From a biological standpoint, proteins are the main building blocks for our bodies. They’re the small structural pieces that make up our organs, tendons, hormones and, of course, muscles. Proteins consist of smaller molecules called amino acids, which link together like beads on a string. Your body produces some of these amino acids, but you must obtain others known as essential amino acids via your diet . Although this is one of the most important things to know about protein, it is generally the most neglected aspect when it comes to health and fitness. From the local gym to working out with a friend in a home gym, you’ve probably had someone preach to you about getting enough protein by sometimes ridiculous means such as drinking egg whites or eating copious amounts of meat. Protein consumption is often linked with muscle gain and weight loss, but how much protein do you actually need? Let’s dive in and find out.
What does protein do for the body?
There are a large number of roles and functions that proteins has within the body, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll target our discussion to protein’s role in fitness. Protein is what makes up our muscle tissue, and through a process called protein synthesis, our body builds up amino acids into proteins that repair and rebuild our muscle tissue in order to make it more dense, larger, and stronger. This process is essential in order to restore protein stores that are lost during exercise, as well as repair muscle to avoid injury .
During a resistance training program, the body is constantly in a state of breaking down muscle tissue and rebuilding it. If protein intake is too low, the body is going to have a difficult time repairing this muscle tissue, which typically leads to excessive muscle soreness and potential injury .
How much protein do I need?
Although you do want a high protein diet if you’re looking to gain muscle mass, chugging egg whites is definitely not required or recommended. The FDA recommends 50 grams of protein per day for the average person based off of a 2,000 calorie diet, which is somewhat low for someone who is regularly doing resistance training or some sort of conditioning. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics talks about the current evidence on protein intake for physically active individuals. The current data suggests that physically active individuals should consume 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.5 to 0.9 grams per pound of bodyweight) regardless of whether the individual is doing resistance training or endurance-focused training. The 2g/kg body weight recommendation is targeted towards individuals during periods of higher frequency and greater intensity training and during periods of calorie restriction to maintain muscle mass .
When should I consume protein?
Generally, eating enough protein is more important than timing protein intake, but timing your protein intake can help achieve your desired health and fitness related goals faster. You may want to consume it at a specific time of day, depending on whether you want to lose weight or build muscle.
For losing weight, a high protein diet can be a great way to raise your metabolism as well as reduce your appetite by reducing the levels of the hunger hormone known as ghrelin [4, 5]. By consuming protein-rich snacks between meals, you’ll likely eat fewer calories later in the day due to feeling more full for a longer period of time.
For building muscle, you need to consume more protein than what your body breaks down during a workout in order to be in an anabolic state . This makes protein intake extremely important for people looking to build muscle. Most passionate gym-goers recommend taking a protein supplement 15–60 minutes after exercise, a time frame known as the “anabolic window” and said to be the optimal time for getting the most out of nutrients like protein. However, recent research has shown that this window is much larger than previously thought. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, consuming protein any time up to two hours after your workout is ideal for building muscle mass . But again, for the average person, resistance exercise and consuming sufficient protein are more important than timing protein intake.
The Bottom Line-
Although the recommended protein intake for physically active individuals is higher than the current recommendation by the FDA, it still isn’t as high as what your local gym guru might be preaching. The majority of research states that your body can only digest up to 20-25 grams of protein at a time, so drowning your body with excessive amounts of protein might not be as beneficial for muscle gain as previously thought. Sticking to the 1.2-2 g/kg body weight will keep your body in a positive state of protein synthesis and give your body all the benefits of a protein rich diet.
Written by David Levinson, BS Nutrition, NASM CPT and CES
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