Protein, the muscle-building nutrient we all love to talk about, and with good reason. Protein is awesome, and not just for it’s ability to help you build lean muscle and get super strong. Protein’s role in the human body is complex and varied and immense. Proteins are responsible for pretty much all of the functions of the human body. Protein works to make all the reactions that support life happen in a timely, effective fashion to ensure that your body keeps on running at optimal levels! Proteins also provide the structure of the body, comprising everything from bones and muscles to skin and hair. Lastly, protein is responsible when tissue damage occurs, both intentionally (like in weight training) and unintentionally (a scraped knee that must heal).
When talking about proteins it is important to discuss essential, or complete, and non-essential, or incomplete, proteins in the diet. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and there are 20 different amino acids that make up all of the different proteins in the body. Of these 20 amino acids, 9 are considered essential, while 11 are non-essential. We’ll get to what decides the distinction in a moment. The best analogy when explaining amino acids and proteins is to say that amino acids are like letters and proteins are like words. While there are only 26 letters there are thousands, if not millions of words. Similarly, while there are only 20 amino acids, millions of proteins exist, all with highly specific and crucial functions in the body. Fortunately, the human body is able to make some of these amino acids on its own, by recycling amino acids from proteins that have been used up and rebuilding them with new configurations. However, some of the amino acids, the essential ones, the human body simply isn’t incapable of synthesizing on it’s own. It’d be as if I chopped out 10 letters from the alphabet and asked you to write me a paragraph. Some of the words would be possible to spell without problem, however many important words would be lost, some partially and others entirely gone.
An essential protein is one that contains those 9 amino acids our bodies cannot make on its own, and therefore must be obtained by the diet. Protein sources that contain the essential amino acids are those that come from animals, so things like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are some examples. But don’t fret vegans and vegetarians there also exists what are known as complementary proteins. These are combinations of foods that, when consumed together, create a complete amino acid profile without having to consume animal products. Some popular examples of complementary proteins are whole wheat bread, or oatmeal, with peanut butter or rice and beans.
The importance of consuming protein in the diet, aside from obtaining all the essential amino acids our bodies need, comes down to keeping the body functioning properly and, when strength training, providing the building blocks we need to get stronger and allow our muscles to recover. When training, a muscle gets stressed and accrues what are called micro-tears, or micro trauma. This is a sciencey way of saying your muscle were damaged. To repair this trauma, and build a bigger muscle, the body has to have the raw materials it needs to rebuild the muscle. Enter proteins from the diet. However, first and foremost the body has to use those proteins you eat to ensure that all the vital body functions are running properly. You see, your body is always going to prioritize keeping you alive over getting you super jacked. So the baseline level of protein you eat goes to maintaining bones, heart functions, digestion, etc. Once that baseline is met however, the remaining protein can be utilized in building muscle. Therefore, it becomes important to obtain not only good sources of protein, but also enough protein to satisfy baseline levels of need and beyond to allow muscle repair and building to occur.
Now there are all sorts of recommendations on just how much protein to eat per day. A very popular recommendation is to say eat as much protein in grams, as pounds you would like to weigh. So, if I want to weigh 200lbs I would then eat 200grams of protein a day. While this is not a bad guideline recommendation, for some people it might not be necessarily feasible. For the purposes of covering baselines needs and even getting a little extra protein in the diet, I’d say a safe recommendation is to shoot for a minimum of 100 grams of protein a day. Not sure how you do in hitting that daily goal? Track it! For a few days record what you eat and the amounts of those foods and then spend a little time looking up the nutrient values and doing a little math to find out how much protein you’re actually consuming. You might be surprised to find you’re not getting enough, or you’re getting way more than you need!
The following is a list of quality protein sources to consider adding to your diet if they aren’t already there:
- Meats; beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck
- With meat, the more local the source (generally) the higher the quality (and tastier) it will be.
- Dairy; cheese, yogurt (Greek and Icelandic have higher protein content), cottage cheese, milk, whey protein powder, casein protein powder
- Fish: Salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, tilapia, halibut
- As with meat the higher quality the higher the health value (and taste)
- As with meat, the higher quality the higher health value (and taste)
- Legumes: beans, lentils, peanuts
- Nuts: almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, etc.
- Nuts tend to be a higher fat food but do posses a good amount of incomplete proteins
- Grains: Quinoa, spelt, amaranth, bulgur
- Soy; tofu, edamame, soy protein powder