Protein And The Many Forms It Comes In
Protein is a hot topic in medical and wellness news today. From the amount of protein you should be consuming, to the different types of plant and animal proteins, to the new buzz around alternative proteins – there is a lot to take in and we are often left with more questions than answers.
Protein plays a critical role in your health. From helping you increase muscle mass and strengthening your bones, to lowering blood pressure and improving sleep and brain health, protein plays a role in just about every bodily function.
In this article, we try to simplify the conversation and translate scientific data to help you understand what protein is, why it is important, how to differentiate between the different varieties of proteins, and understand situations where protein plays a major role in how you body functions.
What Exactly is Protein?
To understand why you need protein, you first need to understand what protein is. Protein is a macronutrient (required by the body in large amounts) – along with carbohydrates and fats – that provides the body with energy (aka calories) and is essential to building muscle mass.
When we say “protein builds muscle,” what we really mean is the body breaks down protein into its amino acids, and those amino acids are synthesized into muscle. Amino acids – the “building blocks of protein” – are compounds that are responsible for a variety of bodily processes, including neurological process and muscle synthesis. 80% of muscle is made up of amino acids.
When it comes to protein, there are 20 different amino acids that make up each molecule of protein, and these are split into 2 categories: Non-Essential Amino Acids and Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
Non-Essential Amino Acids – produced naturally by the body
Essential Amino Acids – not produced naturally by the body and must be consumed through food or supplementation
It is important to understand the role amino acids play in protein, because some amino acids are better than others when it comes to muscle health – which is critical for health and well being.
So what are the different types of protein, and what’s the difference?
There are two main categories (or sources) of proteins – animal and plant based.
Animal proteins include:
Plant Based proteins include:
The main difference between animal and plant proteins is their amino acid profile. Most animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all 9 of the essential amino acids (EAAs). Most plant proteins are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they are missing at least one essential amino acid. However, eating multiple plant proteins together can create the effect of complete proteins.
Animal proteins, such as whey protein, have been studied extensively clinically to determine their effect on skeletal muscle and tissue repair so are recommended for athletes and people who need to increase muscle health and mass, like the elderly or post-surgical patients.
There are two main reasons for this. First, whey is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the essential amino acids. Secondly, whey proteins are abundant in Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) which are a subset of EAAs that support muscle growth.
So what if I am vegan or lactose intolerant?
There is a solution for you! As mentioned above, by supplementing your plant protein intake with additional amino acids (e.g. BCAAs) either through other plant protein sources or nutritional supplements, you can get the amino acid levels your body needs for optimal muscle protein synthesis. For example, lysine, methionine and tryptophan (essential amino acids) are in very low quantities in plant based proteins and therefore you need to supplement to get them into your body to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
So now that you understand what a protein is, and where it comes from, let’s talk about how much you should consume.
How much protein do I need?
The prevailing research says that you should strive to consume 1 gram per kilogram (1kg = 2.2 lbs for us Americans) of bodyweight per day.
This guideline will vary based on your goals. For example, if you are looking to put on muscle, you should increase your protein intake to 2-3 grams per kilogram.
However, protein is not only important for body builders. If you are recovering from an injury or surgery, your body will be in a higher metabolic state and require more energy and tissue building nutrients, so you will want to increase your protein consumption to support the healing process.
Protein is also very important as we age. Beginning around the age of 40, you begin to lose up to 3-5% of your muscle mass per decade, a condition known as Sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the reason why falls and fractures are so common among the elderly. Increasing your protein intake, as well as continuing to exercise, can help preserve muscle and fight off Sarcopenia
Where Does All This Protein Go?
While consuming sufficient protein is important, the truly important metric is not how much we consume, but how much of the protein our muscles actually absorb. Research shows that the average person can absorb about 10g of protein per hour, and maxes out at about 30g per meal.
There are certain things we can do to bump up absorption and make sure we get the most out of our protein intake.
1. Space out Meals
Intuitively, the first step you can take is to space out your meals and consume appx. 20-30g protein (e.g. 100g chicken breast) per meal over multiple meals, instead of eating a few meals of 40-50g protein, since your body will not be able to process that amount of protein at one time.
2. Try a Protein Complex
A protein complex is a combination of different protein types that have different digestion periods. For example, combine whey (a fast digesting protein) with casein (a slow digesting protein) allows the body to continuously process the protein over a longer period of time than with just whey alone.
3. Supplement with Digestive Enzymes and HMB
Another option is to increase the absorption rate so that your muscles utilize more of the protein you consume. Research shows that digestive enzymes like protease and papain help your body break down protein more efficiently to allow for easier absorption
An article from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition compared people who drank protein shakes with additional digestive enzymes to a control group that consumed only the protein shakes. They found that amino acid levels in the digestive enzyme group were 30% higher than the protein-only group.
Another nutrient that has been shown to increase protein synthesis is HMB (β-Hydroxy β-methylbutyric acid), which is a natural substance used by people ranging from elite athletes looking to put on muscle, to cancer patients suffering from muscle wasting that are hoping to preserve muscle. HMB also has shown to reduce muscle catabolism, meaning you lose less and hold onto more muscle.
Protein is incredibly important to our health, not only to build bigger muscles, but to heal better from injury, age better, and prevent certain disease conditions.
But protein is not one size fits all, and it is important to understand the different types of protein, how much you need, and how your body processes protein so that you can set yourself up to properly heal and live your healthiest.