Got protein? If you workout and want to build muscle, you should get familiar with protein, one of the most essential nutrients for the human body and what should be a staple in any diet. Proteins are chains of amino acids that act as the building blocks of tissue and muscle and provide an important source of fuel for the body. They’re getting more attention lately because of the popularity in high-protein diets for weight loss. All the exercise in the world won’t build muscle if you’re not getting enough protein.
High protein diets tend to work for three main reasons. First, protein is dense so it keeps the body feeling fuller for longer periods of time after eating. Protein also keeps blood sugar stable to stave off the crashes associated with cravings and hunger pangs. And here’s something you might really like: The body works harder to digest protein so it burns more calories.
Not All Proteins Are Created Equal
Protein is found in animal products like dairy, eggs, meat, fish and poultry, as well as plant sources like legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and soy. However, not all proteins are created equal. First, there are three kinds of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Essential amino acids aren’t made by the body and must be provided by food. The body makes non-essential amino acids during the breakdown of food. Conditional amino acids are a special type of nutrient that the body only needs during times of illness.
Likewise, not all food contains all the amino acids needed to make protein. Foods that do contain all the essential amino acids are called complete proteins. Animal foods are good sources of complete proteins while plant sources are often incomplete proteins. So if you eat a diet that limits or restricts animal products, it’s important to eat a variety of plant-based proteins to get all the essential amino acids your body needs. And for those who do eat animal products, choosing lean proteins can help with avoiding other health risks like heart disease.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The amount of protein an individual needs depends on a variety of factors. The recommended daily allowance is anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of daily caloric intake. At minimum, adults need 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you need about 56 grams of protein a day.
But here's the catch: Certain people, including pregnant women and athletes, need more. Because athletes break down muscle during activity it must be repaired after. Depending on the length, frequency and intensity of the workout, athletes are encouraged to adjust protein intake accordingly by up to 50 percent more. More specifically, the American College of Sports Medicine and American Dietetic Association recommend 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bodyweight for endurance athletes and up to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for strength-training athletes. So, a 150-pound endurance athlete would need between 82 and 95 grams of protein a day. A 150-pound bodybuilder would need 114 grams.
If you're not used to thinking of your food in terms of grams, here's a handy list of different kinds of protein, in ounces, and their protein-gram conversions. (Note: There are about 7 grams of protein per ounce of cooked meat.) An easy way to eyeball it: A chicken breast the size of a deck of cards is somewhere around 3 ounces, which means it has about 21 grams of protein.
How Protein Helps Athletes
Protein plays a starring role in how muscles recover from exercise. It repairs the damage to muscle fibers and formulates new proteins for muscle growth while replenishing energy. Those who feel they can’t get the recommended levels of protein from diet alone may choose to supplement with amino acids or protein shakes and powders after exercise. Just make sure to balance protein with fruit, vegetables and whole grains for a well-rounded diet.
Brian Maher is a personal trainer in Center City Philadelphia who specializes in weight loss and nutritional counseling. He is the owner of Philly Personal Training, a company offering convenient in-home personal training packages to busy individuals looking to improve their fitness levels. To learn more about Brian and his services, visit his website or follow him on Facebook at Philly Personal Training. Read all of Brian’s posts for Be Well Philly here.