By The Editors
When it’s broken down to its most basic components, protein is a macronutrient made up of amino acids, supplying the body with four calories per gram when ingested. However, for those of us who exercise intensely to lose weight, improve cardiovascular fitness, build muscles, and better ourselves overall, it represents a heck of a lot more than that. In truth, it’s our body’s saving grace!
Protein is by no means a new term in dietary circles; in fact, the word itself first appeared in scientific literature as far back as 1838. From a nutrition standpoint, proper protein consumption on a daily basis is key, not only because it’s our body’s main “building block” for muscle, bone, skin, and hair, but also because of its involvement in countless other metabolic and physiological functions that are essential to healthy living. Add in the fact that the word protein comes from a Greek term meaning “primary” or “first,” and you have a little more insight into the true importance of this gym-goer’s favourite.
What makes protein so unique and what differentiates it from the other two macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats) is twofold. First, the body does not, for the most part, store excess protein. Instead, the body uses what it needs and any excess gets excreted when your system’s machinery is running optimally.
Secondly, protein supplies us with important nitrogen-rich amino acids, which are needed to foster a state of “positive nitrogen balance” — that is, a net storage of nitrogen in the body. While this positive nitrogen balance is exceptionally important during childhood development and pregnancy, it also plays a key role in your body’s muscle-building and healing processes. This is one of the main reasons competitors and athletes opt to take protein so frequently. The constant influx of amino acids is required because, under ideal circumstances, the body isn’t storing any excess protein, but these athletes are trying to achieve the highly coveted state of being in positive nitrogen balance.
Meeting Your Daily Protein Requirements
For those of us who are trying to snag some of protein’s benefits without aiming for the Holy Grail of positive nitrogen balance, it’s important to know how much to consume on a daily basis. According to Health Canada’s recommended dietary allowance (RDA), an ideal target for women over the age of 18 is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If we dabble briefly in that dreaded subject of math, we can determine that, according to these guidelines, a 130-pound woman should be taking in a little more than 47 grams of protein daily which, relatively speaking, really isn’t that high. In fact, recent research from the Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care journal points to “mounting evidence, as highlighted by multiple consensus statements” suggesting that the RDA may be inadequate with respect to promoting optimal health in older adults.
If the RDA isn’t our answer, then what is? The Physician and Sportsmedicine journal cites a “significant body of evidence” indicating that those of us involved in intense training need more protein than the average Jane, suggesting a daily dose of 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may be a better fit, which means an average 83 to 118 grams of protein per day for the same 130-pound woman. This new range will likely be much more influential in helping women achieve their physique and fitness goals.
It has been suggested that consuming six small meals throughout the day and evening is a better alternative than three larger meals to boost metabolism and stabilize energy levels, so it stands to reason that your protein intake should be staggered in a similar way, spread out as evenly as possible over the course of those six meals.
It’s also very important to carefully consider your protein consumption in and around your workout because research indicates that an intake of protein or amino acids before, during, or after your training session can boost not only the recovery process but also immune function, along with the growth and maintenance of fat-free body mass. This means it’s vitally important that you pay attention to your pre- and post-workout meals and ensure that they fit the bill with respect to your individual protein requirements.
Now that we’ve established the basics regarding daily protein quantity and frequency, we can turn our attention to another need-to-know topic: protein quality.
While food sources such as chicken breast, turkey breast, fish, egg whites, lean cuts of red meat, soy, and low-fat dairy products are great go-to protein staples, you may also want to consider adding a protein supplement to your game plan. Sometimes it’s difficult to meet all of your protein requirements through food alone (especially if you are at a higher body weight), plus it can be tedious and inconvenient prepping and packing all that food on a daily basis.
With that in mind, protein (and, subsequently, amino acid supplements) can really help ensure both an adequate and timely intake of protein for the express purpose of hitting your specific macro number for the day. Your typical protein powder usually contains about 20 to 25 grams and can be prepared and consumed quickly, especially when compared with the prep time of grilling a chicken breast or baking a salmon fillet — in addition to the time it will take to sit down and eat it.
But don’t think that this means you should opt strictly for protein and supplements. Food shouldn’t be replaced — protein supplements, much like other supplements, are merely intended to complement an already good diet. Case in point: in a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers concluded that “the current body of literature supports the use of WP (whey protein), either as a supplement combined with resistance exercise or as part of a weight-loss or weight-maintenance diet, to improve body composition parameters.” Consider this information alongside research which indicates that drinking 15 to 20 grams of protein from skim milk or whey protein with 30 grams of fast-acting carbohydrates immediately after training is the best way to kickstart muscle protein and tendon collagen turnover, and the argument for adding a quality post-workout protein and carb supplement to your diet gets even stronger.
Maximizing Protein Supplementation
One of the great things about protein is the vast range of choice on the market. Whether you’re looking for a dairy-based supplement like whey or casein, an egg-white powder, a plant-based pick like hemp, or a protein convenience product like a bar, an RTD (ready-to-drink) shake, or even protein chips, the possibilities are seemingly endless. While whatever source you decide on is a matter of personal preference, rest assured that a high-quality protein supplement can help promote the metabolic environment your body needs in order to achieve even your most challenging fitness and health-related goals.