Protein is a critical component for every cell of the human body. It is not only a source of energy but plays a large role in the growth and repair of our cells.
Protein is a macro-nutrient, similar to carbohydrates and fats as it provides energy and calories and it contains amino acids, which are the building blocks for the formation of muscles, hair, nails, skin, and organs, including the heart, kidneys, and liver.
So how much do we need?
The general population is recommended to consume 0.8grams of protein per kg of body weight per day to meet minimum requirements for energy and cellular health.
Protein intake should be increased when a person is more active (exercising for over 30minutes a day). Specifically, protein intake should increase to roughly twice what is recommended on a normal diet (1.0g to 1.7g per kg of body weight per day) depending on individual demands and the intensity/ duration of training.
What this looks like for an average 70kg male in food intake throughout the day:
Breakfast – 1 cup of cereal, 300ml of milk, 2 tablespoons of plain yogurt and 1 x toast with peanut butter (around 25g protein).
Snacks – palm full of nuts and ½ cup of hummus with crackers (around 20g protein).
Lunch – roll with 100g of chicken and 250ml of flavoured milk (around 55g of protein).
Dinner – stir-fry with 2 cups of pasta, 100g of meat and 1 cup of vegetables (around 50g of protein).
When you are training for over 1 hour a day such as endurance athletes in heavy training, your protein requirements are increased (1.2g to 1.6g per kg of body weight per day) to cover a small proportion of the energy costs of their training and to assist in the repair and recovery process after exercise. Similarly, those engaging in both endurance and resistance training, requirements are still high (around 1.2g to 1.7g per kg of body weight per day).
Strength athletes who are interested in gaining muscle size and function, require even greater amounts of protein (1.5g to 1.7g per kg body weight per day), especially in the early stages of very intensive resistance exercise.
These increased protein requirements help encourage muscle protein synthesis (the rebuilding of muscle tissue due to the stresses that we place on our body, e.g. exercise).
What’s all the fuss about protein powders then?
You may have heard the ‘hardcore gym goers’ talk about what kind of protein shakes they drink after a workout and you may have wondered if you need them.
Powders, bars and other protein supplements have become so ingrained in our exercise culture that it’s hard for some gym goers or athletes to image not following a great workout with a shake of some sort and sometimes even mid-workout. Protein powders are in many ways, leading the supplement charge and they are now seen as an easy and convenient source of complete, high-quality protein.
As many of us struggle to either make or digest a meal straight after exercise, powders can be used as a great alternative to help meet our demands around training.
So why protein and why whey?
The most obvious reason to supplement with protein powder is to reach your protein intake goal for the day.
The most common form of protein powder is whey protein because it’s a water-soluble milk protein and it is a complete protein, meaning that it contains our essential amino acids (building blocks of muscle) and can be absorbed quickly by the body. As whey protein is absorbed quickly by the body it can help your working muscles contract and recover after the stress is placed on them. Pretty clever stuff really!
Whey protein is an excellent choice of protein for all types of athletes and recreational gym goers to support a variety of training goals. Other reasons why you might suit protein powders include:
When you are growing – a teenager’s needs more protein to fuel their workouts as their body is still growing and it uses more protein in general.
When you are starting a new program – if working out is a new thing for you or you have a new routine to your workouts and you are trying to build muscle, you’ll require more protein then you normally would.
When you are ramping up your workouts – If you normally have a short workout and then decide that you want to run a half-marathon your body needs more protein to help recover and decrease delayed onset of muscle soreness.
When you are recovering from an injury – athletes with sports injuries frequently need more protein to help them recover.
If you are going vegan – people who pursue a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle eliminate a number of common protein food groups from their diet (such as meat, chicken, fish, eggs etc.). They may need additional protein supplementation to make sure they have a balanced diet.
For weight management – protein is a food group that digests slowly through your system, therefore, it makes you feel fuller for longer. It can help assist with supporting energy levels and weight control as part of a healthy diet.
Whey protein comes in three forms – concentrates, isolate and hydrolysate. Concentrates typically have low levels of fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of bioactive compounds and carbohydrates.
How should you use protein powders?
Protein powders can be a great meal alternative for some people to either help them top up their intake or use to manipulate their body composition. Girls, it won’t ‘bulk you up’ if you use it in the correct way!
To find out how much protein you need the best thing to do is to calculate your protein intake over the day with the help of a calorie counter (I recommend MyFitnessPal) or by visiting a Nutritionist/Dietitian to determine if you are getting enough quality protein in your current diet. Then you may need to look at using supplementation through protein powders to help top this up.
When it comes to exercise and benefits of increasing lean muscle mass, there is generally a thin slice of time to take in nutrients after a workout. For the biggest benefit, it is recommended to use protein powders 30 – 45min post workout to get the best results. However, depending on individual needs protein powders can be taken either before, during or after a training session or at any time of the day to increase protein intake. Don’t drive yourself crazy thinking that you’ve wasted a workout because you didn’t have a shake right after.
Additionally having protein powders that contain sufficient amounts of carbohydrates helps the body to recover faster after a hard training session through the use of carbs while optimizing strength and fitness gains through the use of protein. Yes, proteins are important but before, during, and after a workout, carbs are what your body needs. Carbs are what your body uses for fuel, what your muscles run on, and have been shown to help speed up the movement of nutrients into your muscle tissue.
Protein powders are safe for people who are fit and healthy and perfect if you are not able to get ‘whole foods’ right after training. Yes, whole foods still contain sufficient amounts of protein but as most people can’t make a meal immediately post-workout, these shakes are a preferred meal supplement when needed. However, it is best to stick with no more than two shakes in one day as part of a balanced diet.
As always it is important to remember that there are many different factors to take into account such as gender, size, muscle mass, fitness level and of course sport of choice. So what works for one person may not be best suited to you. This is intended as a general guide.
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Abby Shaw is a degree qualified Sports & Exercise Nutritionist and a former New Zealand representative swimmer. Abby regularly consults with clients on personalised sports & exercise nutrition requirements. To find out more inquire here.