Protein is a big buzz nowadays. You can buy literally anything with added protein. It gets raped by the fitness industry like CBD right now – you can even buy condoms glazed with CBD. Seriously. But let’s stay focused here, guys.1
It is an amazing macronutrient, as it fulfils many functions and the evolution of proteins was one big stepping stone in the coming of life as a whole – probably as important as the step from single strang RNA to a double-helix DNA. Beforehand there were 4-6 genetic building blocks – with the advent of amino acids there came 22 new players within the game. This makes for a lot of variety – I would love to give you the amount of variety but I suck at stochastic.2
Plus, we often eat too little within our standard Westernized diet. And when we do, they’re often inferior plant proteins or garbage soy proteins. Therefore, regarding the functions of protein, it is not only an important macronutrient for athletes and active folks but for anyone. Albeit its importance there are many myths and half-wisdoms around protein and health. My goal is to unclog most of them in an understandable matter in this post.
There are 20-22 Amino Acids within your body, depending on whom you ask. That’s a lot of blocks to choose from when you try to build something. In fact, they build up around 20.000 unique proteins. 3
You can literally see each of these amino acids is like a differently colored Lego block, each with their preferred uses. For example uses your body glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline to build up collagen – a big player when it comes to structural proteins. You find it in every connective tissue – may it be a muscle, joint, tendon, or whatever you can think of.
You can divide these 22 guys even further into essential and non-essential amino acids. Amazingly your body is able to build up 11-13 amino acids on its own without the need to eat them. Only 9 amino acids are essential – which means that your body is not able to produce them on its own. You have to eat these on a constant basis, because your body is neither able to store amino acids efficiently. Later on more on that!
Amino Acids aka the Building Blocks of Life
As briefly touched upon – the invention of amino acids was a big one in the evolution of life and is regarded by scientists as a definite precursor to life.4 Think of it like that:
You throw atoms such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphor, and others into a liquid like water or liquid gases.
Next, you add energy – think of a boiling volcanic lake like at the Yellowstone National Park or at the bottom of the ocean near a black smoker.
Let it simmer for a long-ass time and hopefully, complex molecules as amino acids develop in the process.
At least these two are the most probable mechanisms science came up with. Out of these 22 basic building blocks our body has a huge variety to build from simply. That’s why proteins are so widely used and cover a broad range of important functions.
The Functions of Protein within your Body
Create the Scaffolding: Structural Proteins
You can imagine Structural Proteins like the scaffolding of your cells. This is one of the most common functions of protein. They provide stability and structure to build upon – hence the name. Other substances can attach to them easily and be held together. 5 Common proteins in this category are:
Collagen and Elastin for Connective Tissue
Keratin for tougher body structures such as hair or cartilage
Motor proteins as actin and myosin.
Start and modulate Reactions: Enzymes
All your enzymes are proteins. So what are enzymes?
They make a biochemical reaction more likely to occur by lowering the energy needed for this reaction. They’re like the kindling to your hearty fire at home. Starting a fire trying to light the bigger wood chops will be a challenge or impossible. If you add smaller pieces of kindling which burn more easily, the bigger chops catch fire more easily. That’s the job enzymes fulfil within your body. In fact, without them many processes weren’t able to happen and life would become impossible.
Enzymes are highly specific to their surroundings and therefore exist a big variety of these guys – each specialized for their very own use in a determined environment. Take for example the helicase. The only job this dude has is to unfold DNA within your cell’s nucleus. That’s it, and he excels in it with a failure rate close to zero. Their specificity is also why fever or hypothermia can be disastrous – as our enzymes work best around a common body temperature of ~37°C. Increase or lower it by a few degrees and say goodbye to your enzymes. They won’t be able to work efficiently anymore.6
Your Body’s Logistics: Cell Signalling
To the important two former functions, comes proper cell signaling. Mostly proteins cover these three topics:
Receptors and Hormones
Antibodies and Antigens
Transmembrane Transport Proteins
The first register and transport some kind of signal throughout a cell or even your entire body. Think of adrenaline which gets released into your bloodstream from your adrenal gland and produce an effect at your heart – the rate going up. And at many other places at the same time – heightened focus, tunnel vision, constricted vessels, and many more. This is because all these organs have specific receptors only this hormone can activate to have this very targeted effect. It is another informational transport system apart your nervous system. Amazing, isn’t it?
Antibodies and Antigens are both proteinous structures involved in immune defence. While antigens are present on germs and harmful substances, antibodies are substances your body throws into battle against them. Antibodies are highly specific proteins made to combat a single form of antigens very efficiently.
To these immensely important functions comes the transport function. Think of these proteins as tunnels within your cell’s membranes. They can actively or passively transport ions, amino acids, glucose, or other substances in and out of your cell. Without them, life on a cellular level wouldn’t be possible – not even speaking about higher complex electric functions such as the membrane potentials of your nervous system.7
Can we store Proteins?
Your body isn’t possible of doing so – only to a small amount in form of free amino acids within your skeletal musculature. But it found another way of ensuring survival when food gets scarce – it simply builds many of them from other substances. Nonetheless, your body can’t do that with all of the 22.
If you happen to eat too much protein your body simply burns it off as fuel and gets rid of it throughout your kidneys. As an aside, this way of getting energy is not the preferred way your body uses proteins, as it is rather inefficient and ~20% of the energy is lost in the form of heat in the process.
On the other hand, we can store carbs and fat even better. This indicates that a constant supply of protein was important within our evolution and that meat was always a reliable source. Or that you should eat a shit-ton of protein in winter. Jokes aside.
Is Protein = Protein?
As we’ve seen there are a myriad of proteins within your body fulfilling a burnout-worthy amount of tasks without many issues arising. Fortunately, proteins within your nutrition are simpler. They mostly differ in their overall length, amino acid makeup, and quality of absorption.
One Benchmark you should hear of is the biological value of each Protein. It tells you how ready-to-use a food’s proteins are. The higher the value the less work for your body is required to use them. If you compare for example plant proteins with whey protein powder they will hugely differ in their quickness of absorption. Whey is already ready, it ain’t getting much faster, while plant proteins differ significantly and need to undergo some processes.
That said, it is mostly about how much protein per day you consume:
Absorption rate becomes important after your workouts when you want to quickly supply your body with what it needs to recover. Whey* manages to do that.
Or at night, when you on purpose want your body to digest protein longer to supply it for the time asleep continuously. Casein* is great for that job.
Within your breakfast, dinner, and co, biological value is uninteresting as long as you eat enough protein.
In general plant proteins are inferior to animal protein, because the latter’s are more similar to ours and plants compare little protein compared to meats. Moreover many plants higher in proteins such as legumes or nuts are often full of antinutrients that come with a lot more issues down the road. That said, prefer to get the bulk of your protein from animal sources.
How much Protein per day do we need?
The big controversial question. In fact, we often eat too little nowadays. Just look at the crappy recommendation of various renowned health organizations for 0,8g Proteins per gram Bodyweight. For my 75kg this would mean a poor 60g of protein. *Sadface*
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Protein need depends on the basics as weight, height, age, but especially your overall activity levels. Strength athletes have higher demands than endurance athletes and they have higher demands than sedentary people That said I would aim for:
2.0-2.4g per gram of bodyweight if you are going into an aggressive cut as a bodybuilder
2g per gram of bodyweight as a strength athlete
1.6 -1.8g per gram of bodyweight for cardio athletes
1.2-1.5g per gram of bodyweight for sedentary folks
Easy as that. No need to further complicate this matter.8
Protein and Health – Let’s debunk Myths!
Protein kills Kidneys
Yes it can be an additional risk factor – IF you come with serious pre-existing liver or kidney dysfunction.
The only evidence of protein intake altering kidney parameters in a healthy individual is in a too-much, too-fast situation – in mice. Fortunately, we are no mice. If that is a fear of yours, nothing speaks against increasing your uptake carefully over a few weeks. In dysfunctional kidneys, this is a whole nother story9– as protein can put an additional stressor onto these already weakened organs and further speed up the decline of their function. This realization of protein being potentially bad, if in excess, for dysfunctional kidneys, lead to the widespread myth within the fitness industry that protein kills kidneys.
At least you know whom to not listen to if you hear that piece of unsophisticated advice.10
Protein and your Liver
Same goes for your liver. If you have a dysfunctional condition a limited uptake is recommended to avoid ammonia-buildup which could lead to severe conditions within your brain. Nonetheless, there is no sense in guessing on healthy individuals by looking at dysfunctional ones. In rats, there were a few studies showing altering of certain liver-health indicating parameters to the worse, but they couldn’t be reproduced. Make of that whatever you will. For me, this is no evidence – plus we aren’t rats.11
Protein and Bone Health
Because proteins consist of amino acids some thought they might impair your bone density, but there is no solid evidence to support this claim. One study found lower bone density, but it was paired with a low calcium intake, which clearly is a secured risk to loss of bone density. Was it the higher protein? Or the low calcium? Probably the latter.
More studies found that protein combined with strength training is very beneficial for bone health. With good evidence. Myth destroyed.12
Never exceed 30g of Protein per Meal
This myth is based upon an older study suggesting 0.4g/kg/meal of Protein to maximize Protein Biosynthesis. Additional Protein was rather be used for energy by burning amino acids in this case. BUT the other concluded himself that there were big deviations and that they used fast-acting proteins* which inherently increase the burning of amino acids. This but is where the short-attention-spanned myth creators just read the studies’ conclusion, but not the study itself which contained the author’s comment, and made a false claim. They lied.
More research into this topic shows that an intake bigger than 30g per meal wouldn’t result in burning each additional gram relentlessly. Some got used as fuel, but other amino acids were used to build serious gains. So this myth is bullshit. Eat your protein, check that you eat enough protein per day, keep it simple, and be happy.13
How should I approach Proteins in my Diet?
How much Protein per Day?
We came a long way until down here – roughly 2.000 words until here – to clarify the final question with our now intermediate knowledge of proteins. Thanks for staying with me. As with any nutritional topics – a lot comes down to yourself, your lifestyle and your own preferences, I can only aid with a few guidelines. Let us first look into the quantity:
For most of us here – expect this post goes publicly viral – this means 2.0g as calisthenics enthusiasts.This is plenty of protein and more isn’t better.
I made the mistake – rather increase carbs and fats within your nutrition than going for 2.0g+.
Check that you get at least 1g of fat per gram of bodyweight and fill the rest with carbs or even more fat depending on your likings. Nowadays, I personally eat 1g of fat per lb of bodyweight.
When is Protein Powder useful?
The tasty powder always comes in handy, when there is no way for you to get to your calculated proteins within your normal diet. I would always prefer real food to produced supplements. In almost any case it reaps more benefits in the form of additional micronutrients and vitamins, besides food is cheaper than supplements.
Nonetheless, protein shakes* can be an awesome ritual after accomplishing a workout and the psychological factor of creating a ritual is as important and definitely worth a few bucks. Plus, they come handy – no one wants to eat 200g of chicken breast plus a teaspoon of honey immediately post-workout. A nice vanilla-flavored shake with berries and a banana aside sounds much better, doesn’t it?
You can find my protein powder, plus the recipe and way I make mine in this post.
Does Timing matter?
With around 2.0g of proteins you give your body plenty of building material each day anew. So much to quantity, let’s talk about timing:
Timing isn’t as important as many might think, your body is very smart.
Timing matters after your workout – get quick whey proteins* and some sugar in within 30min to 1h post-workout and consume a big meal up to 2h post-workout.
Consume a source of slowly-digestible protein in the evening. Best would be casein protein powder* or food high in casein such as curd. If milk is not on your menu, meat is a good choice, too.
These are the two important timings you should think about within your normal day as an ambitious athlete. No need to overcomplicate it and think about whey in the morning, crappy BCAAs before each session, EAAs within each session and the like. This is just a marketing scam to keep the machinery going.
Sources of Protein
Last but not least we look at sources of high-quality protein. As already mentioned – they differ mostly in their similarity to our body’s proteins and the total amount each contains. Plus, this amount has to be seen in the context of the overall calories:
I am always flabbergasted when people say cashews are a good source of protein. To get in 30g of protein you’d need to consume 1.200 calories. That’s not a good deal, unless you’re bulking. In comparison, 400kcal of chuck roast will do the same job, and additionally comes with a lot more nutrients such as carnitine and creatine.
Good Sources of Protein are:
All meats, especially fatty cuts from beef or venison
Fish and seafood of all kind, try to eat them once a week in some form preferably fat fish
Milk products, or fermented products such as yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and kefir
Eggs – they’re also one of the few foods containing choline. Make sure to consume the whole egg or preferably yolks.
Bad Protein Sources are:
All soy products like tofu, seitan, or the like as they all contain phytoestrogens – stay definitely away from them as a male, but I would even advise women to keep a distance from those
Vegetables in general, they contain proteins, but often in incomplete aminoacids ratios and come with antinutrients
Nuts, as they’re super high in antinutrients and have a low calorie-to-protein ratio
BCAAs, EAAs, L-Glutamin, and the like, because all of them are incomplete protein sources – you can take a scoop of good ol’ protein powder or ribeye for the same effect
And that’s the post for today – fucking long one! I hope you could take a lot out of it. Make sure to comment or share this information with the ones you like, if it helped you. I would also be glad because this post took me a while to create. Anyways, now that you are a protein expert and can look through the gym rat’s fallacies with ease, I did my job.
Or better – me as I write this early in the morning. #gimmecoffee