Protein for Beginners: What You Need to Know
If you’re at the start of your fitness journey, you need to prepare yourself to hear a lot of stuff about protein. There’s a very good reason for this, whether you’re looking to lose weight, gain weight, build muscle, or just be an overall healthier person, you should know that protein is going to be a major player in your journey. Even I tell my clients that while fat and carbohydrates are also important, protein is the one macronutrient that I tend to look at most closely whenever I have them put together a food recall diary— afterward, we expand the focus to the other macros, as well as discussing the micronutrients.
If you were to take a gander at what advice is given by social media’s fitness influencers, you’re bound to get a wide range of advice when it comes to protein intake. Proponents make it seem like you need like 500 grams per day, while others are far too cautious, so I understand why beginners may feel overwhelmed and confused. I’m going to give my best effort to try simplifying 3 main things about protein intake that you need to know.
If it’s your first day at the gym, you’ll likely noticed the giant jugs of protein powder your gym is selling, as well as seeing a couple members with their shaker bottles to chug their protein shakes as they’re leaving for the day. The question you might be wondering is — do I need to supplement with protein, too? It depends. For some people, they’re already getting enough protein from the food they eat, so they have no need to supplement with any more. But, if you’re someone who doesn’t have much of an appetite, then you might be in the boat where protein supplementation might be a good option.
Nevertheless, if you’re a beginner that has decided to take a protein supplement, you should know that not all protein powders are equal. Some brands, such as Optimum Nutrition and Dymatize, are exceptional brands that produce high quality protein powders. Since supplements aren’t subjected to testing by the FDA, this means that low quality brands are plentiful and some contain ingredients that aren’t even listed on the label, which is why you really have to be careful. On the contrary, high quality brands voluntarily have their products tested by a third party, oftentimes, under stricter demands than pharmaceutical drugs when reviewed by the FDA. Long story short, don’t cheap out on protein supplements.
When it comes to supplementation, people are vulnerable to overdosing, which can become problematic. Is there a toxic level of protein to consume? As of this point, researchers do not believe there is, but that also doesn’t mean that there is an added advantage when taking in large amounts of protein per day. Until new research indicates otherwise, it appears that 2.2 g/kg/d is the maximum productive amount of protein to consume for gaining muscle size. However, if you’re someone on a vegan or vegetarian diet, it may be best for you to consume more protein than that because of the lower protein quality in plant-based proteins.
How much protein do you need? It depends. According to Schoenfeld & Aragon (2018), if your goal is to build muscle mass, a daily protein intake range of 1.6-2.2 g/kg/d is most effective when spread out evenly during the day, instead of having all of the protein consumed in one or two big globs. However, if you’re not necessarily looking to get big and buff, and you simply want to live a healthier lifestyle, then you don’t need quite that much. The RDA recommendation of 0.8 g/kg/d is purposely generalized to apply to 97% of the American population, so my suggestion is to view that as your minimum target.
Protein Quality and Digestibility
Protein is an accumulation of 20 amino acids, in which 11 are nonessential, meaning that our bodies already produce these, so you don’t have to worry about changing your diet to obtain these, barring that you have some kind of medical condition affecting this. And then there are 9 essential amino acids, meaning that you have to get these from food consumption or supplementation. When you’re deficient of just one of these essential amino acids your body cannot use the protein.
Valine, leucine and isoleucine are the branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, that are widely sold by supplement shops, and the research indicates that these amino acids play a very important role in building muscle. These leads to the question, do you have to supplement with BCAAs? It depends. The BCAAs are widely available in most animal products, but they may be lacking in most plant-based foods; because of this, a person on a vegan or vegetarian diet may be a good candidate for these supplements since that would help them with completing the proteins so their body can use it. However, if the person is already consuming a large amount of protein, such as 2 g/kg/d, even on a vegan diet, they probably don’t need to use BCAA supplements. Adding more amino acids than the body needs doesn’t serve as an added benefit if the right quantity of all the other amino acids are unavailable.
In order for your body to be able to use the protein you consume, getting it from a source that enhances its digestibility is an important thing to consider. Currently, the protein digestibility is most widely measure by the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). This is calculated by multiplying the amino acid content of a protein by the protein's digestibility, and then correcting for the amino acid that is limiting in the diet. The limiting amino acid is the essential amino acid that is in the shortest supply relative to the body's needs. In English, this means that the closer the amount of essential amino acid amount in the foods you eat is to the required amount to complete the protein, the higher the quality of the protein. In general, animal products are more likely to have higher protein quality scores than plant-based foods, which is why vegans and vegetarians are advised to increase their protein intake, this way they can get all of the essential amino acids they need.
When looking at protein quality, know that the protein digestibility in the foods you eat plays a crucial role. Eating a wide variety of foods makes it more likely that you are acquiring all of the necessary essential amino acids, which means that you’re giving your body the best chance for muscle protein synthesis. On the other hand, if you eat a very narrow list of foods, there’s a good chance that you might be deficient in your essential amino acids, which puts you at risk of losing muscle mass. It’s because of this that health and nutrition experts widely warn the public against adopting highly restrictive diets.
When you’re just a beginner in your fitness journey, it’s easy to feel confused and overwhelmed about protein consumption; you shouldn’t feel bad because new research is constantly being released, so even the experts are having a tough time figuring things out. Protein supplementation can be a convenient and effective way to increase protein intake, particularly for individuals who struggle to meet their daily protein needs through whole food sources alone. However, understanding the importance of protein quality and digestibility can help individuals make informed decisions about their dietary choices.
Coach Julio is an expert in fitness and nutrition, having helped hundreds of busy professionals in their 30s, 40s, and 50s be healthy, as well as offering nutritionist counseling services. He works out of El Paso, Texas, but also offers remote nutritionist counseling and online personal training. Coach Julio’s expertise is backed by over eight years as a personal trainer and a Master’s degree in Nutrition.
For information about working with Coach Julio for online personal training and nutritionist services, visit www.365physique.com/bookonline