What is Protein and Why is it Essential for Athletes?
Introduction to Protein
Let’s start with a fun fact: Protein is the only nutrient that is capable of building muscle mass and is responsible for building muscle mass and aiding in muscle recovery. All forms of protein – those within your tissues, those from natural food sources, and those from supplements – contain amino acids that produce nitrogen which allows the body to generate muscle growth.
Protein is the ultimate building block when it comes to building muscle. Generally, protein is consumed through meats such as chicken, fish, turkey and beef. But, it is also consumed through plants, although to a lesser extent. After proteins are consumed through our diet, they are broken down by the body and release amino acids that are crucial for the healthy development of muscle mass.
For the body to function normally, it must receive an adequate amount of protein. For competitive athletes and bodybuilders, the body needs a much higher level of protein than just what’s adequate.
According to studies, proteins make up the largest part of our body weight. That comes from the fact that proteins are the best foods for bodybuilding and muscle mass development.
Protein for Athletes: The Overview
As noted above, athletes and bodybuilders need to maintain more than an adequate level of protein – they need to maintain a surplus of protein. Power athletes should aim to consume 1.7 grams of protein for each pound of their body weight. Endurance athletes should aim for 1.4 grams of protein per pound.
Most athletes can consume the required amount of protein just through dieting alone. Supplements are widely used for their ease and convenience but are often times not necessary when an athlete has the time and ability to meal prep and plan their nutrition. This is because proteins are widely found in vast quantities in our everyday diets. While natural food sources are always preferred, often times they’re just not possible for athletes that are also balancing work, relationships, and other commitments.
It’s impossible to build muscle without a proper diet and nutrition plan. Keep in mind that only 10 to 15 percent of the calories in an athlete’s diet should come from protein. The remaining calories should come from carbs and fats. Maintaining a proper diet and protein to carbs and fat ration will allow the body to use protein to build and maintain muscle instead of produce energy. Carbs and fats should be the primary energy sources for the body. But, when the body is depleted or running low on carbs and fats, the body will convert protein to energy. This prevents the body from using protein to generate and maintain muscle.
The 7 Essential Functions of Protein for Athletes
- Maintaining an Anabolic State
It’s essential that athletes maintain an anabolic rate to continuously perform at a high level. When protein levels become depleted, an athlete’s performance will rapidly decline. As mentioned above, to assist with maintaining an anabolic state, athletes should consume a balanced diet which allows the body to obtain the nutrients needed to function. This will ensure that the body maintains an maximizes it’s protein levels instead of burning the protein to accomplish other bodily functions and tasks.
To remain in an anabolic state, athletes should consume proteins throughout the day. Proteins should be a consumed during every meal.
- Building and Maintaining Muscle
If you maintain an anabolic state of protein within the body then your body will be able to function and achieve peak performance. Building muscle is not possible without proteins. It’s also not possible when proteins are being used to compensate for a lack of other nutrients. Maintaining a well-balanced diet will enable proteins to do their job: promote muscle development and growth.
Muscle development and growth is generated amino acids within protein are broken down to produce nitrogen that enables growth within the body’s muscles. Without proteins, the body cannot create amino acids and the muscle building process is halted.
In addition, protein is essential in the recovery of the muscles post-workout. When you work out hard, your body burns through a lot of energy. During the workout, the muscles tear and become weakened. When proper nutrient levels are maintained, the body is able to use protein to recovery from a workout and generate muscle growth. If the body lacks nutrients such as carbs and fats, then protein is used to create the energy to power through the workout. But, then the body’s protein levels become depleted and the workout is essentially wasted. So, the body is not able to utilize the protein to help the muscles recover and grow larger and stronger.
- Proteins are an Excellent Source of Growth Hormones
Growth hormones are a component made up of approximately 190 amino acids. As the name suggest, growth hormones are highly beneficial to the growth of body tissues, cells, and organs. Growth hormones are also in charge of controlling vital body processes such as maintaining a healthy metabolism and psychological processes of the mind.
Aside from promoting the healthy growth of body tissues, cells, and organs, growth hormones are also important to several other body functions.
- Growth hormones increase the ability of the body tissues to retain calcium. Calcium retention is necessary to ensure proper growth of the muscles and promote the development of strong bones.
- Growth hormones promote the body’s utilization of fats. This is accomplished by growth hormones ability to promote the oxidization of adipocytes and breakdown triglyceride. This enables the body to shed excess fats that would otherwise prevent athletes from looking and performing at their best.
- Growth hormones decrease the liver’s ability to absorb glucose. This counters the function of insulin and helps to maintain a healthy blood sugar level within the body.
- Enhances Thermic Levels
Protein has an incredible “burning effect”. Foods that are high in protein generally accelerate the digestive system by up to 30% which means that the body doesn’t have to work as hard to use like it does with foods that are higher in fats and starches.
Let’s consider this: two chicken breasts containing 24 grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fat contains roughly 90 calories. This ratio allows the body to maximize the dosage of protein and a low, but adequate, level of fats. The body is capable of burning the small injection of fats and utilizing the proteins to maximize results.
- Promotes the Fat Burning Process and Healthy Weight Loss
Because carbs and fats are so important to keep our bodies running smoothly, our bodies naturally store excess calories from carbs and fats as ‘extras’ throughout our bodies just ‘in case’ we need to burn them for energy. Thus, it’s extremely important to eat the correct amount of carbs and proteins to power through your highly active life but not so many carbs and fats that your body stores the excess fat.
When it comes to weight loss, consuming proteins actually help the body burn fat and maintain a healthy weight. Proteins boost the plasma concentrations of glucagon – which is a hormone that’s within the body. Better fat mobilization and decreased activity levels of enzymes that are responsible for generating and storing fat are the two main benefits of protein when it comes to fat burning. Eating more protein essentially impacts your body’s ability to generate and store fat.
- Satisfaction Will Help You Avoid Over-Eating
Studies have shown that proteins are a more satisfying and filling nutrient when compared to types of nutrients. By creating a satisfying and filling sensation within our bodies we are able to avoid over-eating and consuming too many calories. This problem is often seen when it comes to carbs and fats – you’re likely to eat more than you should. Again, this can have a negative effect on your results as it will increase the likelihood that you increase your percentage of body fat.
- Protein Lowers Insulin Levels
When it comes to building a stronger and leaner body, it is critical to control the body’s insulin levels. High levels of insulin in the body’s circulatory system will initiate and enable fat storage. This process allows triglycerides to develop within the circulatory system and be stored as fat.
Maintaining a healthy insulin level is important for not only gaining and keeping muscle mass, but for your overall health as well. Research has shown that high glucose levels and hyperinsulinemia are connected with ailments such as diabetes, elevated cholesterol, hypertension, and coronary illnesses.
Protein: How Much Do You Need?
Every single body has slightly different needs to operate at its peak. So unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this question. Instead, protein levels should be monitored and adjusted until the optimum results are produced. Once this is achieved, maintain the optimum level for your body becomes an easy task.
One of the greatest mistakes you can make is consuming a dosage of protein that is much higher or lower than the level that you need. Too little protein will prevent us from allowing our muscles to develop and grow. Too much protein will force our bodies to convert the protein to fat and store it within our bodies.
Studies have shown that the ideal range of protein intake amounts for the vast majority of athletes will fall between 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. To calculate your specific range of protein, multiply your weight by 1.2 to establish the minimum and 1.7 to establish the maximum. To find your sweet spot, aim for somewhere in the middle and adjust more or less based on your results.
When Should You Take Protein
It’s not enough to know how much protein you need. You also must understand when you should take protein to get the maximum benefits of it.
And while, as we previously discussed, protein should be a part of every meal. There is one specific time when it is absolutely necessary to consume protein. That time is within an hour of your workout.
Consuming protein after your workout is essential for muscle growth. Since proteins are the building blocks of muscle and has the primary goals generating healthy muscle growth and aiding in muscle recovery, it makes sense that protein is absolutely essential post-workout.
During a workout, the muscles tear as they become weakened under the strain of the exercise. During the recovery process, the body repairs those tears which generates larger, and stronger muscle mass. Over time, this is why we are able to build stronger and stronger bodies, by going through this process over and over again.
An ejection of protein just after your workout will allow your body to rapidly inject the nutrients that it needs to repair your muscle mass and create larger and stronger masses.
In addition to a post-workout protein injection, you should aim to consume protein throughout the day to maintain healthy levels. Our bodies are incapable of storing proteins. This means, that we must constantly consume proteins to maintain healthy levels. This also means that the excess proteins we consume are converted and stored in another form – as fats. The majority of people consume just 10% to 15% of their daily protein intake in the morning. Additionally on average, they consume around 20% in the evening. This means that roughly 60% to 70% of our protein intake usually comes from lunch and snacks throughout the day. This is not ideal when it comes to muscle building.
Studies found that muscle protein union was 25% higher when protein was equitably consumed over throughout the day. This is why athletes typically consume more than just breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the day. A general rule of thumb is to inject protein into the body at least every four hours throughout the day.
What are the Best Sources of Protein?
A high protein diet that’s well-balanced is as essential as a great workout plan. But, when you consume the protein and the sources of the protein also play an important role in determining their impact.
Natural food sources are always the best sources to obtain nutrients. Natural sources are easily broken down and utilized by the body. Whereas, manufactured supplements generally cause the body additional strain when compared to natural sources. Supplements should be used as they’re intended – to supplement your intake of natural nutrients. They should not be consumed as the foundation of building a balanced diet.
When it comes to natural food sources of protein, there are almost too many to discuss. In general, you should consume non-fatty meats like chicken, turkey, fish and low fat cuts of red meats. Since proteins are so widely available in a from a vast number of sources, we will take a look at our four favorite sources of protein and why they ranks so highly.
Skinless Grilled Chicken Breast
Skinless flame broiled chicken breast is one of the healthiest of protein sources since it contains next to no fat or carbs. A 3-ounce piece of chicken gives the body around 27 grams of protein, as indicated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In addition, chicken is a complete protein, which means it contains more of the crucial amino acids that your body requires day by day. And while skinless grilled chicken breast is a staple in the bodybuilding community, turkey breast offers very similar benefits but is often overlooked. Turkey breast is an excellent change of pace option for a top notch protein.
Consuming an excessive amount of entire eggs can increase your cholesterol level. However, egg whites are a superb source to maintain protein levels. An audit distributed in a 2010 version of the “Diary of the International Society of Sports Nutrition” reports that egg protein is the most elevated quality of protein accessible. Five large egg whites produce around 18 grams of protein, as indicated by the U.S. Branch of Agriculture. When it comes to maintaining a steady intake of protein throughout the day, eggs are a great option to get the day started off right.
Fish are a high protein, low fat option that should be a fixture in your diet. The USDA reports that a 3-ounce piece of cooked sockeye salmon contains around 22 grams of protein. It’s important to note that other seafood such as octopus is also great sources of protein. Maintaining a high protein diet doesn’t have to be boring, there are plenty of tasty and off-the-wall options out there to explore.
When it comes to consuming proteins, it doesn’t just come from our food. Beverages, such as low-fat milk can give us around 8 grams of protein. Other sources, such as cheese and low-fat yogurts can deliver between 13 and 28 grams of protein, as indicated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The secret to getting protein from dairy lies in avoiding the fat that often comes with it. Always check the fat contents on dairy products and ensure that you’re not consuming too much fat which could ultimately have a negative impact on your fitness goals.
When you’re ready to increase your protein intake, there’s nothing better and easier to use than a whey protein supplement.