by Catherine King MSc. CSCS
If you are a regular gym-goer, you have likely seen a big guy with his shaker cup and mysterious powder. The type of gym patron carrying a gallon of water around and who looks like he is carrying giant, invisible watermelons under each arm. The powder could be pre-workout, creatine, or whatever supplement that makes you smarter, sexier and more successful, but chances are it is protein. Put aside the stereotypes of bodybuilders and their extreme muscularity for a moment, and consider this: protein is a macronutrient. It is a major player for health and for attaining a desirable body composition.
Now, put on your science hat for a moment as we talk about protein structure and function.
Protein contains carbon, hydrogen molecules, and nitrogen as part of their amino group. The smallest protein unit is the amino acid, which has four characteristics: an amino group and a carboxyl group on opposite ends, a central alpha carbon, and an R group. Amino acids form peptide chains, and these chains make up the primary protein structure. We can also have secondary, tertiary, or quaternary structures. When protein is digested, these structures are broken down into small peptides and amino acids. The big guy in the gym might be consuming an amino acid supplement. You cannot know for certain what is in his shaker cup, but it is a safe bet that he is spending a lot of money on supplements.
I won’t go into detail about the digestion and breakdown of protein. However, the peptides and amino acids that result from this breakdown are used by our cells for muscle, skeletal and connective tissues, enzymes, neurotransmitters, transport proteins, and immune system chemicals. Protein can also be used to produce energy. The liver will use amino acids for ketone bodies, glucose, cholesterol, and fatty acids. These conversions depend on diet and requirements. Protein is not a preferred source of energy for the body as it serves other important roles. In other words, protein can be thought of as more of a building block than an energy source, but, if required, it will be used as one.
Not only does protein play an important role in body structure and function, but it also plays a key role in body composition. Goals such as losing extra body fat, getting stronger, or gaining muscle mass are supported by consuming adequate protein in your diet.
Here are some reasons why:
- · Protein digestion begins in the stomach taking a long time to exit, keeping us full longer
- · When in a caloric deficit, adequate protein intake will help to preserve lean mass while losing fat mass
- · Combining increased protein intake with affective resistance training facilitates increased muscle mass
- · Adequate protein intake will help to limit age-related muscle loss
The recommended amount of protein is generally listed as an RDA of 0.8 g/kg/d. However, this reflects the minimum amount required, not the optimal amount. Recent research studies point to about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day as more ideal. If you are a strength or power athlete or a physique competitor, you may fall more in the 1.8 to 2.0 g/kg/d range. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have a kidney disease, Phenylketonuria (rare amino acid metabolism disorder), or any other health disorder that interferes with the body’s ability to digest and breakdown proteins, speak with your doctor and a registered dietitian.
I began talking about supplements, but supplements are just that. They are a supplement to your diet. When it comes to protein, start with whole foods first.
Foods that contain mostly protein are:
- · meat
- · poultry
- · fish
- · eggs
- · tofu
Foods that contain some protein are:
- · legumes
- · nuts
- · nut butters
- · seeds
- · seed butters
- · milk
- · cheese
- · cottage cheese
- · soy beverages
- · yogurt
Foods that contain a little protein are:
- · whole-grain bread
- · rice
- · pasta
- · quinoa
- · barley
If you find it difficult to meet your daily protein requirements with whole foods, consider adding a supplement such as whey, casein, egg, insect, pea, hemp, rice, or mixed plant proteins. It may take some experimenting to find a protein supplement that works for you and agrees with your digestive system. Another option to consider are protein bars. Look for bars that are high in protein and fibre, and low in sugar.
Once individual protein requirements are established, and your current intake assessed, it is time to look at behaviour and habits to help reach your goals. Maintaining the same habits will equal the same results. These are fine if those are the results you want. If you want to achieve different results or new goals, it is time to make small changes. If you want to preserve muscle mass as you age, get leaner, or increase muscle mass or strength, consider evaluating your diet for protein content.
Next, give thought to all potential options; ensure adequate protein intake or increase the amount of protein consumed.
Here are some possibilities:
- · Have an egg for breakfast
- · Try a protein-rich meat alternative
- · Add a ¼ cup of nuts to your snack
- · Add a scoop of protein powder to your smoothie
- · Switch out high-sugar yogurt for plain Greek yogurt
- · Have a post-workout protein shake or bar
Start with one small dietary change. Maybe you will need to focus on changing one of your three meals or altering your snack habits. Remember, you should be confident in your ability to make the change you have chosen. If not, make it easier. Do not be afraid to experiment. If that change didn’t work, try something else. Making your habits work for you is, after all, an ongoing process in pursuit of the results you want. Alter your environment to support the desired changes and make foods you want to eat more visible and convenient. Build consistency, automate the new change and look for other small ways to improve your diet, health and life.
If you have any questions regarding nutrition coaching and behaviour change, contact Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org
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