Is Protein all that Important?
There’s more hype surrounding protein now more than ever.
You hear all of the time about how important protein is for building muscle or maintaining it while you cut, but is all of this attention justified?
Should protein be your main focus while trying to build muscle or burn fat?
No doubt protein is a confusing topic to say the least, but today I’m going to simply everything that you need to know about it.
So let’s go ahead and set the record straight.
What is Protein and what are its Uses?
First of all, I think that it’s very important to define exactly what protein is. Protein is one of three macronutrients that we eat to give us energy and survive, and one gram of protein contains 4 calories.
Protein is the body’s building block for things such as: hair, skin, bones, and of course muscle. Protein has many more functions than the ones listed here, but for the purpose of this article I want to focus on protein and its relation to muscle.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which come together in different patterns to form specific proteins with different characteristics. Of the 20 amino acids, 9 are essential, which means that they aren’t produced by the body and must be consumed through the diet.
A complete protein is a protein that contains all 9 of the essential amino acids in an adequate amount. Some examples of complete proteins are: fish, eggs, milk, and meat.
However, don’t worry about if the protein source you’re eating is complete or incomplete. Most of the time you’ll be consuming an incomplete protein with something else that will cover the missing amino acid(s).
Common Myths About Protein
There’re definitely a lot of misconceptions that surround protein these days. No doubt with a lot of mass media attention, there’s bound to be some misunderstandings.
Not to worry though, the truth will be revealed shortly.
Myth #1 You must Eat Protein Every Couple of Hours to Maintain Muscle Mass.
One common belief is that you must consume protein every 2-3 hours to prevent your body from becoming catabolic and breaking down muscle mass. This however did not turn out to be true in a study done by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1).
The study was conducted by taking a group of healthy men and women and then having them consume all of their daily calories in either 1 or 3 meals for a total of 8 weeks. Guess what the researchers found?
They founds that there was no difference in the lean body mass of the test subjects. This means that it doesn’t matter if you consume all of your protein in one meal.
As long as you consume enough protein to meet your daily requirements, you won’t lose muscle mass. Hopefully this comes as a relief to you because it would be really annoying if you had to consume protein every couple of hours just to maintain your muscle!
Myth #2 You Must Consume Protein Immediately After Your Workout to Build Muscle
This is another very common misconception in the fitness industry, and it makes sense as to why. If you want more muscle, then you consume protein soon after your workout because that workout just stimulated the growth of some muscle.
However, is it possible to build muscle if you don’t immediately consume post workout protein? The answer to that is yes.
Would it make sense if your body pretended like you never worked out in the first place all because you waited a couple of hours before you consumed any protein? This doesn’t seem logical, but if you don’t believe me, I got another study to back up my claims.
General Nutrition Centers (GNC) conducted a study where people would perform weight-training exercises for 12 weeks (2). The test subjects would then immediately consume 1 of 4 different supplements following the weight workout.
The supplements were: protein, creatine with colostrim, protein with creatine, and protein with colostrum. The groups taking post workout protein gained 2 pounds of muscle in that 12-week period, while the groups consuming creatine post workout gained roughly 5 pounds.
This 2-5 pound increase is still typical (not better) of how much you can expect to gain in a 2-4 month period of lifting weights on a solid program without extra supplements (3).
Myth #3 Your Body Can Only Digest 30 Grams of Protein per Meal
It’s a good thing that this isn’t true, or else your really would have to consume protein every couple of hours just so your body could digest it! Your body will digest, absorb, and utilize all of the protein that you consume in one meal.
Your body will first use the protein to replenish amino acid pools, and then if there is excess, that protein will get converted into glycogen. This glycogen will then get stored in the muscle cells or liver.
Also remember the earlier study where the test subjects consumed all of their daily protein needs in one meal. Their bodies utilized all of the protein from that one meal, not just 30 grams of it.
Is Protein More Important Than Carbs or Fat?
The answer to the above question can really be yes or no. It just depends on what you’re referring to by more important.
All 3 of the macronutrients are essential, and each macronutrient has a specific function in the body. Fat for example, is an insulator for the body and stores energy for later use.
Carbs are the body’s first source of energy, help with the production of serotonin, and are necessary for the muscles (including the heart), brain, kidneys, and central nervous system to function properly. When you think of the question from this angle, the answer really is no because all 3 macronutrients are important for one reason or another.
Nevertheless, let me offer you another perspective to view the question from. Which macronutrient is most important in terms of building muscle?
In this instance, I would have to give the edge to protein. Protein is the building block for body tissue (including muscle), and it can even be used as a source of energy when carb and fat stores are low.
Without it, you and your muscles would not exist. Of course keep in mind that consuming only protein isn’t ideal for building muscle.
You also need to be consuming carbohydrates and fat to help optimize the muscle building process.
My Favorite Protein Sources
Now that you know about the benefits and functions of protein, this would be a good time to talk about some food sources that are high in protein. Not only will I be mentioning my favorite protein sources, but I’ll also discuss some surprising food items that you might not realize are high in protein.
So let’s go ahead and get into the list.
Favorite Protein Source #1 Cottage Cheese
This is one of my favorite late night protein sources. Cottage cheese is a casein protein, which means that it’s a slow digesting protein.
This will give you a steady stream of protein over the course of the night.
Favorite Protein Source #2 Kashi Go Lean Cereal
I’m not a big fan of cereal personally, but when I eat it, it’s always this kind. The reason is because it’s lower in sugar and higher in protein than just about any other cereal that exists.
I even like to eat this cereal as part of my post workout meal sometimes. If you’re a big cereal eater, than I highly suggest that you make the switch.
This is one of my surprising protein sources. When you think of almonds, you’re first thought is probably something that’s a good source of fat.
Believe it or not, almonds are also considerably high in protein. 6 grams of protein per serving as a matter of fact!
So this is a great option if you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or just someone who wants to get protein from something other than the usual.
This is another food item that many people don’t realize is high in protein. Most of the time people just think of oatmeal as a really healthy thing to eat for breakfast.
Oatmeal can be used for so much more than just something that you eat to start off your day. Not only is it a good source of complex carbohydrates, but it also contains around 10 grams of protein per serving as well.
I usually throw a cup of oatmeal into my post workout shake for some extra calories.
There’s no doubt that protein plays an important role in many of the body’s functions including building muscle. With that being said, don’t fall for the hype and believe that protein is the answer to all of your muscle building and weight loss needs.
At the end of the day, just stick to the basics of working out consistently with a solid training program while taking in enough protein and you’ll be fine.
(1) Stote KS, Baer DJ, Spears K, Paul DR, Harris GK, et al. A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle aged men. AM J Clin Nutr 2007;85:981-988.
(2) Louis M, Poortmans JR, Francaux M, Hultman E, Berre J, et al. Creatine supplementation has no effect on human muscle protein turnover at rest in the postabsorptive or fed states. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab:284;765-770. Nutritional Supplements in the U.S. Packaged Facts. November 1, 2006
(3) Cureton KJ, Collins MA, Hill DW, et al. Muscle hypertrophy in men and women. Med Sci Sport Exerc 1988; 20:338-44.
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