It’s well known that those who often exercise and like lifting heavy in the gym need to stock up on their protein.
Visualisations of toned men and women sipping on a protein shake in a tight fitted t-shirt come to mind quite quickly. Do those muscles come from aggressively shaking the bottle or the protein itself? Who knows.
It’s all well and good knowing that we need more protein if we go to the gym. But there are lots of questions that follow on. Why do we need protein? How does it benefit our fitness? What type of exercise do we need it for? How much we need? And what are the best options to go for?
If we’re going to do something, we want to do it properly—time to tackle these critical questions one by one.
Why do you need protein?
First and foremost, understanding how the body uses protein and why you need it will help you figure out whether you need to increase it in your diet.
Protein does a considerable number of things for the body. As a compound, it makes up a vast proportion of the body’s molecules. You’d need a full science lecture to go through each of them in detail. For a quick rundown, the body uses protein for its physical structure, to regulate homeostasis, and for fuel.
The function that you’re looking to know more about is its role in creating, restoring, and repairing cells in the body.
Dietary protein is what allows the body to carry out its repair processes. When a cell breaks down either due to age, illness, or exercise, it’s the protein that helps build new cells and form new tissues.
When you exercise, particularly in a way that engages your muscles, your muscles are damaged. During the time that you then rest and recover from exercise, your muscles are repaired. Usually bigger and stronger than they were before. For this to happen, the body needs to have enough protein available to complete the repair process.
Right. So, how much protein do you need?
The amount of protein your body requires depends on who you are and what you get up to. You need enough protein so that your body can carry out all the regular daily functions it relies on protein for. There’s a lot of them.
If you’re exercising a lot and causing muscle damage that needs to be repaired, you’re going to need even more protein. Your body needs to have a surplus of protein to repair and build muscles. It’s called a
. That means, after all your daily bodily functions have taken place, there needs to be protein still left over to rebuild muscle damage bigger and stronger than the tissue was before.
There are a bunch of factors that dictate how much protein you need. For example, your age, the type of exercise you do, and your fitness goals. Understanding these will help you to figure out where you sit. Let’s break it down.
The amount of protein that’s recommended for you is given relative to your body weight. The bigger you are, the more protein you need. You then need to think about your activity levels. The average sedentary adult who partakes in no strenuous or intense exercise needs 0.75g of protein per kg of body weight per day. That means, if you weigh 80kg, you would need 60 grams of protein per day. If you weigh 62kg, you would need 45 grams of protein per day. Simple so far.
The average adult who partakes in recreational exercise needs between 0.8-1.5g of protein per kg of body weight per day. If you weigh 80kg, you would need between 48-120g of protein per day. That’s a reasonably large variation. And recreational exercise is a pretty vague term. Here’s how you can narrow it down further.
Firstly, think about your frequencies. Some people work out 1-2 times a week. Others might spend 6 days+ in the gym. The volume of exercise you’re doing will determine where within the range you want to be aiming for. The 80kg gym-goer who spends 6+ days a week in the gym will sit more towards the 120g figure, whereas the 80kg gym-goer who prefers to go 1-2 times a week will sit further towards the 48g figure.
Secondly, consider your goals. If you’re looking to gain weight and muscle mass, you’ll want to consume protein amounts at the higher end of your recommended range because you’ll need that surplus. Your calories might need to be higher to fit that much protein in. As a result, the amount of carbohydrate and fat in your diet will increase too. If you’re looking to maintain or lose weight, you might aim for a figure a little lower down in the range, and your overall food intake won’t be as high.
Thirdly, the amount of protein also depends on the type of exercise you’re doing. The more muscle damage is done, the more protein is needed. Those who endurance train regularly need between 1.2-1.4g of protein per kg of body weight per day, whereas those training for strength and power would need between 1.4-1.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. If you’re into interval or circuit training that sees you do lots of reps of medium resistance exercise, you’ll be in the endurance camp. If you spend your time at the benches and racks lifting heavy weights for fewer reps, you’re in the strength camp.
Take all these things into consideration, and you’ll find your formula.
|Body weight||Mostly sedentary||Fairly active||Endurance trains regularly||Strength trains regularly|
Okay, so where should you get your protein from?
The world of dietary protein is complex. You’d need a nutritionist to come and lecture you if you wanted to learn all about the different sources and qualities of protein.
In a nutshell, there’s a couple of things worth knowing.
The first is that foods are made up of three macronutrients. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat. We need all of them to function, regardless of what the fat-free and low carb diet fads try to tell you. Foods are often classed as their primary macronutrient. But they contain varying levels of the other two as well. Each food will contribute to your overall intake. You just want to maximise on the foods that give it to you in the highest proportions.
The second is that proteins can either be complete proteins or incomplete proteins. Complete proteins include eggs, meat, fish, dairy produce, poultry, soy, and quinoa. Lots of plant proteins like vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans, and grains are incomplete proteins. This doesn’t mean they should be disregarded. It just means you’d need to eat different combinations of foods to get all the essential nutrients — something to bear in mind if you are a vegetarian or a vegan.
The third is that there are lots of different ways to measure the quality of protein. Each protein-rich food, processed or natural, is defined by a source. This source can be rated based on its quality. It’s not just about the number of grams in a serving. That’s why there’s no universal consensus on ‘the best source of protein’ or ‘the best protein food’. For example, the rate at which your body can actually absorb different types of protein is essential. Protein digestion is a hot topic in the fitness and nutrition space. Knowing which protein sources our body can digest, absorb, and synthesise the best is at the forefront of understanding maximal and efficient nutrition plans for athletes.
But this isn’t a science lesson. You just want to know where you should get your protein from in your food. And how you can increase it in your diet.
Natural, high protein sources to opt for are eggs, milk, chicken, fish, beef, soy, rice, and quinoa. Yoghurt, beans, and legumes are good options too.
Below is a breakdown of how many grams of protein are in a single serving of each food. Just remember, that number alone is not the complete picture.
One egg contains around 6g of protein.
One glass of whole milk contains 8g of protein.
One chicken breast contains around 45g of protein.
One salmon fillet contains around 21g of protein.
One serving of lean beef contains around 48g of protein.
One serving of whole-grain rice contains around 6g of protein.
One serving of Greek yogurt contains around 4g of protein.
One serving of kidney beans contains around 10g of protein.
The best approach is to consume a balanced mix of various protein-rich foods in your diet. Be mindful that all these foods contain other macronutrients and also a calorie count. In your efforts to maximise protein, don’t overdo it on other dietary recommendations.
And do you need a protein shake?
Protein bars and protein shakes are supplements to help you top up the amount of protein you receive from your diet. They’re not a replacement for natural sources of protein.
If you’re struggling to hit your daily recommendations with natural sources alone, a protein bar or protein shake can help you get there.
Whey protein is a type of protein derived from milk. You might have heard of this because it’s what most protein bars and shakes are made up of. It tops lots of the protein ranking scales because of the speed and ease at which the body can absorb it. Soy protein and pea protein are other types of protein powder suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
How many protein shakes should you have a day?
One. Having one protein supplement per day should be plenty. They’re helpful, and they’re no harm. But getting your protein from natural and nutritious sources should always come first. You can then top up your efforts with a shake or a bar.
Your protein powder will have a recommended serving size on the packet. This might be one scoop. Or it could be two. If it’s two, you can split it over two shakes if you just can’t get enough of the good stuff.
How do you know what type of protein powder to go for?
The world of protein can be challenging to navigate with lots of jargon and buzzwords flying around. It’s not easy to understand what you should be going for and why. So, let’s address this too. Protein powders are often classed by their source. They’re a processed product, meaning the protein has been extracted from something naturally occurring. There are loads, but let’s have a look at the most popular three.
Dairy products produce two types of protein: Casein and Whey. Whey is by far the most popular choice for sports nutrition. It’s better for the development of new proteins in the muscles. When whey protein is processed, it can become whey isolate or whey concentrate. Whey isolate basically has more protein in it. Whey concentrate has a higher proportion of carbohydrate and fat in it. It’s whey isolate and whey isolate powder you’ll see written on protein powder packets for these reasons. Whey protein tops the charts in terms of protein quality and has the most research behind it.
Soy protein and soy protein isolate are also rated pretty highly as a protein source. It’s also suitable for vegetarians and vegans. However, research is a bit more limited. And a couple of studies have challenged its effectiveness in comparison to whey protein.
Pea protein is an up and comer. Research is pretty limited because of its youth, but so far, it’s a positive story for facilitating muscle gain. It’s vegan and allergy-free.
When it comes to deciding which to pick, don’t overthink it. Unless you have time to read the lengthy research papers. Go for soy or pea protein if you’re a vegan. If you like a smoother and creamier protein shake, go for whey isolate powder.
There’s a whole industry around protein products that can offer different textures, flavours, energy content and additional nutrients. The Protein Works have an extensive range of different powders, bars, and other snacks you can use to get your fix. Form Nutrition offer a plant-based protein powder that contains a whole host of other vital nutrients too. Their chocolate salted caramel superblend protein is a delicious choice. PHD’s diet whey protein powder is a winner for smoothies as it thickens up nicely, and there are loads of different flavours to choose from.
What about protein pills?
Protein pills or tablets are just protein powders encased in a coating. They can provide whey or soy protein in the same way a powder would.
But consider their size. You’d have to consume a fair few protein pills to get the same quantities as a serving of protein powder or a bar. However, they are convenient to carry around. Plus, they are flavour free if you really hate the taste of protein shakes.
If only small amounts you require, you’re better off going for a more natural source that you can incorporate easily into your diet.
Makes sense. But what does all of this mean on a day to day basis?
Great to clue up on all those facts, but what does that mean when put into practice? Not many of us have time to go about weighing food and analysing labels all the time. So, let’s take a real-life example to help visualise it a bit better.
You are a 27-year-old man. You go to the gym about 3 times per week. When you’re there, you lift heavy weights. You’re into strength training, and you’re trying to increase your muscle mass too. You currently weigh 74kg.
Based on this information, your daily protein recommendation is between 103-133g. Because you’re looking to gain weight through developing muscle mass and you exercise regularly, your aim might fall more specifically around 120g of protein per day.
For breakfast, you like having scrambled eggs and mushrooms on toast. Plus, a banana. For lunch, you have a chicken and avocado sandwich. In the afternoon, you have a banana with some yoghurt. Oh, and two chocolate biscuits because sugar is not your enemy, and they taste great. For dinner, you have a big bowl of chilli con carne with a side of rice and broccoli. That’s a pretty balanced diet with high-quality protein sources. It probably comes in at approximately 2,500 calories and 220g of protein. Spot on, without the need for a protein shake.
Let’s do another one.
You’re a 33-year-old woman. You go to the gym about 5 times per week. You do a range of endurance and strength training. You currently weigh 63kg. You’re happy with your weight and muscle mass. Bonus if you grow some, but you’re not too bothered about it.
Based on this information, your daily protein recommendation is between 75-113g of protein — a reasonably large range. Your exercise is pretty frequent and intense. You’re looking to maintain your weight. With this in mind, you might aim for around 95g of protein per day.
For breakfast, you have some yoghurt, a banana, and some granola. Lunch is avocado and eggs on toast. Mid-afternoon, you fancy a flapjack, so you have one. For dinner, it’s roasted chicken and sweet potato with some vegetables on the side. Plus, some chocolate buttons for pudding. Again, well-balanced choices across all macronutrients. Your protein choices were from high-quality sources too. This comes in at about 1700 calories and around 91g of protein. A little under what you might be aiming for. So, after your workout, you have a protein shake. It adds 122 calories to your daily total and ups your protein by 24g. Done.
We are all different. Meaning what works for you and your body might not work for somebody else. The golden rules are to opt for natural sources first, keep the right balance, and listen to what your body tells you. With all this protein knowledge in your pocket, you can start eating and training to your needs.
Speaking of training to your needs, you can use Hussle to get exercise exactly the way you want it.