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Let’s talk protein... are you getting enough?

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

There’s a lot of talk on social media and through advertising about protein. We have protein bars and protein rich supplements for recovery but what’s so important about it? How much do we need? And where can we get if from?

Protein is essential for building tissue, be it bone, muscle, organs or connective tissue and creating hormones, enzymes and antibodies. The good stuff in protein is the amino acids which are split into two categories: essential and non-essential. The body can make non-essential amino acids but not essential ones, we have to get them from the diet.

The body’s tissues and bone are always being broken down and remodelled, so there is a constant need for more protein. If there aren’t adequate supplies to fuel the remodelling, tissue or bone can’t grow or create things like hormones. Instead the body breaks down existing tissue to release supplies of amino acids. Exercise causes damage to muscles which are then repaired, increasing the demand for amino acids. Some activities are more damaging than others e.g. lifting weights or running downhill. Protein is also used as a fuel as our glycogen supplies run low in our muscles and blood after one or two hours of moderate to intense exercise.

If we don’t fuel our bodies with sufficient protein, then the fitness gains we want from all that hard training won’t appear. Everybody is aware of the protein shakes that gym users consume but what about endurance athletes? When we run, bike or swim, one of the adaptations we are trying to achieve in our bodies are to build mitochondria which are the factories where oxygen and fuel are burnt to create energy. But mitochondria are built from proteins and, if there isn’t enough surplus protein to fuel mitochondrial growth then the body will rob it from muscles instead. Which isn’t good news as these are what moves us forward.

How much do we need? That depends…

Advice from Government says the average sedentary person needs 0.75g/Kg a day, so if you weigh 75Kg you’ll need 56.25g. But people who exercise need much more to grow muscles, repair damaged tissue or use as a fuel. The IOC and IAAF recommend an athlete should consume between 1.2 – 1.7g/Kg per day depending on their sport but recent research suggests the true figure may be higher in many sports. Especially when protein is being used as fuel as in many endurance activities or where there are frequent changes of direction or collisions like football and rugby. The harder we train, the proportionately more we need.

Where can we get it from?

Many foods contain protein, 150g of banana has 1.8g, 50g of oats has 10.3g and red lentils which contain 23g per 100g. But the problem is that some foods only contain the non-essential amino acids and not the essential ones the body can’t make, and this is why vegetarians and vegans have to be careful about selecting the right foods. The most complete sources of protein are animal or dairy but vegetarian and vegan athletes can achieve the right balance by choosing combinations eg. beans and rice.

Are you getting enough protein?

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