Updated: Mar 23
BUILDING THE BIG GUNS
Nutrition is a very important part of optimizing sports performance and a popular topic amongst coaches and athletes. There is definitely no lack of information about what you should and shouldn't eat, when and in what quantities, what supplements to take and so on. In fact there is so much information out there (both credible and unreliable) that it can be very overwhelming and challenging to find some real answers. What usually happens is, you start reading through all the fitness blogs, articles and books, just to realize that most of them so clearly contradict each other. Or, you search for something, read the first thing that pops up on Google and take it for granted, even if it has no scientific evidence behind it whatsoever.
On one hand it is understandable. Who has time to read a bunch of books and studies and filter out only the evidence based, scientifically proven information? Well, luckily for you, I do. I have been a coach for more than 7 years now and sports nutrition has always been one of my main interests. So I've decided to share with you the fundamentals in this series, so that you can better understand how your body works and how you can optimize your nutrition for better performance, something every athlete should know in order to get better results.
Please keep in mind, that we're talking about sports nutrition. Athletes (and people who are physically active in general) have greater nutritional requirements than the average population, due to increased physical activity and the need for optimal recovery.
Note: I understand that everybody (and every body) is different, and things that work for one person will not necessarily work for someone else. Some people have allergies and intolerances and will have to adjust their diet accordingly. I always encourage people to experiment, try to figure out what works best for them. Listen to your body, keep a journal and your results will come faster. However, it is important to have a basic knowledge about how the body utilizes certain nutrients and what you should always keep in mind, regardless of the type of diet you choose.
So let's get started. There are three energy nutrients (or macronutrients) that provide our body with energy: carbohydrate, protein and fat. In this article we're going to cover the most popular of them all, protein.
What is protein and what does it do?
Protein is an energy nutrient made up of amino acids. All protein from the food is broken down into these amino acids, which then join the amino acids produced by the body, forming a so called amino acid pool. This pool is used to synthesize the specific proteins the body needs (muscle, hair, nails, hormones, enzymes, etc.).
Some of the most important functions of proteins are:
Proteins are the building blocks of muscles, bones and body tissues, including the organs (heart, liver, etc.)
They transport substances (such as iron) through the blood to the correct receptor sites
They are the building blocks of hormones (insulin) and neurotransmitters (serotonin) that control body functions
They form enzymes involved in digestive and other cellular processes
They form antibodies, critical for maintaining health
They help maintain water balance
They can be used as energy if other fuels (carbohydrates and fats) cannot satisfy the energy needs.
Are non essential amino acids really not essential?
Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins. Some of these amino acids can be synthesized from other amino acids (our body can produce them). These are called non-essential amino acids. This does not mean that they are not needed, simply that we don't need to obtain them through the foods we eat. Essential amino acids, on the other hand, need to be ingested through our diet, as our body cannot produce them on its own. Both essential and non-essential amino acids are equally important and both must simultaneously be present for protein synthesis to take place. By aiming to supply the widest possible array of essential amino acids through food alone, we allow the tissues to produce the proteins needed for optimal body function.
Good protein, bad protein
There are two common ways for determining protein quality:
The proportion of nitrogen retained (the greater the proportion of nitrogen retained, the greater the protein utilization and higher the quality)
Comparing the protein to egg protein (albumin), which has a near perfect distribution of amino acids.
Many high quality proteins contain all the essential amino acids, needed for protein synthesis. These are referred to as proteins with a high biological value, and they include:
So how many eggs do I drink in the morning?
1 gram of protein equals 4 calories (same as 1 gram of carbohydrate). The recommended level of protein intake for the general population is 0.8 grams per kg bodyweight, or 12-15 % of total calories consumed. Athletes, on the other hand, have a higher protein requirement due to:
greater lean body mass
greater need for tissue repair (muscle damage caused by exercise)
a small amount of protein being burned as fuel during physical activity (this amount rises, as muscle glycogen decreases)
protein loss through urine (caused mainly by endurance exercise).
This increases the protein requirement of athletes to almost double that of non-athletes, between 1.2 and 1.7 grams per kg body mass. This means that a 70 kg athlete requires between 84 and 119 grams of protein per day (this equals 336-476 kcal from protein only). While this might seem high, it represents a relatively small portion of total daily calories (by comparison, the average recommended carbohydrate intake is around 7.5 grams per kg, so for our 70 kg athlete this would mean around 525 grams, or 2.100 kcal from carbohydrate alone).
Despite the higher requirements, most athletes consume much more protein than they require. However, there are certain groups who might struggle with getting enough protein from food alone and should thus monitor their intake carefully. These groups include:
young athletes (combined demands of muscular work and growth)
athletes who are restricting food intake (weight loss diets, religious or cultural reasons)
vegetarian athletes (who don't eat meat, fish, egg or dairy).
How much is too much?
Protein, in general, is pretty harmless. However, a very high protein diet could have some harmful effects. Most of the time, this is a result of not consuming enough of other nutrients, which then leads to protein being used as fuel. Since protein is so essential for building and maintaining tissues, hormones and enzymes, using it as fuel is a complete waste of valuable resources. Moreover, when protein is burned as fuel, nitrogen must be removed from the amino acid chains and excreted through urine, increasing the risk of dehydration.
High protein diets have also been shown to increase the excretion of calcium in the urine, which might represent a health risk for people who are already at risk of bone disease. Lastly, high protein diets are often also high in fat, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Effective protein utilisation depends highly on adequate total energy intake. If you do not consume enough calories, your body will have to rely on protein for energy, making less protein available for other critical functions. Carbohydrate has a protein sparing effect, meaning that if you supply enough to be used as fuel, protein will be spared from being burned and can be used for more important functions.
According to studies, the body can utilize a maximum of 1.5 grams of protein per kg bodyweight for non-energy purposes. Everything above this level will either be stored as fat or burned as energy.
What is the best time to consume all this protein?
In general, protein consumption should be evenly distributed throughout the day in order to optimize muscle maintenance and enlargement. However, there are a few things to keep in mind. High protein foods have a long digestion time, so they are not recommended before or during exercise. There is no evidence that adding protein to a sports beverage will increase either endurance or power. On the other hand, it increases the risk of GI distress and might delay the delivery of fluids and carbohydrates to the muscles. Therefore, the majority of energy in the pre-exercise meal and during-exercise fluids should come from carbohydrates.
Adding a small amount of protein to post-exercise foods or drinks is useful for muscle recovery, but sufficient carbohydrate replenishment should still be a priority in order to replenish depleted glycogen stores.
The timing of nutrients can influences the anabolic response (muscle building) after exercise. According to research, this response is greater when free essential amino acids (BCAA supplements) and carbohydrates are consumed before, rather than after resistance training. However, whey protein (whole food protein) can increase amino acid uptake regardless of whether it's consumed before or after exercise.
How to build the big guns?
It is a common misconception that for building additional muscle mass, it is enough to increase the amount of protein consumed. The reality is, that additional total calories are required to support a larger muscle mass, and protein should constitute the same relative proportion of the calories consumed (12-15 %). Building muscle involves more than simply increasing protein and amino acid intake, and includes the following:
maintenance of a sufficient total energy intake to fully satisfy the energy requirements, including the additional requirement of the added resistance training (this will allow the consumed protein to be used for muscle building purposes, rather than be burned as fuel)
protein intake of approximately 1.5 grams per kg bodyweight
an even distribution of protein over multiple meals during the day
addition of resistance training to stimulate muscle growth
consumption of a high quality protein source (such as whey) either before of after exercise
consumption of a carbohydrate and protein mixture immediately after exercise (consuming only protein after exercise will not replenish depleted glycogen stores - carbohydrate is needed for this purpose).
-Protein consists of amino acids. These can be non-essential (our body can produce them) or essential (need to be ingested through diet).
-Proteins are super important. They are the building blocks of muscles, bones, body tissues, hormones, enzymes and other important stuff in our body.
-Using protein as fuel is a complete waste (it's like lighting a cigar with a $100 bill - it will get the job done, but you'll end up $100 poorer).
-Consuming the adequate amount of total calories will spare the protein, allowing it to be used for more important functions.
-The recommended amount of protein for athletes is between 1.2 and 1.5 grams per kg bodyweight (12-15 % of total caloric intake).
-The consumption of protein should be evenly distributed over multiple meals throughout the day.
-To increase muscle mass, it is necessary to increase the total amount of calories, not just the amount of protein.
-The consumption of BCAAs and carbohydrates before resistance training, as well as whey protein before or after training can aid muscle building.
-In order to replenish depleted glycogen stores after exercise, the ingestion of carbohydrates is crucial (protein itself will not take care of this job).
So, should you be adding protein shakes to your diet? Only if you are unable to cover your required protein intake through protein rich foods. If you are already getting enough protein through your diet, adding extra protein will not lead to extra results. As mentioned above, consuming whey protein right before or after exercise can aid muscle building, but only if all the other nutritional requirements are met as well. So make sure you're consuming enough total calories and carbohydrates and aim to supply a wide array of amino acids through high quality protein rich foods.