A lean and toned physique has become the embodiment of health and well-being. There is no shortage of blogs on the ‘net and supplements on the market with advice and claims on how to gain muscle – this advice usually focuses on high protein intake. Is there really a need for so much extra protein in the diet?

Why should I eat protein?

Protein is one of three macro nutrients (the others being carbohydrates and fats). Protein rich foods include fish, chicken, lean red meat, eggs, dairy, and plant proteins such as lentils, beans and chickpeas (legumes). When digested, protein breaks down into its building blocks called amino acids. This food group has many roles such as forming of enzymes and hormones, defending the body against illness and disease through the immune system, and providing the building blocks for muscle growth and tissue repair.

How much protein should I have?

When combined with resistance (weight) training, protein provides the building blocks for muscle building, as well as help with the repair that is necessary from muscle damage that results from training. Protein is also needed to keep the immune system strong, which often takes a knock with hard training sessions. According to the Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein, the average person needs 0.8g of protein per kg body weight (or about 10% of total energy (kilojoule) needs). For a person who weighs 70kg, this works out to 56g of protein per day. However, while this amount of protein may be appropriate for most, research shows it is not enough to meet the higher protein needs of those who are training and wanting to gain muscle. For endurance athletes like runners and cyclists, as well as strength athletes in the initial stages of training, the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends double the amount of protein per day: 1.4 – 2.0g of protein per kg (98 – 140g of protein for the same 70kg person).

Should I use protein supplements to meet my protein needs?

Supplements range from protein bars and soy protein or pea protein suitable for vegans/vegetarians, to protein shakes made from whey (whey protein concentrate, whey protein hydrolysate, whey protein isolate) and casein, the two key types of protein found in milk. Casein clots in the acidic environment of the stomach, resulting in slower breakdown and digestion of the protein. This gradual delivery of amino acids to the muscle cells may be of benefit, which is why casein protein taken just before bedtime may be of benefit in providing the additional protein required for overnight muscle building.

But while protein supplements may be a convenient way to get in more protein, protein from supplements is by no means superior to protein from food for building muscle. A “food first” approach should always be the primary goal as you aim to include foods that are naturally rich in protein such as milk, yoghurt, eggs, lean red meat, skinless chicken, white fish like hake and tuna, and fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and pilchards. Aim to eat fish at least 2 times per a week. Eggs are an easy and cost-effective protein and dairy is rich in bone-building calcium, too. For vegetarians and vegans, legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya beans and minimally processed soya products are also a source of protein.

Can I get all the protein I need from food?

There is a small spike in muscle building when we consume 20 – 25g of protein at a time. This is the same amount of protein that you would get when eating three eggs, two cups (500ml) of low fat milk, one medium chicken breast (120g), or 100g of beef rump steak. Interestingly more than this amount offers no further benefit to muscle gain and consuming excessive amounts of protein is simply wasted as it is excreted in urine or stored as extra energy in the form of fat.

For this reason, it is recommended to spread protein throughout the day in meals and snacks, rather than having the same amount of protein in a day over just one or two main meals. For example, have oats made with milk for breakfast, include a boiled egg, yoghurt or biltong as snacks, and have lean red meat, fish or a grilled chicken breast with roasted vegetables and sweet potatoes at dinner. This will produce multiple spikes in muscle building over the course of the day. Eating protein soon after training can also help to prolong the protein building response to exercise, helping to promote muscle gain and minimise muscle breakdown.

Protein is an important food group for muscle repair and recovery and a strong immune system. Nearly all of us can get enough protein from food. Focus on whole foods that include lean protein. Only after a healthy and balanced diet and exercise regime is in place should you start considering protein supplements.

Author: Monique Piderit, RD (SA) (dietician)