All About Protein for an Active Lifestyle

Ever wondered how much protein is enough? What types? And when? Well today we’ll *whey* into this subject! 

As mentioned in our first  Sports Nutrition Article, protein is important for our health, especially for physical activity. Research is now suggesting that athletes and active individuals need more protein than what most individuals need [1].

 Let’s look at why and what happens to the proteins we eat:

This last scenario is especially concerning for athletes and active individuals since they’re consistently working out and burning calories (energy). In other words, if we’re active but don’t have enough calories or protein, our muscles might become a source of fuel; i.e. our bodies would lose protein and not have enough to build and repair muscle.

So How Much Protein is Enough?

For best health and performance, the amount of protein should meet your specific needs. It depends on many factors: the type of exercise (intensity, duration), your weight, calorie intake, goals, age, etc. Generally the literature suggests between 1.2 – 2.0g of protein per kg of body weight a day [3]. This range is very broad; the higher end may be better suited for athletes training for specialized sports, while the lower end may be for individuals who are recreationally active. Talk to a Registered Dietitian (RD) to find out what your specific protein needs are.

*Note: It’s important to have enough calories especially from carbohydrates, so protein is spared from being used as fuel and can be used to build other proteins (ex. muscle) [1][4]. You can think of it like this: have protein to build and repair muscles, and carbohydrates to fuel.

Protein Timing

We know it’s important to have enough protein, but recent research shows that timing may matter just as much. 

After we exercise, our body produces proteins to repair and rebuild damaged muscle – for 24 hours after exercise. This is when our bodies are more sensitive to the protein we eat [5]. They trigger and supply building blocks to make muscle and proteins [6][7].

So When Should I Have Protein?

The key to having a good supply of protein for your body is to have moderate amounts of high-quality protein spread throughout the day and after your workout. More specifically, research recommends to:

  • Have ~ 15-25g(or 0.3g per kg of body weight) immediately after or within 2 hours of exercise to best repair and build muscle § [3]. 

Examples: 2 oz grilled chicken breast, 4 scrambled egg whites, 3 oz cooked salmon/tuna, 1 cup cooked beans, ¾ cup Greek yogurt, ¾ cup cottage cheese, 2 tbsp peanut butter 

  • Spread protein intake throughout the day (every 3-5 hours) in modest amounts in meals and snacks – since our bodies don’t store protein

Does More Protein = More Gains?

No! Extra protein will not help you build more muscle! Current research has tested this and showed that doses of more than 40g after exercise do not enhance muscle growth in most people. There’s only so much your body can use in that time!

Having excessive protein may also lower kidney function along with other negative health effects, so it’s important not to overdo it [1]!

Note: This amount is generally for the typical athlete but depends on your weight. Check with an RD.

§Note: Having enough energy (calories) is important to support muscles. If you do not (ex. if your goal is weight loss), then you may need more protein to support muscle growth and maintenance. This changes from person to person. Talk to an RD to find out what your needs are.

Which Protein Sources are the Highest Quality?

We’ve all heard the saying, “quality over quantity”. Well the same applies to the protein we choose to eat. If you’re active, consider high quality proteins because they’re easily used by muscles to promote muscle growth, repair and maintenance [1][3]. 

High-quality proteins are:

✔ Easily digested
✔ Provide essential amino acids that the body can’t make
(i.e. must come from food)

Examples of high-quality proteins:
  • Animal sources: dairy products, egg whites, lean beef, poultry, and fish
  • Plant sources: soy, quinoa, pea, beans, lentils, and peanuts
  • Isolated proteins: whey, casein, egg white, and soy [1]

Note: Choose protein from food sources over supplements as they provide a natural source of protein with other nutrients to support an active lifestyle.

But there’s one more player involved, and that’s leucine – probably one of the most important amino acids for improving muscle growth after intense exercise [1]. Proteins rich in leucine (such as whey, found in milk), have been shown to be the most effective in improving muscle growth with resistance exercise [1][6][8]. Studies point to this branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) as the trigger for the machinery responsible for making more muscle proteins [6].  

The figure explains the theory that as leucine levels rise in the blood quickly, following exercise, it reaches a certain point where it triggers the production of muscle proteins more than a lower dose would. In other words, the theory is that protein with a high amount of leucine that digests quickly, will boost the amount of muscle proteins made following exercise. 

Foods Richest in leucine:
  • Animal sources: dairy products (ex. milk, yogurt, cottage cheese), egg whites, lean beef, poultry, and fish
  • Plant sources: soybeans, beans (ex. edamame), lentils, and peanuts

Note: there is little benefit of consuming a leucine supplement, rather high-quality proteins that contain leucine and other essential amino acids should be preferred for muscle growth promotion [6].

Therefore, athletes and active individuals should consider high-quality proteins that are:

  1. Leucine-rich
  2. Rapidly digested
  3. Rich in other essential amino acids

To Summarise:

  • Athletes and active individuals require more protein, which depends on many factors
  • An RD can help determine what your specific protein needs are
  • Consider high quality proteins, rich in leucine and essential amino acids that digest rapidly  to promote muscle growth, repair and maintenance
  • Spread protein intake throughout the day (every 3-5 hours) in modest amounts in meals and snacks
  • Have ~15-25g (or 0.3g per kg of body weight) of high-quality protein immediately after or within 2 hours of exercise to maximize gains

*Please be aware that these are general guidelines. Nutrition and intake varies by age, sex, height, activity, being pregnant or breastfeeding, and medical conditions. For more information or to sit with one of our dietitians for an individualised nutrition counselling session, please contact us at amananutrition@gmail.com or visit ourContact Us page to book your first appointment.

Until next time,

Sadaf Shaikh, PMDip, RD


References:

[1] Webb, D. (2014, June). Athletes and Protein Intake. Today’s Dietitian, 16(6), 22. Accessed from: https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/060114p22.shtml

[2] Unlock Food (2019). Introduction To Protein And High Protein Foods. Can be accessed from: https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Protein/Introduction-To-Protein-And-High-Protein-Foods.aspx

[3] Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501-528. Chicago

[4] Rodriguez, N. R., Vislocky, L. M., & Gaine, P. C. (2007). Dietary protein, endurance exercise, and human skeletal-muscle protein turnover. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 10(1), 40-45.

[5] Burd, N. A., West, D. W., Moore, D. R., Atherton, P. J., Staples, A. W., Prior, T., … & Phillips, S. M. (2011). Enhanced amino acid sensitivity of myofibrillar protein synthesis persists for up to 24 h after resistance exercise in young men. The Journal of nutrition, 141(4), 568-573.

[6] Phillips, S. M., & Van Loon, L. J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S29-S38.

[7] Phillips, S. M. (2012). Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. British Journal of Nutrition, 108(S2), S158-S167.

[8] Pennings, B., Boirie, Y., Senden, J. M., Gijsen, A. P., Kuipers, H., & van Loon, L. J. (2011). Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 93(5), 997-1005.

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