Protein: Call your mom and ask for more.
Protein is the stereotypical meat-head’s go-to macronutrient. Anyone who recognizes you are bigger and stronger than average will almost always make a protein joke.
“MA, I need more protein.”
Oh yeah, that’s not the 15th time I’ve heard that one. Despite the annoying jokes, it is a critical part of an athlete’s arsenal, and it is sadly lacking in the American diet. The FDA recommends 60g(!) of protein per day. That would be a good recommendation for a third grader, but most adults tend to need much more than this. Without enough protein, critical processes can’t be maintained, which results in muscle loss, low energy, and eventually a higher body fat percentage.
A Little Science
The chemistry of protein is FAR beyond what we could fit in even 50 articles, so I’ll just cover the absolute basics. A protein is one or more polypeptides combined in a three dimensional structure. These polypeptides, as the name implies, are made up of a chain of peptides(amino acids). Proteins are encoded for in your genetic code, and synthesized within the cell through a process called “protein synthesis.” Proteins are literally involved in every process inside the human body, which should give you a hint to their ultimate significance in your athletic pursuits.
Amino acids are classified into “essential” and “nonessential.” This doesn’t mean that you don’t need the non-essential, just that your body can produce them itself. The essential ones must be obtained through diet. For the average carnivore, obtaining these isn’t a problem. Now, back to how this affects you!
Protein, when ingested, has a high thermic effect. This means a lot of the calories(20-30%) ingested go to just digesting the food. This is good, as it also has a high satiety(makes you feel full). These two things combined make it a very good nutrient for people worried about body composition.
“Is it OK to drink a protein shake if I’m not going to lift?”
Because protein is such a vast subject area, we are only focusing on protein as a macronutrient. As mentioned earlier, it is severely lacking in the American diet. There are also some serious misconceptions. The first being that drinking a protein shake will somehow make you fat unless it’s after training. Protein shakes are good ANY TIME that you need protein but for whatever reason can’t have solid food. Another is that protein will make you magically huge and muscular. Anyone who trains wishes it was that easy. Hard work is necessary.
How Much Should You Eat?
This is a topic of hot debate among the bodybuilding world. Some people say “AS MUCH AS YOU CAN GET!!!!” Some people say “YOUR KIDNEYS WILL EXPLODE IF YOU EAT MOE THAN 60g A DAY.” As is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in between. For bodybuilding and athletic purposes, most top coaches recommend 1.5-2 times your bodyweight in pounds in grams of protein per day. This means if you are 200 lbs, you want to eat 300-400g of protein a day to maintain or add muscle mass. Once this is achieved, focus more on where the rest of your calories are coming from(fat and carbohydrates), and manipulate those. Some people can get this much through solid foods, while others need to supplement with shakes. Girls should follow the same recommendation.
The source of protein turns out to be very important. Different sources of protein have different amino acid profiles as well as different amounts of other nutrients. For example, beef has creatine in it. Meats such as chicken, beef, elk, deer, and others tend to be better because they have high quality protein that is on the leaner side. Other meats can be good too, if the fat is built into the diet plan. Eggs are a great source of protein, with egg whites being very useful if one does not want the extra fat from the yolks. Protein powders have all different kinds of ingredients: whey, casein, egg, beef isolate, pea, etc. All of these have their place, and plenty of great physiques have been built on every type of protein powder.
Protein is an important macronutrient for physique enhancement. Just make sure to get enough and then worry about the other two macros. Try to include protein in every meal. And next time someone makes a joke about protein, explain to them that your physique is important to you. Or punch them in the kidneys.