If your goal is to get fit in 2010 and you're wondering how protein fits into that plan, then you're in the right spot! Many diet books and magazines place protein on the nutrient pedestal deeming it the MVN (most valuable nutrient) for getting in shape, but I often find that people are confused, overwhelmed, or misinformed about protein's role in helping them shape up. So, let's sift through the info and get to the meat of the matter.
You must first know this: building muscle tissue, strength, and endurance requires progressive strength or resistance training. Without this foundation, you will not gain muscle mass, strength, or endurance no matter how much protein you consume. Also, keep in mind that if you're interested in increasing muscle size, it takes up to 8-12 weeks of practicing a progressive strength training routine before you'll see these muscle gains. To get the most out of your workouts, I would suggest investing in a certified personal trainer or exercise physiologist who can create the optimal plan to help you achieve your goal whether it is to strengthen and tone your muscles or to build muscle mass and power.
While protein plays a vital role in enhancing muscular fitness by building and repairing muscle tissue, the amount needed to do so is often exaggerated. For generally healthy people, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g/kg OR 0.4 g/lb daily. Although the recreational exerciser needs a little more than this, the average American adult typically consumes at or above the amount needed. So, if you're a generally healthy adult looking to get in shape, then you are probably already consuming an adequate amount of protein to meet your needs.
Two dietary characteristics I suggest regarding protein are: quality and timing. Focus on incorporating high quality sources of protein in your diet. Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, soybeans, and low-fat milk, cheese, or yogurt are considered high quality sources of protein. Keep in mind that we eat other foods that are also quality sources of protein, including whole grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetables. Consuming protein from a variety of food sources is key because this will maintain a more balanced and adequate intake of a many nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Notice that I'm not mentioning supplements? As I mentioned before, most of us are already getting more than enough protein in our diet through food alone. Adding protein powder supplements may just contribute excess calories, which can work against your goal to achieve your best shape! Research suggests that consuming high quality sources of protein from food is just as effective if not more effective at helping people achieve their fitness needs. Generally, for the recreational exerciser, protein powder supplements can be costly and unnecessary.
As for timing, I typically suggest that people consume a quality source of protein at each main meal throughout the day. This helps steadily release energy to the body while stabilizing energy levels throughout the day and will leave you feeling more satisfied after each meal. Consuming a little protein (~10 grams) post-workout is also key since our bodies are more sensitive to protein utilization within 1-2 hours after an intense training session.
What happens if you consume too much protein? Well, if the body needs more energy, it may burn the excess protein for energy. However, if the extra protein is not immediately used to fuel activity or for tissue maintenance and repair, then the surplus protein can be converted to and stored as glycogen (glucose) or fat. Also, the metabolism of protein for energy creates metabolic waste products (nitrogen) that must be excreted from the body, so consuming excessive amounts of protein can increase the risk of dehydration, if an individual doesn't maintain adequate fluid consumption with high protein intakes. Even mild dehydration can negatively impact performance and can hinder you from reaching your maximum potential during a workout.
When protein takes center stage in the diet, one nutrient that often gets left in the dust is carbohydrate. Quality sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, or milk, are a key component of any fitness plan. Why? Carbohydrates provide a primary fuel source for the muscles during physical activity. Including sufficient carbohydrate in the diet optimizes your workout because it allows your muscles to work harder and longer so that you reach your maximum potential. When we don't consume enough carbohydrate and calories, our body relies more heavily on protein for energy. Protein is actually a third in line for energy (following carbohydrate and fat) because we do not have a storage source of protein in the body and because it takes longer to metabolize protein for energy. When protein is used for energy, less of it is available for muscle building and repair -- not ideal for someone working so hard to achieve his/her best physique.
So, there you have it...my scoop on how to best incorporate protein into your diet and accomplish your get-fit goals. Stay tuned for a future post on how to protein fits into your plans for weight gain and muscle building.
For more on this topic, you may consider the following resources:
- Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook - great for any active individual