6 Benefits of Protein [The Real Reason For Boosting Your Protein Intake]
To improve your fitness, build muscle, or just get stronger, there’s one word that stands above the rest:
From Rocky Balboa’s raw egg smoothie (not so smooth when it goes down) to the overwhelming shelves of protein supplements on offer in today’s nutrition stores: the sports health mantra is protein, protein, protein.
In my experience, while people know enough to say ‘protein is good’, they don’t know nearly enough about why it’s good. Or why it might be bad, for that matter. As with anything, my approach is to understand something as thoroughly as possible before putting it in my body.
I’ve come a long way from the days when I just took whatever supplements my coach told me: and it’s saved me time, money and a lot of wasted workouts. Also, despite what we’ve been told, the benefits of protein don’t start at the gym.
- 1 The bottom line
- 2 What is protein?
- 3 Amino Acids: What you need to know
- 4 Non-Essential amino acids
- 5 Essential amino acids
- 6 What is protein good for, though?
- 7 6 Benefits of Protein
- 8 Why it’s important to strengthen your immune system
- 9 How much protein do you need
- 10 How to get enough protein
- 11 FAQ
- 12 Summing Up
If my readers can take one thing from this post, it’s this:
Start thinking of protein as a recovery aide, and not a muscle multiplier.
If you can do this, you are already well on your way. And while I want this to be the last thought you’re left with, I also want you to understand it from the very beginning. It will help you sift through the information to come with the right perspective–you’re not looking for that supplement which will stack on muscle, you are looking for a master of repair.
By giving your body enough protein, you:
- Allow for proper, deep muscle tissue recovery;
- Build muscle and strength more efficiently;
- Boost your resting metabolism;
- Increase bone density; and
- Strengthen your immune system.
And that’s just for a start.
This article will run you through the protein basics. What it is, how much you need, and why you will probably benefit from getting more of it. I’ll also tell you how to get enough of it, both through dietary and supplementary means. In my experience, a combination of both sources is the best (and simplest) way to reach your daily protein intake, but more on this to come.
First thing’s first.
What is protein?
When it comes to cells, proteins are the key movers. They are involved in DNA replication, metabolic reactions, responding to stimuli and moving molecules around the body. While this may not sound so impressive, it’s only to highlight just how fundamental proteins are. They’re working on the cellular level to produce profound results in the body at large.
To give you a somewhat technical protein definition: proteins are large biomolecules folded into specific three-dimensional structures, made from long chains of amino acid residues.
Why is protein important, in plain English
They’re big molecules that handle lots of important stuff like growth, tissue maintenance, energy production and immune health. They also transport and store nutrients, balance fluids, maintain appropriate pH levels (very important), provide structure and exist as hormones which relay messages between cells, organs and tissues.
“They’re working on the cellular level to produce profound results in the body at large.”
Now, when I say that proteins are big, I’m using the biochemistry scale. And down there, in the world of the microscopic, proteins can be pretty huge–made up of hundreds or even thousands of smaller units. For this reason, there are actually thousands of different types of proteins, each performing their own role and serving a specific purpose. That’s why, in some cases, it might be wrong to say that, ‘Protein is good for your muscles’. Which protein? And which muscles; muscular organs? Muscle tissue? Triceps and biceps?
Don’t be alarmed by all of this, I’m only pointing it out to let you know: when it comes to the body, it’s easy for people to oversimplify. It’s easy to fall for a product labeled ‘protein gainer’ and think that it must be what you need for building muscle. Fortunately, you don’t need to know the nitty-gritty–in the five minutes it takes to read this post, you’ll learn enough to save you from putting on ten pounds of fat in added carbohydrates.
Amino Acids: What you need to know
Remember those smaller units which make up the bigger protein molecules? They’re called amino acids, and they’re important. You may have already heard a little about them–maybe you take a BCAA supplement or have heard something about essential amino acids, before–but if that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with refreshing your memory.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and there are 20 of them. Which of these and how they are linked together is what determines the structure and function of each protein. Again, we don’t need to get too deep into this, but there is one distinction worth knowing about amino acids: when it comes to nutrition, they can be broken up into two basic categories.
Non-Essential amino acids
Of the 20 total, 11 amino acids are classified ‘non-essential’. This doesn’t mean you don’t need them. Non-essential amino acids, such as glutamic acid, are just as important as the essential nine. Glutamine, for example, promotes healthy brain function and the synthesis of DNA and RNA molecules.
It does mean, however, that the body can produce these amino acids without sourcing them externally.
Essential amino acids
These nine, on the other hand, are essential because the body cannot produce them. That means your body needs to do some work to find them–from external sources (diet).
There is, actually, another category of amino acids called the ‘conditional’ amino acids. These are amino acids which are essential in times of great stress, illness, or for infant development, but which are generally speaking non-essential. You likely don’t need to think too much about these, for the time being.
When we come to discuss protein sources, it’s important to keep this distinction in mind. The 9 essential amino acids get so much attention because the body cannot produce them, so it makes sense to find a protein which includes these essentials.
Protein sources which include the essential amino acids are called complete proteins. Keep that in mind while searching for supplements–it’s much easier than going through each individual amino acid and checking them off! Complete proteins are what you should really be looking for in a supplement, since it can serve as the perfect way to meet your daily essential amino acid needs.
What is protein good for, though?
You’ve hung with me this far, and I appreciate that, but you might still be wondering what all this talk about amino acids has to do with making gains in the gym. Time for your reward: in simpler terms.
When we talk about protein and amino acids on the cellular level, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.
Well, big picture:
Protein is the stuff that rebuilds your muscle fibers.
When you workout with weights, or resistance training, you are deliberately tearing at muscles fibers (even if you didn’t know it, you are). By contracting your muscles against a resisting force, or just in an effort to move your bodyweight, you create microtears in the process. These microtears (or microtrauma to the muscle fibers) are also responsible for that wonderful sore feeling you get after a hard workout. Did I say wonderful? Maybe you need to be a little bit sadistic in this business, after all.
That familiar (perhaps dreaded) muscle soreness is actually a syndrome which is essential to the muscle building process. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the fancy name for stiff, tender muscles after a hellish workout, and it has to do with these microtears. It is our body’s way of responding to the trauma of a workout–but don’t worry, it isn’t the type of trauma to causes long-term damage.
In fact, this kind of trauma actually acts a stimulus. It is the reason that our muscles are encouraged to grow stronger. So that, if our bodies are ever put in that awful position again (of having to lift something heavy while our fitness trainer/friend/stranger yells words of encouragement/abuse in our ear), then it will be ready to face the challenge. This is the growth and strengthening process at its most basic:
Muscle Growth Process
- Invite muscle trauma (microtears to the fibers of your muscles) with strenuous activity.
- Eat, rest and provide the nutrients and time necessary for proper muscle recovery.
- Feel the stiffness of an old man getting out of bed – DOMS
- Your muscles repair the trauma with stronger fibers, and you are able to resist more force than before.
As you can see, the recovery and growth period are just as important as the tearing and strenuous exercise phase. People who exercise without rest quite literally run themselves into the ground. The same thing goes for people who don’t give their bodies the nutrients it needs to recover.
Protein quite naturally settles itself in the recovery phase. Of course, it also has plenty to do with energy creation during the first phase, along with transmitting pain messages during the third. Proteins have so many roles that, at the end of the day, they are present at each and every stage of the process.
However, when we talk about protein supplements and fitness, it is important to remember that we are talking about protein’s remarkable ability to act as master repairmen. It is what will help your body to maintain and strengthen those torn muscle fibers, which is the ultimate key to building new muscle and getting stronger.
6 Benefits of Protein
Let’s get into it, then.
Let’s start with the obvious, but with a strong caveat: consuming protein will not make you stronger. Remember that one thing I wanted you to take away from this article? Well, here we go again–protein is a recovery wizard. But in order for it to work its magic, you need to do some work. Specifically, you need to be putting your muscle under some trauma to stimulate growth. Muscle trauma always sounds worse than it is, so let’s just clarify: going for a long walk can still count as muscle trauma.
There, that isn’t so terrifying, is it?
Protein is the most widely tested and conclusively beneficial subject in the supplement world. It has been shown to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) in both trained and untrained individuals. Athletes of all disciplines consistently supplement with protein for its proven benefits on strength–whether it’s aerobic or anaerobic power, protein is key for performing at the highest level and improving strength at all ages.
Increase Bone Density (and prevent osteoporosis)
That’s right, protein has actually been linked with improving bone mass and density. Despite the long-standing myth that protein is bad for your bones, most studies agree that it is in fact a positive factor for improving bone health, especially into old age. This can be extremely important for preventing fractures in the elderly, reducing the impact and onset of bone deterioration associated with osteoporosis.
Reduce Appetite, Eat Less
Protein has been shown to make us feel more full than any of the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats, being the other big two). In fact, one study showed that by increasing overweight women’s caloric intake from 15% protein to 30%, this alone helped them to consume 441 fewer daily calories than normal. I say ‘alone’ because there were no other dietary restrictions put in place–it was simply the fact that proteins make you feel fuller than fats and carbs.
Before we get too carried away with this… If you are making changes to both diet and exercise routines at the same time, I would strongly encourage that this does not include cutting out a lot of calories: especially complex carbohydrates. Yes, you heard me right: Do not reduce complex carbohydrates (such as whole grain breads and pastas) while adapting to a new exercise regime. This is essential, in my experience, for long-term success, since it gives your body the energy it needs to adapt to the new stressors.
Moving towards a high-protein diet while increasing your exercise load is about the best way to lose weight without risk. The high-protein change will help to regulate hunger hormones, while providing the necessary nutrients for proper muscle recovery and growth.
Boost metabolism and burn more fat
High-protein diets have also been shown to help raise your resting metabolism. One study found that the result of high intake protein was enough to burn 260 more calories per day than a low protein group–that’s roughly the same as adding in one hour of moderate exercise, just by increasing your daily protein.
This phenomenon also has to do with something called the thermic effect of food. Did you know that, for a short time afterwards, the act of eating food actually burns calories? Well, not all foods are created equal in this, and it turns out that proteins expend more energy in their breakdown than carbs and fats. This, along with the added bonus of increased satiety from protein foods, means that protein is not just a quick fix solution–it helps your body to make lasting changes to its metabolism and energy systems.
Faster recovery: from workouts and injuries.
I think I’ve already drilled home the fact that protein is all about recovery and maintenance. However, I haven’t yet described how far the body takes this. See, it isn’t just micro-tears in muscle fibers that proteins are responsible for repairing: it takes care of almost all the tissues and organs in your body. That means that if you ever sprain your ankle, take a bad fall, or suffer some other severe tissue damage, you need to keep up your protein intake. A protein shake isn’t necessarily the first thing your doctor will prescribe, but it’s incredibly important. Without enough proteins and amino acids, your body’s repair mechanisms cannot function effectively.
So next time you’re recovering from a muscle strain or a broken bone, be sure to line up a nice steak and protein shake to speed along your recovery!
Strengthen your immune system
When I say that proteins help you to boost your immune system, that’s because they basically are your immune system. Our body’s defense system, the one that protects us from infections and diseases, relies upon antibodies to neutralize bacteria’s and viruses. Well, you guessed it–these antibodies are actually specific protein structures! When the body detects an antigen, it responds by producing specific antibodies to go out and deactivate it.
High protein diets naturally allow your immune system to run as it should, by providing your body with the essential amino acids necessary to build the specific proteins for fighting off diseases and infections.
Why it’s important to strengthen your immune system
To be honest, the six points above are only some of the many benefits of a high-protein diet. I’ve restricted the list to fitness-related benefits, but it extends to lowering blood pressure, improving brain function and heart health.
‘But a stronger immune system isn’t exactly what I had in mind for my fitness goals…’
I hear you, but I’ve included this point with good reason.
Do you want to know the most common reason I see people giving up on a new workout or dietary regime? Why they can put themselves through two weeks of blood, sweat and tears, only to give up altogether, before they even get to see any significant long-term gains? It’s simple:
People get sick.
When you put your body through a drastic change in diet and exercise, it will take a little time to adapt. In those first couple of weeks, you will be more vulnerable to new antigens and stressors, so it’s a good idea to be boosting your immune system with vitamin C. The fact that protein helps to strengthen your immune system from the bottom-up isn’t just an added bonus, in my mind: it’s essential. If you can push through the first month without being bed-ridden and forcing your body to shut down, then you are well on your way to making some powerful lifestyle change. And proteins are vital for achieving this.
How much protein do you need
This is a point for plenty of discussion, with values ranging from 50 grams per day to over 200 grams for a large active male.
Some general guidelines are as follows:
The average, non-active adult requires roughly 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. So:
If you weigh 70kg (155lbs), that means roughly 56 grams of protein, daily.
However, this value increases quite dramatically with frequent exercise. One study found that for optimal protein synthesis during exercise, people should strive for the 1.3-1.8 grams per kg range. That range rises to 1.8-2.0 grams per kg when the goal is to maintain lean muscle mass while undergoing caloric restriction (dieting).
This means that if you are exercising regularly (one hour per day, six days a week) and restricting your daily calories, doubling your bodyweight in kilograms might give you the most accurate figure for your daily protein intake.
Some protein calculators out there are shamefully high; I’ve taken some which give readings of up to 280 grams per day for my body composition. Don’t be stressed out by these: they’re most likely just trying to boost sales and make you take more protein than you need. Odds are, if you are working out consistently and take a little more protein than is optimal, no harm will be done. However, there’s no reason to overdo it. My 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight figure is about as high as any active person needs to go (I follow this figure when I’m in season, training twice a day and breaking down muscle fibers like nothing else).
How to get enough protein
If you have taken the daily protein intake calculator, you might shocked to see how much protein your body needs for optimal maintenance and recovery.
For me, personally, it means getting over 150 grams of protein each day. With the right combination of diet and supplementation, I find that I can achieve this figure reasonably often. I try not to stress if I don’t meet it, and I also make a greater effort on days when I know that my body has put in a lot of work. My point here is: don’t stress. If you don’t meet your daily value, there’s no need to overcompensate the next day. Remember, it’s about long-term change and finding a daily routine that is manageable. Eating an 8oz steak every evening might not be a feasible routine (it certainly isn’t for me), but substituting sugary snacks for high-protein options could be an easy inclusion.
Here are ten incredibly high protein food sources, with their caloric percentage and average protein content per serving listed.
In this order:
Food Source, Caloric % protein, Protein per serving (g)
- Chicken breast, 80%, 53 grams
- Shrimp, 90%, 18 grams
- Whole eggs, 35%, 6 grams (per egg)
- Greek Yoghurt, 48%, 17 grams
- Almonds, 13%, 6 grams
- Tuna, 94%, 39 grams
- Quinoa, 15%, 8 grams
- Lean Beef, 53%, 22 grams
- Broccoli, 20% ,3 grams (only 31 calories)
By including some of these foods into your weekly diet, you will be giving yourself a natural protein kick–along with plenty of other great minerals and vitamins. However, even with these protein superstars, it can be difficult to meet the mark, particularly when you are exercising frequently.
Enter protein supplements.
For a full discussion on which protein supplement is best for your needs, check out my post on the difference between protein sources.
When should I take protein? While there is a lot of talk about getting your protein in that ‘anabolic window’, roughly 45-60 minutes after a workout, the science says the ‘pre’ versus ‘post’ argument really doesn’t matter. A meta analysis of the data showed that ‘there were no meaningful results consistently attributable to pre- versus post-exercise protein ingestion’ .
This means that it’s just a matter of preference. I like to take my protein post-workout because it’s convenient and that way I always remember to do it. I also mix my protein with other supplements, like creatine, and nutrients,like magnesium, which have been shown to be beneficial post-workout.
Can you eat too much protein?
Yes. Again, the figures vary based on bodyweight and exercise schedule, but it is possible to have too much protein. That being said, it is quite difficult to do. You would need to be taking about double your daily recommended intake for an extended period of time.
How many grams of protein in an egg?
Whole eggs are a great source of protein, with the majority of this coming from the whites. The average egg will consume roughly 6 grams of protein, which means that a four egg scramble in the morning will already give you nearly 25 grams (that’s about the same as any high content protein shake!).
Does protein work without exercise?
I want to be careful here, but I think I know what this question is getting at, so: no. If you are talking about muscular gains and growth promotion, sadly, protein will not do anything for you if you are not exercising.
Then again, if you do not exercise regularly, it is still important to be getting plenty of protein in your diet for all of the non-muscle-building reasons I’ve mentioned in this article.
How much protein should you eat
Your daily protein intake can be calculated here. Generally speaking, if you are a non-active adult you need at least 0.8 grams per kilogram bodyweight. That figure rises with regular exercise to about 1.7 grams per kilo, while frequent heavy resistance training and muscle breakdown can mean you’ll need upwards of 2 grams per kilogram, daily.
What are proteins made of?
There are a variety of protein sources, such as:
– Soy protein
– Pea protein
– Whey protein
– Casein protein
And many more. However, all proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of any specific protein.
Protein is a fundamental nutrient for our bodies. We need it, and most likely, we need to be getting more of it than we realize. It’s not just about beefing up for beach season, it’s about maintenance, repair, and general health. A high protein diet can help you make gains in the gym that last, and these are the only gains worth making, in my opinion.
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it with your friends, or leave a comment below telling me what you think. For more information about protein supplements and the difference between sources like whey and casein, check here. Otherwise, be sure to keep an eye out for my Buyer’s Guide.