This week, I thought we'd take a look at protein. There's a lot of nonsense pedalled about protein, particularly by companies trying to flog supplements, so I thought I'd try to clear some of the murky waters - at least in part.
What is protein?
Proteins form the major building blocks of muscle and other tissues within the body, as well as hormones, enzymes and haemoglobin in the blood. They are composed of subunits called amino acids. There are about 20 amino acids that we know of. 12 of these are made by our bodies; the rest we need to get through our diet and they're what we call essential amino acids. If we don't get these through our diet, the ability of our muscles to grow or recover from training is compromised.
How much do we need?
"It's important to remember that supplements don't provide everything a healthy balanced meal can and so they shouldn't replace meals on a long-term basis."
This is an area of considerable debate. Strength athletes need between 1.6 - 2g per kg of body weight per day. For an 80kg athlete, this means they may need around 130 - 160g of protein. Endurance athletes need protein in their diets as well, to ensure muscle mass is not lost following training, but they need less (around 1.2 - 1.6g).
Many bodybuilders maintain that they need considerably more than this and I've seen reports of people taking 6g per kg of body weight. They cut down on their carbohydrates to remain very lean and so it's likely that the extra protein they consume is utilised as a fuel source, albeit an inefficient one.
Do we need supplements?
I advocate the use of supplements in my job. The reason is because I want to provide nutritional support to the training athlete within half an hour of them finishing a training session. Using a protein shake is a convenient method to ensure that we hit our protein targets within this crucial 30-minute window. Equally, though, a protein-rich meal is just as good, if not better, than a shake; it's just that this option is not always feasible in our environment and not everyone feels like a meal so soon after training.
Downsides and alternatives
It's important to remember that supplements don't provide everything a healthy balanced meal can and so they shouldn't replace meals on a long-term basis. There is also the risk of a contaminated batch, which can be problematic if you or your athlete is subject to drug testing. You always need to make sure that your supplements come from a reputable source, preferably one that has independent batch testing. Finally, they can be expensive. Believe it or not, the same basic job can be done by consuming a boiled egg and chocolate milkshake! It has the carbohydrates necessary to get an insulin response (necessary for the release of growth hormone) and the milk and egg also provide the protein you need.