Protein is king
But why is it so important?
You can be forgiven for thinking a high protein diet is reserved for serious bodybuilders and gym rats, and that the rest of us need only a minimal amount of protein in our diets. I advise all my clients to keep their protein intake high, no matter their goal. Many people don't know protein serves much more than just helping muscles grow. By the end of reading this, you'll know why protein is so important for everybody, especially if you do any form of exercise.
Without delving into the benefits of helping with common fitness goals, I'll start with the health benefits. Protein is essential for the growth and repair of all tissues (not just muscle), building enzymes and hormones, maintaining fluid balance, regulating mood, the immune system and fuelling energy. I'll go into each of these below.
1. Building and repairing tissues: Protein is vital for repairing and building tissues, muscles, bones, and skin, basically everything we're made of. It also helps in recovery when we're wounded or injured.
2. Enzyme and hormone production: Protein is required for the production of enzymes and hormones that regulate various body functions such as metabolism, growth, development, as well as mood balancing.
3. Maintaining fluid balance: Protein helps in maintaining the balance of fluids in our body. It acts as a transport medium for nutrients and helps in keeping our body hydrated.
4. Regulating the immune system: Protein is crucial for the proper functioning of the immune system. It helps in fighting infections and diseases by producing antibodies that that fight off infections and illnesses and helps keep cells healthy and create new ones.
5. Fuelling energy: Protein is essential for storing iron in the body, which in turn helps to keep energy levels up. Although Protein isn't the main source of energy (the body prefers carbs and fats) it also remains a long term energy source, which is good for endurance.
6. Brain function: The amino acids found in protein are important for brain function and cognitive health. Proteins help neurons within the brain communicate with each other through neurotransmitters that are made from amino acids.
So having covered the crucial health benefits, how does protein affect body composition? As we know already, protein supports the growth of and also preserves muscle tissue. Using the example of someone who wants to lose fat, why is this important? Having more lean muscle mass means your body becomes more of burning furnace. Muscle is metabolically active tissue that requires energy to maintain, in other words, your metabolism increases. A high protein diet, combined with strength training will be like an insurance policy to preserve muscle and lose fat when you follow a sensible diet of a slight calorie deficit.
Protein also has other significant benefits for fat loss. Protein satiates. After a plate of chicken breast, veg and a sensibly portioned source of starch, you full fuller for longer. After a big bowl of pasta on the other hand, you'll most likely crash and feel hungry again shortly after. Protein also helps with cravings. One study in overweight men showed that increasing protein to 25% of calories reduced cravings by 60% and the desire to snack at night by half. Lastly, there's the thermic effect of protein. The thermic effect of food is the amount of energy it takes for your body to digest, absorb, and metabolise the food you eat. Protein has a much higher thermic effect than fat or carbs - 20-35% compared to 5-15%.
So how much protein should you eat daily? According to the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date on the effects of protein supplementation on muscle mass and strength, the average amount of protein required to maximise lean mass is about 1.6 g/kg. In the example of someone wanting to lose fat but retain muscle mass, 1g is still a good amount. Let's say this person weighs 80kg. 80x1.2 is 96 grams daily. That's 26g every breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can cover all of that eating the foods shown in the above photo alone:
Breakast: Slice of frittata with a slice of rye bread + avocado.
Lunch: Mung bean stew (cheap, nutritious and decent source of protein. I like to add mackerel to mine).
Dinner: Chilli con carne + sweet potato.
This sample day's eating covers protein bases for most fitness goals and covers health bases too, healthy fats, fibre etc.
And there we have it, not only do we know protein is crucial to your fitness goals but with it's health benefits, anybody can benefit from a protein rich diet, from young to old.