You already know the power of protein. Protein is made up of long strands of amino acids, the chemical units that build new muscle. Resistance training damages muscle fibers and the tiny myofibrils inside that allow a muscle to contract. This muscle fiber damage must be repaired for a muscle to grow and become capable of supporting more weight. Plus, protein is vital for muscle repair.
Less commonly, the amino acids from protein can act as a fuel source. Under normal conditions, protein makes up less than 5% of the fuel muscles use, the rest being fat and carbohydrates. But, during times of excessive exercise or fasting, your body breaks down muscle protein to serve as an additional source of fuel. Your liver can then convert the amino acids from protein into glucose that your body can use as a secondary source of fuel. Of course, this creates a catabolic state and that’s not desirable. That’s why getting enough dietary protein is so important for athletes.
How much protein should you get? Protein recommendations for a sedentary person are around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. But, that’s not enough if you resistance train or do endurance exercise. These activities stress and damage muscle fibers, and you need more amino acids from protein to repair this damage. Most sources recommend that athletes get at least double the recommendations for a sedentary person and some suggest consuming as much as 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight if you do intense workouts.
What about protein timing? After a workout is a good time to consume protein as some research suggests that snacking on 20 to 30 grams of protein within an hour of a workout boosts the repair process. At the very least, space your protein out over the day. Some research suggests that your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at a time, the maximum being about 30 grams. This means that the anabolic response won’t be greater if you consume more. However, other studies refute this idea, maintaining that even higher doses elicit a greater anabolic response. So, the verdict is still out.
Avoiding Injury: Does a Higher Protein Diet Help?
Does a diet higher in protein protect against injury? A former Canadian Football League player and trainer of NFL players and MMA fighter named Prohaska followed 100 professional athletes for a number of months. He discovered that for every five pounds of muscle players lost during the off-season, their risk of injury climbed by 30%. An injury is something we all want to avoid. We know that good nutrition, including enough protein, is important for building strength and muscle size – but can it lower injury risk?
According to Prohaska, when we lose muscle as a result of weight loss, muscle loss isn’t evenly distributed. In other words, you don’t lose it uniformly. You might, for example, shed more from your quadriceps than your hamstrings, creating an imbalance that increases the risk of injury. So, getting enough protein and avoiding as much muscle loss when you lose weight may help reduce your risk of injury when you weight train or play sports.
We also know that after an injury, it’s important to get enough protein to preserve muscle. If you’re injured, you may not be able to train as hard or train certain muscle groups and this can lead to loss of muscle tissue and strength. After an injury that limits how much training you can do or requires a muscle to be immobilized, you might fear gaining weight unless you cut back on how much you eat. Yet, you need adequate energy and protein for your body to heal. That’s a dilemma, right? Well, there’s good news.
Some studies show that after an injury, especially a severe injury, resting energy expenditure goes up, meaning your body burns more energy to help your body heal. So, even if you’re not able to exercise or have to dramatically change your routine, the decrease in energy expenditure isn’t as dramatic as you would expect. So, cutting your calories and protein isn’t a wise choice after an injury. In fact, studies show that it’s best to at least maintain the amount of protein you consume as part of an athletic diet and it may be beneficial to increase dietary protein to as high as 2 grams per kilogram of body weight. At the very least you shouldn’t eat less protein.
Meeting Your Body’s Protein Requirements
Although protein bars and shakes are popular, you probably don’t need a supplement to meet your body’s protein needs. But, if you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, you may have a hard time getting enough protein unless you consume a lot of calories. In this case, your body might benefit from a pea or hemp protein supplement to fill in the gaps. Otherwise, whole food forms of protein should suffice. One advantage that animal-based foods have is they’re higher in leucine, an essential amino acid that’s the strongest activator of muscle protein synthesis. You find the most leucine in meat and poultry, but tofu, peanuts, and black beans are respectable sources as well. Of course, the protein you choose should be high quality, not a burger from a fast-food joint.
Also, you need a higher protein diet later in life. Studies show that once you enter your 60’s and later, anabolic resistance becomes more of a problem. Anabolic resistance is a phenomenon whereby muscles respond less readily to anabolic messages that tell them to grow, including protein. So, you may need to boost your protein intake to get your muscles into an anabolic state. Some research suggests that inflammation is a driving factor behind anabolic resistance and that a diet rich in omega-3s, due to their anti-inflammatory effect, may help. It’s a smart idea to eat an anti-inflammatory diet no matter your age.
The Bottom Line
There are lots of reasons to make sure you’re getting enough protein. Doing so may even lower your risk of injury – and if you are injured you should at least maintain your current protein intake, if not increase it. So, don’t be afraid of eating a higher protein diet, but make sure your diet is balanced as well, with lots of nutrient-dense whole foods.
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