry. However, it’s important to note that protein consumption does not automatically lead to muscle gain. Protein is only energy; your body still needs to be put through the stress of exercise to stimulate muscle growth.
Protein itself is made up of 20 standard amino acids, 9 of which are essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are so called because the body can’t make them itself, they have to be taken in from food, whereas it can create the other amino acids if your diet doesn’t provide them – an amazing process when you think about it.
Not all protein sources are equal. If a food contains all 9 essential amino acids, it’s known as a complete protein. Animal sources typically fall into this category, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. The only plants to make the cut are soy beans, quinoa, buckwheat, spirulina, amaranth, hemp, and chia seeds.
Luckily for vegans, lots of plants contain incomplete proteins and these can be combined to deliver the full profile of amino acids. Sources include beans, peas, nuts, rice, and wheat. So, whilst a plant-based diet may take more forethought than one that includes animal products, it can provide the body with the full range of amino acids.
The body can’t store excess protein. We must consume enough of it every day to meet our needs. This stemmed the diet rumour that we only absorb so many calories from protein and the rest will pass through undigested, so if you want to lose weight you should eat lots of protein because it won’t ‘count’. This isn’t true. Unused protein is converted into energy and stored as fat so it’s still important to calorie count if you’re looking to shed a few pounds.
To estimate how much protein your body requires, multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8. So, for example, if you weigh 65kg you type 65 x 0.8 into your calculator to get 52, meaning that you need 52g of protein per day. If you’re very active and want to build muscle mass, you ought to increase your intake, but by how much is disputed. A popular rule is to multiple your weight in kilograms by 1, others follow 1.2-1.5.
There’s a reason why macronutrients are called MACROnutrients. We need large amounts of them on a daily basis. However, there’s a trend in the fitness industry to over-consume protein while simultaneously restricting fats and/or carbohydrates. Our bodies weren’t designed to run on this kind of diet so it’s unsurprising that it can cause problems. These include bad breath, headaches, mood swings, irritated skin, digestive issues, dehydration, and food cravings (not for kale, sadly). Long-term, a major worry is that protein digestion requires the kidneys to filter out harmful toxins and, obviously, the more you consume the harder they have to work. Over time this can lead to kidney damage.
When it comes to protein consumption, the take home message is that you should eat as much as your body requires – and this can include short-term protein boosts when you’re building muscle mass – within a framework of balanced eating. But don’t go overboard and don’t confuse high protein consumption with a guaranteed way to gain muscle mass.