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The Ultimate Guide To Protein (A Dietitian Explains)

In this comprehensive guide to protein, Sydney-based Sports Dietitian Demi-Maree Faulkner answers every question you’ve ever had about the essential nutrient that is protein.

Here Demi explains how much protein to eat plus how often and when to eat it. She also reveals how to ensure you’re actually absorbing the protein you’re eating, gives the 101 on protein powders and much more.

Got a question about protein consumption or absorption? Pop it in the comment section below so Demi can answer it for you. Otherwise, we hope you find this guide helpful!

1. THE PROTEIN BASICS

What is protein?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients used as energy sources (kilojoules) by the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of the muscle, skin and bones in the body.

Why is protein important for humans?

We need protein for all of our cells to grow and repair. It is key in building strong muscles.

What foods are high in protein?

Protein comes from animal or plant foods such as:

  • Meat, chicken, fish
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dried beans and lentils
  • Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese
  • Soy products

eggs are a god source of protein

See also High Protein Zucchini Fritters (Recipe)

2. PROTEIN CONSUMPTION

How much protein should I eat in a day to:

  • Lose weight: The average person needs 0.75-1grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. As for fat loss, evidence shows increasing this slightly can satiate you more which can assist in weight loss.
  • Build muscle: If you’re body building, 1-1.5grams protein /kg of body weight per day or around 15-30 grams protein per meal and snack.
  • Repair muscle: To aid muscle recovery have 1-1.5grams protein /kg of body weight per day or around 15-30 grams protein per meal and snack.

How can I increase my protein intake?

Adding protein to each main meal over the day in the form of meat, lentils, eggs or dairy or as snacks (yoghurt, nuts, cheese) is a great start. Also adding in a high protein supper such as a fruit smoothie or yoghurt before bed can be a great way of boosting your protein intake.

When should I eat protein?

It is recommended that protein make up ~ ¼ of each of your main meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner). If you snack it is also recommended to include protein in each of your snacks to assist in keeping you fuller for longer.

What is the best time to eat protein for muscle growth?

Eating protein in the hour following exercise can help to prolong the protein synthesis response to exercise, helping to promote muscle gains and minimise muscle breakdown (losses).

Eating protein at your main meals, with your snacks and in the form of dairy before bed is the best way to assist with the development of lean muscle growth.

tips for muscle growth and repair

See also Protein Cinnamon Scrolls (Recipe)

Does the importance of protein in the diet differ for males vs females?

No it is equally important for both males and females to consume protein on a daily basis.

3. PROTEIN ABSORPTION

How many grams of protein can your body absorb at one time?

~15-30grams depending on your gender and size.

How are proteins digested and absorbed in the body?

Protein digestion begins in the stomach where pepsin, the active protein-digesting enzyme of the stomach, breaks the bonds that hold the protein molecule together. When these bonds are broken, you get chains of amino acids linked together called polypeptides. These polypeptides then move into your small intestine, where pancreatic enzymes continue to break these chains down into smaller molecules called peptides. Peptides are simply defined as two or more amino acids linked together. Enzymes continue to break down polypeptides and peptides into amino acids. Because amino acids are very small, they are able to be absorbed through the small intestine lining and into your bloodstream which transports the protein to your cells.

What affects protein absorption?

See also Important Factors Affecting Nutrient Absorption

The nutritional value of a protein is determined by its unique amino acid profile – proteins with a high biological value (HBV) are recommended wherever possible. Animal based proteins such as dairy foods, eggs, meat, fish and poultry as well as isolated soy protein are considered HBV proteins as they contain all of the essential amino acids needed by the human body. Plant based proteins only contain only some of the essential amino acids are considered to be of lower biological value.

nuts and cheese

Leucine (a branched chain amino-acid) plays a critical role in ‘switching on’ muscle protein synthesis. The leucine content of foods varies but some foods are naturally high in leucine, including milk (and whey protein) and red meat. Research suggests that ~2-3g of leucine stimulates protein synthesis (equivalent to ~20-25g of HBV protein).

Eating protein in the hour following exercise can help to prolong the protein synthesis response to exercise, helping to promote muscle gains and minimise muscle breakdown (losses).

How can I increase absorption of protein?

  • Eat HBV foods and high leucine foods (animal-based proteins)
  • Space out your protein in small frequent amounts ie every meal and snack should contain a serve of protein to maximise the nutrient absorption opportunity.

What happens when I eat too much protein?

Having more protein than our body needs doesn’t mean we store it for later. In fact, any protein we don’t need will be excreted by the body. So there’s no need to go overboard with adding in extra protein foods. Over consuming protein can also place excess stress on your kidneys.

4. PROTEIN POWDERS

What is protein powder?

Protein powder generally consists of a powdered form of protein (dairy, egg, pea or soy based) plus are a whole host of other ingredients including additives such as vegetable gums, thickeners, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavours and indigestible fibre (inulin). These powders are then mixed with milk or water to form a liquid drink.

What’s the difference between the different types of protein powders available and which types are best for which people?

Whey is rich in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), especially leucine. There are 2 main
forms of whey protein:

  • Whey Protein Concentrate (WPC) – Typically 70-80% protein by weight with small amounts of lactose (milk sugar) and fat. Cheaper than whey protein isolate
  • Whey Protein Isolate (WPI) – Powder is usually 90% protein by weight, with negligible amounts of carbohydrates (lactose) and fat.

Here are the non-whey alternatives that are slower releasing and an alternative for people who may get an upset tummy from whey:

  • Casein – A HBV protein found in milk. Casein clots in the acidic environment of the stomach, resulting in slower digestion and delivery of amino acids to the body.
  • Soy/pea protein  – A HBV, rapidly digested protein. Available as both a soy/pea concentrate and soy/pea isolate. It is often used in mixed protein supplements and protein bars. These sources are generally vegan / vegetarian and lactose free friendly.
  • Egg albumin – A high quality protein source that is free of fat and carbohydrate. It is more expensive than whey and casein protein.

smoothies

What’s the best protein powder for female weight loss?

WPI as it is lower in energy content. However most females do not need to use protein supplements as they have a smaller energy budget then males and need to get their protein kilojoules form nutrient dense foods.

What kind of protein powder is best for muscle building?

WPI supports lean muscle growth whereas Casein supports bulk muscle growth.

Is whey protein good for you?

Whey protein can be useful if an individual struggles to consume enough protein however it does contain other ingredients and food additives. It is always recommended that you try and consume your required protein through food first. Some proteins may also contain banned substances which can be risky for athletes as they can cause a positive drug test.

See also The Best Essential Oils For Nutrient Absorption

What’s your advice to people taking protein powder?

In Australia, most people eat plenty of protein so we don’t need to supplement the diet with any extra. Protein shakes are not a replacement for good food. You should always aim to eat nutrient rich whole foods as a priority.

In most situations a well-balanced and timed nutrition strategy will be enough to meet your training and recovery needs. In some other situations, such as busy athletes with higher requirements or medically diagnosed deficiencies, supplements may be a useful complement to your existing diet. Seek the advice of a sports Dietitian to find out what is appropriate and safe for you to consume.

There you have it – hopefully by now any protein myths you believed have been busted! You’re more knowledgeable about protein and can use this new information to help you fuel your body for healthy living.

Now it’s your turn… Have you got a question about protein? Pop it in the comment section below so Demi can answer it for you.

P.S. Which of your health conscious or protein obsessed friends needs to read this guide?
Share it with them now – they’ll thank you for it later.

Demi-Maree Faulkner
Demi-Maree Faulkner Dietitian

Demi is passionate about improving the nutrition, quality of life and performance of as many people as possible. Demi is experienced working in private practices, with athletes and in government phone-based services. Demi’s mission is to educate and help you overcome hurdles to make nutrition simple and manageable.

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