The first of a three part series on fundamental nutrition principle, written by WLTF Nutritionist - Henrietta Paxton - explains the importance of protein for performance and health.
Of the three macro nutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) what do you really know about protein?
Well, essentially, without protein there is no life.
As an athlete you are probably aware that you should be taking in adequate amounts of protein, or having protein shakes, or protein bars….or maybe you don’t need them because you eat a full and complete diet…or maybe you should have protein bars as “healthy” snacks…..or maybe you shouldn’t have any because it’s just extra calories and you don’t want to put on weight ...
Suddenly it’s not very clear.
Ok, let’s look at what protein is, and what you need it for.
Protein is made up of 22 amino acids. Amino acids can be considered as the basic building blocks for every single metabolic process in the body, not just muscle growth.
Amino acids are precursors for neurotransmitters (L-tryptophan is needed to make seratonin, which makes you feel happy). Amino acids are needed to make all enzymes in the body, such as those enzymes needed for digestion or proper detoxification. Hormones are made up of amino acids (melatonin, your sleepy hormone relies on L- tryptophan again, dopamine our neurotransmitter that makes us feel pleasure and love, relies on adequate L-tyrosine). L-Glutamine is key for proper gut integrity, amino acids make anti-bodies for your immune system, they also transport oxygen and nutrients around the body, as well as being able to be used for energy.
AND they play a key role in muscle growth and repair.
So, if we consider the body as a set of 7 essential functions that we need to survive and thrive; digestion & assimilation, the immune system, energy, detoxification and biotransformation, transport, communication, and structural integrity, then we can see that amino acids play a fundamental role in every single one, hence, without proteins there would be no life.
Now the reason that taking them in through your diet is so important is because while we can make some amino acids ourselves, 9 of these amino acids are essential, meaning we can’t. And 7 amino acids are semi-essential meaning we can make them, but we need one of the essential amino acids to do so, therefore if we aren’t taking in the essential amino acid, we can’t make the dependant semi-essential one.
For example, L-carnitine is a semi essential amino acid that is needed to be able to use fat as a fuel source, it shuttles fatty acids into our mitochondria (the little engine houses that make energy for us in every cell of our body). But it is made from lysine and methionine, both of which are essential. So, in this case proper beta oxidation (fat burning) relies on us taking in these 2 amino acids through our diet.
So where do you find all these amino acids? Well, the short answer is meat, eggs and dairy products. These will provide you with the full complement of 22 amino acids that you need.
For those vegetarians and vegans out there, ensuring you get all 22 amino acids through your diet can be more of a challenge, as the proteins in grains and legumes are incomplete, meaning they don’t provide all 22 amino acids from the one source, so mixing different grains or beans with every meal is important to make sure you are getting all 22, check out the list below for the best sources of protein.
And since amino acids are vital for every process in the body, protein deficiency can present itself in many ways. I’ll get to that later.
So far, these points are relevant to healthy balance for normal function in everyone, not just athletes, and a starting point should be ensuring that you include a good source of protein in every meal, or snack. And by good, I mean unprocessed foods, without preservatives, additives, hidden salt or sugars….so no popcorn chicken does not count as a good source. Equally a ham sandwich with one slice of ham in is not enough either, a) because it literally not enough protein and b) because the ratio of macro-nutrients in a sandwich is so unbalanced in favour of carbohydrates (the 2 slices of bread compared to a lettuce leaf, 2 sliced tomatoes and a slice of ham!)
Then what is enough protein?
Government guidelines currently suggest 0.75g protein/kg body weight is sufficient to keep us “healthy”. This number is based on nitrogen balance – where protein (nitrogen) intake equals protein (nitrogen) loss.
Here, I am going to interrupt to add the note that as an evidence based therapist, making recommendations based on the latest scientific research, government guidelines are often far behind what is being demonstrated in the most current research, and are designed to be recommended for populations, not individuals. They are often based on cut off levels defined by disease presentation or none, for instance “sufficient” vitamin D levels are based on the level where you don’t get rickets. Ok, great I won’t get rickets, but am I optimally healthy?
Recommendations based on just not getting a disease seems to be setting the bar low wouldn’t you say? Certainly, when it comes to elite performance. Health and disease is a continuum, it’s not one or the other, so are these recommendations the optimal level for us as athletes? In the case of protein and nitrogen balance I personally can’t see a training or performance variable that is associated with being in nitrogen balance! (1).
Now while more (and more and more) is not necessarily better (as with training!) if we consider protein from a functional perspective then we can look at what an “optimal” level may be.
(Oh by the way, I will get to vitamin D and just how important it could be for power athletes in another blog, so stay tuned!)
So anyway, back to how much protein you need as an athlete.
Well, if 0.75g/kg body weight is considered enough to maintain normal balanced function the increased metabolic, stress, muscular stress and energy requirements of training in power athletes means intake needs to rise to between 1.3-1.8g/kg body weight. This currently appears optimal to provide the body with the amino acids it needs for normal function, as well as maintenance or growth of muscle mass, (2).
Maintenance of muscle mass is a balance between muscle protein synthesis, MPS (growth of NEW muscle proteins) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). In simple terms the difference between the two (called Net Protein Balance, NPB) determines either loss or gain of muscle.
Wondering how this relates to you?
We all understand that training leads to adaptations which improve our performance. But do you understand how this happens?
Under normal circumstances adult skeletal muscle is a stable tissue with little turnover, but upon injury it can initiate a rapid and extensive repair process; inflammation (to get rid of dead tissue) is followed by activation of muscle cells to enter myogenesis (basically grow new muscle fibres, or MPS) (3). The type of high resistance, maximal intensity training you undertake results in trauma (micro injuries) to the fibres, and this damage or muscle injury is the basis for training adaptations as it stimulates myogenesis. So, we damage our muscle and then our body heals it better and stronger. You might ask why extra protein is needed if training alone stimulate adaptations, actually protein is key in a couple of ways. Personally, I think almost the most important role is that having protein after exercise significantly reduces muscle damage, (4).
If you take away nothing else just keep in mind that reduced muscle damage effectively means an acceleration through the recovery process so that for your next session you will be less sore and less fatigued meaning you can have a higher quality training session. Racking up more high quality training session than your competitor is going to give you an advantage. Simple.
Secondly and equally as important is that protein consumption is necessary for stimulated MPS to result in a positive NPB, (2). This is because protein acts as both a trigger for myogenesis after training, and as a substrate during myogenesis (leucine, one of our amino acids, is incorporated into the new muscle fibre during formation).
Denying the body the proper nutrients necessary for repair and recovery after training means it cannot heal itself better and stronger, the muscle damage may accumulate, therefore affecting function and fatigue. In this state we put ourselves at risk of major injuries.
Even if your body manages to stay in a balanced NPB state (it is very clever, and can steal amino acids from their other roles in the body to meet your training demands) you are putting yourself in danger of protein deficiency rearing its ugly head in another area completely! Take a look at these signs of protein deficiency:
Muscle or joint pain
Fatigue or low energy
Injured often & slow recovery from injuries
Picking up illness or infection regularly
Poor hair, skin or nails
Brain fog/poor concentration
Sluggish metabolism or difficulty losing weight
Mood swings/anxiety or tension/depression
Irregular menstrual cycle
Because protein is needed in all functions of the body a deficiency can manifest itself in a wide range of symptoms, many of which like poor sleep, illness, depression or fatigue can be just as crippling to athletes as a muscular injury.
In terms of specific muscle health, low protein diets have been shown to result in a lower protein synthesis in resistance trained athletes (5) and interestingly the athletes in this study were actually given the recommended 0.8g/kg/day!
Many of you may be aware of the theory that there is a post training “critical window” to get those enhanced training benefits from protein, however the research on that remains undecided, mostly due to incongruence between testing methods, subjects used, training stage, training type, acute versus long-term MPS etc. etc.
In fact, training within 3-4 hours of a proper meal could provide you with enough amino acids to recover fully without post training protein ingestion, (6), and the evidence is that in the long term it is actual total protein consumption (over the course of a day) as opposed to timing, which is the key to muscle building (7). However, this is in relation to hypertrophy alone, and does not account for the benefits to long term performance gains of a faster recovery which I discuss later. It also assumes that we are getting enough protein through three meals a day. So ok, let’s do the maths;
If you take an average weight female (60kg) and average weight male 80kg and times by 1.5g (I have split the range straight down the middle here) the amount per day is 90g and 120g protein/day respectively. Split that between 3 meals that is 30g-40g protein per meal. Well, take a look at the list below and see how you think you are doing:
Meat and Fish
· Chicken, breast, skin off, roasted, 100g: 34 g of protein
· Lamb, chops, 100g: 28g of protein
· Beef, 100g: 27g of protein
· Snapper 1 x fillet (approx. 170g): 45g of protein
· Salmon 1/2 x fillet (approx. 180g): 39g of protein
· Tuna, tinned, 85g: 22g of protein
· Ham, 100g: 17g of protein
· Bacon whole rasher, grilled, 100g: 22.2g of protein
· Sausage, beef, grilled, 100g: 13.9g of protein
· Sausage, pork, grilled, 100g: 16.8g of protein
Dairy and Eggs
· Eggs, 1 x large, poached: 6g of protein
· Milk, cow’s, full fat, 100mL: 3.5g of protein
· Milk, cow’s, skimmed, 100mL: 3.7g of protein
· Cheese, cheddar, full fat, 100g: 24.6g of protein
· Fetta, goat/sheep, 100g: 17.4g of protein
· Ricotta, reduced fat, 100g: 10.1g of protein
· Cream cheese, full fat, 100g: 11.1g of protein
· Haloumi, 100g: 21.3g of protein
· Yoghurt, natural, full fat, 100g: 6g of protein
· Red lentils, 100g: 6.8g of protein
· Yellow split peas, 100g: 6.6g of protein
· Quinoa, 100g: 4g of protein
· Chickpeas (garbanzo), tinned, 100g: 6.3g of protein
· Cannelini beans, tinned, 100g: 6.2g of protein
· Kidney beans, tinned, 100g: 6.6g of protein
· Tofu, firm, 100g: 12g of protein
· Tofu, silken, 100g: 8.1g of protein
Nuts and Seeds
· Almonds, raw, 25g: 6g of protein
· Walnuts, raw, 25g: 4g of protein
· Brazil nuts, raw, 25g: 3.6g of protein
· Cashew nuts, raw, 25g: 5g of protein
· Peanut butter, no salt or sugar, 1Tbs: 6g of protein
· Pumpkin seeds, raw, 25g: 6.1g of protein
· Sunflower seeds, raw, 25g: 6.7g of protein
Bread and Grains
· Bread, white, 100g (approx 2 slices): 9.7g of protein
· Bread, wholemeal, 100g: 9g of protein
· Bread, gluten free, 100g: 9.8g of protein
· Bread, rye, light, 100g: 9g of protein
· Oats, whole, raw, 100g: 2g of protein
· Pasta, white, 100g: 4.2g of protein
· Pasta, wholemeal, 100g: 4.9g of protein
· Rice, white, 100g: 2.7 of protein
· Rice, wholegrain, 100g: 2.9g of protein
· Pearled barley, 100g: 2.9g of protein
· Polenta, cooked in water, 100g: 2.6g of protein
You might be getting your 30-40g protein in your evening meal but I think it safe to say that breakfast and lunch could be letting you down. And don’t think you can just load up one meal and to hell with the others because as the body can only use a certain amount at one time, what isn’t used will be sweated or peed out! And you will find your breakfast and lunch leaving you unsatisfied and hungry more quickly, with blood sugar highs and lows contributing to mood swings, concentration problems and possibly relying on sweet or carb heavy snacks to get you through – all of which are inflammatory!
Therefore, it is probably necessary to supplement with something after training to ensure you stay in a positive NPS. And in my mind, it is logical that, while the jury may be out on a critical window for an increased MPS response, from a reduced muscle damage point of view, the faster you can start the recovery process, reduce the muscle damage and get protein synthesis underway the faster you will be fresh for your next session. Therefore, accumulating more high quality training sessions than your competitor. Simple.
The question of what your protein should be following training is surely next. Well here again the question of quality comes in, and in this case, it is mostly related to an amino acid (or a branch chain amino acid) called Leucine. This little guy appears to be the key as to why whey protein or branch chain amino acids have shown benefits in gaining, and maintaining lean muscle mass, as well as improving body composition through increased fat burning (8,9). It is specifically leucine that appears to be the “trigger” for myogenesis (10) and it is leucine that is incorporated into new newly growing muscle fibres.
Simply put, you want to get a leucine spike in your blood as quick as possible after training to trigger MPS (myogenesis) and the easily digestible whey protein or BCAA shows this advantage over other sources of post training protein (casein or soy or even a meal). However, be warned, supplementing leucine alone does not show the same sustained MPS benefits as when taken with its other amino acid friends, as in BCAA and whey! (10, 11), in the long term the need to work together, along with other nutrient substrates.
And for those of you who are still not sold on either faster recovery or hypertrophy, like I mentioned, high protein/leucine diets have shown a beneficial effect on body composition and fat loss (2).
One more thing, the belief out there that protein needs to be taken in at certain ratios with carbohydrate (sugar) so you get an “insulin spike” really has very little basis in current research. Insulin is an anabolic hormone that does play a key role in myogenesis, maintenance and growth of muscle mass, however protein alone gives you enough of an insulin spike and studies show no extra MPS from combining it with sugars like malto-dextrin (12).
And this brings me on to my final point – you don’t need to spend a lot of money on expensive brands of protein, with thousands of scientific sounding ingredients (mostly additives and preservative that will only lead to inflammation) promising huge gains. Firstly, as mentioned excessively high levels of protein are a waste of money (hence my point that more and more and more is not always better) you will just have some quite expensive sweat and urine - probably why a really high protein diet (2.4g/kg/BW) shows no extra gains (5).
Secondly, a balanced and varied diet plus a little help from whey protein alone is enough. May sound boring, but it does give you license to make up your own shakes and make them even more beneficial by combining other nutrients such as anti-inflammatory mango or anti-oxidant rich cocoa. Check out my favorite post training recipe below. However, wherever possible I would always advocate organic (and therefore hormone and GMO free) whey, to keep the nasties to a minimum!
One final thing, to be able to use amino acids properly the body needs many nutrient co-factors (minerals and vitamins etc.) that we get from a wide range of fruit and veg. Fruit and veg in your meals is vitally important, and I will tell you why next time!
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
· Amino acids are vital for every single process in the body.
· Include protein in every meal (yes that means breakfast, and no cereal is not a good source of protein)
· Taking on an easily digestible source of protein as soon as you have finished training is likely to benefit MPS but also will accelerate recovery by reducing muscle damage.
· Optimal range is 1.4-1.8g protein/kg per day
Work out what your protein intake range should be divide it by 4. Aim for roughly 1 serving in each meal and 1 after training, (this is a guide, don’t stress yourself out, like I said eat balanced and complete meals).
Go on nutritiondata.com and see how much protein you have had in the foods you have eaten over the last 3 days.
Come up with some fun protein shake recipes yourself using whey protein, and your favorite fruits. This is the brand of whey protein I use, but there are other 100% organic brands out there.
Chocolate & Banana protein shake
· 1 scoop (20g) whey protein concentrate
· 1 tbsp raw cacao powder
· ½ banana
· 1 tbsp date syrup
· 200ml coconut water
Put in a blender and whizz it up!
This was the first of a three part introductory series on athlete nutrition, written by our partner nutritionist - Henrietta Paxton. The Scottish International Pole Vaulter is founder of The Nourished Soul, and provides sports nutrition consultation services to WLTF Athletes.
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